Mystery of the dragon’s breath

Friends, the stranger came
And we didn't exchange the warmth of primordial relationship
Suspicion was all that we gave each other.
— Niranjan Sahay in Hindi, "Meri sadi me"

King Gyanendra kicked up an unnecessary controversy at the 13th summit of the two-decade old regional grouping of Southasian countries at Dhaka. The self-appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Nepal insisted that the admission of Afghanistan be made conditional on granting observer status to the People's Republic of China. He got his way and a spectator's status for China and Japan is likely to be formalised soon. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has become the eighth member of the moribund organisation with headquarters in Kathmandu. This episode raises an interesting issue: why did China have to ride on the back of an authoritarian king to claim what is its natural right: observer status in an organisation contiguous to its territory and vital to its geo-strategic interests? But this raises another question: did Beijing even know what the unpredictable monarch was up to?

There is more to the remoteness of China in Southasia than the supposed Sino-Indian rivalry in the region. Despite its economic strength and diplomatic clout in the capital cities of Southasian countries, Beijing has maintained an inexplicable distance with issues of common concern in the region. China is still a mysterious dragon in its own neighbourhood even if the Tibetan Autonomous Region may be regarded (as by the editors of Himal) as a part of Southasia proper.

Commenting on the unpredictability of the USSR's diplomatic moves, Winston Churchill, the fierce Tory justly famous for his turns of phrase, had wondered aloud in a radio broadcast in October 1939: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." The expression fits the characterisation of contemporary Chinese foreign policy to a 'T', as in Taiwan or Tibet. In fact, these are the only two issues where one detects an absence of ambivalence in Beijing's policies – it claims that these regions are indivisible parts of China. On all other subjects of regional or global interests, China is a perpetual stranger inspiring fear and awe rather than faith and admiration.

Chopstick diplomacy
Picking up a delicate piece of dumpling requires that the chopstick be held slightly angled to the right. That precisely has been the Chinese policy in Southasia, where it has consistently backed rightwing regimes without exception. China's fondness for US-trained military generals of Islamabad is matched by its distaste for the Islamist politicos of Pakistan, but it is still a mystery why the Beijing-bosses chose to look the other way when Afghanistan fell into tyrannical grips of the Taliban. China may have had its own Uighurs of Xinjiang Province in mind where ethnic Muslims have repeatedly risen in revolt, but its policy of supporting American adventurism in its own backyard under the pretext of fighting terror has shown that Beijing just does not have a long-term view befitting a global power-in-making. Responding to exigencies alone is not enough if one is to be taken seriously by the international community.

This year, Kabul and Beijing celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, and this half century has been as tumultuous a period as any in Afghanistan's history. Strangely, China's role in influencing events in the Hindukush has been marginal at best, and remains so. Recently, the first Parliament of Afghanistan was formed in Kabul, and the American dominance in its functioning was all too clear with Dick Cheney getting pride of place in the observers' box. The Chinese were nowhere to be seen.

Let us turn to Bangladesh, where the Dhaka glitterati likes to think of the Chinese as a dependable friend and possible partner. But the fact is, once again, the Beijing mandarins did not endear themselves to the people of Bangladesh during the independence struggle. The early 1970s were the days of ping-pong diplomacy and Pakistan was projecting itself as a bridge between the US and China, to counter-balance the Soviet influence in Asia. Henry Kissinger, the architect of the China-Pakistan-US bastion to check Moscow's incursion into the Indian Ocean, became openly contemptuous towards newborn Bangladesh after Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in1972. Like all other smaller neighbours of India, it suits the regime in Dhaka to keep waving the 'China Card' whenever it is convenient. But the people of Bangladesh will never be as friendly to the Chinese as they can and want to be, unless Beijing learns to put the people rather than the government at the centre of its foreign policy.

Beijing's support for the Burmese junta is blatant beyond words.  It would be unrealistic to expect that the oligarchy in Beijing support the movement for democracy in Burma, but when the Burmese become free, they are unlikely to forget that the Chinese were the sole international sponsors of their military rulers for decades. The need to check possible Indian hegemony may warrant a continuation of the pro-China policy even in post-autocracy Burma, but the Chinese will remain strange friends of the common Burmese citizen long after the Beijing-inspired generals have retreated reluctantly back to the barracks.

Bhutan, a kingdom whose king wants to abdicate in 2008 to increase the gross national happiness of his selected subjects, does not yet have diplomatic relations with the neighbour to the north. It is difficult to say how the Thimpu regime reacts to China's observer status in SAARC, but the Chinese have not quite endeared themselves to any of the High Himalayan ethnic people by ruthlessly overwhelming Tibetan culture and civilisation with high-breed Han hegemony.

After the 'Hindi-Chini Bye Bye' in the wake of 1962 border skirmishes, India and China have begun to talk cautiously about the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai dwitiya, a second coming. Contentious border issues seem to have been put on hold while the Sikkim matter seems to have been resolved in India's favour. Business relations have triumphed over the clash of strategic interests. But there will remain a deep chasm between India and China, given that the former state remains wedded to democratic ideals. This simple fact will always distance the Chinese state from the India's people, until that time arrives that China becomes — a democracy.

Enigmatic dragon
In Chinese mythology, the fire-breathing dragon is essentially a benevolent creature. This is somewhat similar to the myths of various danav  demons of Kathmandu Valley who are fierce but can be easily placated with symbolic sacrifice of goats or buffaloes once a year. The demons then turn into revered protectors. Successive Rana rulers of Nepal had hoped that if the Chinese empire came into Tibet, they would be treated with some respect by the overbearing sahibs of British India. It seems they never took into account the cost of such a relationship and, in their wish to appease the emperor, they actually lost their influence over Tibet. Today, even as Beijing is tightening its grips on the high plateau, the possibility of the Chinese being a counter-weight to the Indians in the Himalayas does look remote. But  King Gyanendra refuses to recognise the limits of Chinese benevolence in a country surrounded from three other sides by India.

Despite some highly visible road projects – one that encircles Kathmandu, another which connects the capital valley with the tarai plains and yet another that links the capital city with the Tibetan settlement of Khasa – Chinese contribution to the social development of Nepal over the last five decades can be said to have been almost negligible. The Chinese have consciously kept themselves out from sectors such as education, health and rural employment, areas that require long-term involvement with high financial commitments. Their 'penetration policy' has been two-pronged: impress the king with military hardware during crucial periods and awe the masses with fancy goods priced sensibly to appeal to the poor. It has worked so far, but that is no guarantee that it will work in the future. As the democratic movement picks up in Nepal, the people of Nepal are unlikely to forget that the people's republic of the north chose to align itself with the palace rather than the people at a critical time, by delivering arms to the royal regime when almost no one else was.

The China-Pakistan relationship is an unabashed marriage of convenience. China looks at Pakistan as a low-cost tool that willingly supports its diplomatic profile in the international arena. For Pakistan, China has always been a more dependable source of military supplies than the US. Other than that, there is a fundamental difference between the mullah-military combine of Islamabad and the increasingly mercantilist regime in Beijing. General Pervez Musharraf likes to wax eloquent that the Pakistan-China friendship is "deeper than the oceans, higher than the mountains", but these clichés cannot hide the fact that economic ties between the two neighbours are as flat as the Indus plains.

If anything can be said with conviction, it is that the Chinese have been quite consistent in their relationship with the Southasian community. But they have emphasised relationships with the ruling establishments in the capital cities at the cost of the people that inhabit the provinces and districts. Undoubtedly, this is a safe and economical method of maintaining diplomatic relations. It has served China well when it stood isolated in the international arena during the unsettling years of the Cultural Revolution. Young diplomats in Nepali or Pakistani embassies in Western countries tipped off their Chinese counterparts whenever issues related to Taiwan or Tibet threatened to embarrass Beijing. In return, neglected officials of these 'peripheral' countries were given VVIP treatment by the Chinese authorities. Times have since changed. China is now too big to remain engaged with the small elites on the basis of reciprocity of favours. It needs a well-defined policy befitting its status.

It would seem that democracy or human-rights are unlikely to interest Chinese mandarins for quite some time to come. But Beijing can, and should, make development cooperation and preferential trade the main focus of its relationship with Southasian countries. Military cooperation may endear it to the ruling elite in Islamabad or Dhaka or Kathmandu, but only the people-centred principle of diplomacy will ensure it a place of honour in the hearts and minds of the common folks of Southasia.

The risk of people-centred diplomacy is that it is fraught with controversy: cultivating a relationship with the people rather than the establishment invites suspicion. But this is a risk Beijing mandarins must take if they are interested in claiming their rightful place in the affairs of Asia.

C K Lal is a Kathmandu-based columnist for this magazine and the Nepali Times.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian