Mao Zedong once summed up his philosophy on foreign policy with the following metaphor, “a wise monkey sitting on top of the mountain to watch the two tigers fight in the valley below.” The tigers in the Great Helmsman’s formulation were, of course, Moscow and Washington, and Beijing was the wise monkey. And China was able to play the role of “wise monkey” in its foreign affairs quite successfully for a number of years, skillfully manoeuvring in the background of the global confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. It carefully and calculatingly corrected its foreign policy course depending on the emerging balance of power and the interests of the People’s Republic of China at the given moment in time.
In the 21st century, however, it would seem that Moscow has become the wise monkey. The Soviet Union is gone, and China is now punching in a new weight division. Deng Xiaoping’s words of wisdom that China’s leaders should “observe dispassionately, stay in the shadows and try not to reveal themselves” is no longer relevant for Chairman Xi Jinping, and “staying in the shadows” is not an option. The animosities between China and the United States that have been simmering for decades are now transforming into a full-fledged confrontation, complete with economic, technological, geopolitical, military and even ideological dimensions.
Not only has the coronavirus pandemic failed to slow down this growing confrontation, but it has actually served to accelerate it quite dramatically. The world is moving towards a new kind of bipolarity, albeit one that is quite different from the Soviet–American bipolarity we witnessed during the second half of the 20th century. The two tigers are more than determined, neither is prepared to back down, and no “groundbreaking deal” between Beijing and Washington is on the horizon. And while temporary “ceasefires” and tactical agreements are likely, the battle in the valley will not be over any time soon.
Why Sitting it out on the Mountain Will not Work
Will Moscow, as the wise monkey in our metaphor, be able to sit back and observe this historic and wholly unpredictable battle on top of the mountain while maintaining a careful balance in relations between Beijing and Washington?
The answer seems obvious—no, it will not. Not because Russian diplomacy lacks the necessary professionalism or experience, but because Russia’s reputation in the United States is no better than that of China. The only difference is the seriousness with which the country’s elites perceive the threats emanating from its two main adversaries. Washington sees China as a serious strategic competitor that is ready to challenge the United States’ global leadership. Russia, on the other hand, is seen as a bully that does not have the resources to compete on an equal footing with the United States, but will jump on any chance to harm U.S. interests.
Obviously, the image of a bully and saboteur (a “ruiner,” if you will) is not exactly the best starting point if your goal is to act as a balancing force between the two superpowers of the 21st century. The American tiger would happily gobble up the Russian monkey if it got the chance, and it would not think twice about it. But only to get the annoying monkey out of its hair so it can concentrate on its fight to the death with the truly dangerous China.
What is more, it is far more difficult for a wise monkey to sit atop a mountain in the 21st century. The world has become too cramped, countries depend too much on one another, and even the slightest hint of isolationism involves costs that are simply too great. Politicians, military leaders and business people are forced to choose between the United States and China on a daily basis. This is why the wise monkey, one way or another, whether it wants to or not, is forced to come down the mountain and directly or indirectly take part in the battle that is raging between the two tigers.
There is, of course, no doubt that Russia is on China’s side in this battle. Simply put, there is nothing that the White House could offer the Kremlin that could even theoretically outweigh the value of the strategic relationship between Russia and China for Moscow. What is more, there is no one in the White House or the Department of State who is prepared to work towards developing good relations with Vladimir Putin as persistently and with as much dedication as Henry Kissinger was in relation to Mao Zedong half a century ago.
Russia as the “Monkey King”
That notwithstanding, it is entirely possible that the monkey that has come down the mountain may play a role that is independent of the tigers, and one that could even affect the outcome of their altercation. We should stress here that we are not talking about a monkey in the traditional Russian understanding of the word—the “monkey prankster” from Ivan Krylov’s tale. In Russia, the monkey is seen as a weak and reckless creature, somewhat of a clown, impulsive and unpredictable behaviour with a penchant for tomfoolery and mockery.
The Chinese image of the monkey, however, is quite different, and this is the image to which Mao Zedong quite obviously appealed. In the Chinese tradition, not only does the monkey personify resourcefulness and cunning, but it is also praised for its remarkable mind and considerable strength. Take the mythological Sun Wukong (“Monkey King”), for instance, a figure that is known throughout China—while ambiguous and contradictory, the character is nevertheless more hero than villain, is rather charismatic and has his own set of ethical principles. “Monkey King” may not have the physical strength that other Chinese mythological figures have, but he fears none of them and is always ready to stand up to even the most formidable of opponents.
What advice can we give to the Russian “Monkey King,” who, as fate would have it, has been thrust into the position of a potential participant in this battle of two huge tigers, instead of remaining on the sidelines? First, don’t anger the tigers, and don’t let them provoke each other. It will only hurt Russia in the long term if the confrontation between China and the United States continues to deteriorate—even if from a tactical point of view it would elevate Moscow in Beijing’s eyes and strengthen ties between China and Russia on the whole. The strategic risks of a deterioration in U.S.–China relations are extremely grave, especially if we take the potential pitfalls arising from international stability, regional crises and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as the risks to the world economy, finance and global technological development, into account. These are extremely heavy prices to pay and, as such, they negate any tactical gains that Russia might extract for itself from a further exacerbation of the confrontation between the United States and China.
Second, we should tell Russia that a tiger cannot change its stripes, even if you are fighting alongside it. In many respects, the interests of Russia and China coincide. Yet there are areas where their interests diverge. For example, Chinese corporations and financial institutions are effectively complying with the U.S. sanctions against Russia. Beijing is not inclined to support Moscow on the “Ukrainian issue” and does not recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. Moscow, in turn, is not ready to consider the territorial disputes in the South China Sea exclusively through what we might term the “Beijing prism,” nor does it side fully with China in its disputes with India and Vietnam. The strategic partnership between Russia and China does not exclude the possibility that the two sides might disagree on certain issues, and these differences must not be ignored or minimized. Thus, strengthening cooperation between the two countries does not necessarily have to mean creating a formal military and political alliance.
Third, if the monkey truly is wise, then it will realize that the valley beneath the mountain is home to many animals, not just the two tigers. And the monkey’s interests may coincide with those of a number of these animals. The trend towards a new bipolarity is definitely gaining momentum, but this does not mean that there is already no going back. It is important that Russian politics does not focus exclusively on this emerging bipolarity and instead actively promotes trends that oppose this bipolarity in one way or another. In this regard, developing broad cooperation with the European Union is particularly important—after all, the European Union is another monkey that has been forced to come down from its mountain and step into the unknown valley of tomorrow’s world politics.
From our partner RIAC
Who would bell the China cat?
If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.
China’s tit-for-tat response
The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”
Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20.
Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.
India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.
India’s main problem
Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.
Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.
The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is thrice the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.
Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).
India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”
It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.
History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.
Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell
While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.
In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world. No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development. Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.
Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.
Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’. More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report. It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.
The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.
People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps. Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’: The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful. Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat. Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.
Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates. Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.
Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless. Wake up at 5am. Make bed — it had to be perfect. A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am. Then to the classroom. Back to the canteen for lunch. More classes after. Then dinner. Then more classes before bed. At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted. You never see sunlight while you are there, they said. That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.
The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.
Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China. If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case. Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds. He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president. President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi. His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified.
An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China. Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era.
Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident
Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.
Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020
One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.
It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.
The LAC as an idea
Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.
The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.
In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.
Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.
What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?
One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.
The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.
For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.
Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.
The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.
By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.
Diplomacy is gone with the wind
All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.
The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.
India’s diversification of fronts
Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.
Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.
Economic ties, yearning to decouple
Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.
Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.
But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.
The broader picture
The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.
Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’
The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.
India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.
Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.
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