Can We Contain China?

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Beijing reacted strongly recently over reports of a meeting of an informal grouping of states it regards as competitors regarding possible threats in the future. These are the more benign powers, India, Japan and Australia and the neo conservative antagonist the USA. China may not necessarily have felt threatened by immediate prospects of encirclement by these states, but with an eye to the distant future, an alliance between New Delhi and Tokyo when combined with the Kangaroo and Washington would have been alarming. Responses from officials of these states were prompt denials, though global real politic watchers being eternal disbelievers of official pronouncements were dismissive. Though there could be a genuine need for establishing a relationship between the four states, apart from containment of China, no plausible intent was evident.

If this surmise be true, then it is evident that such containment measures are unlikely to restrain Beijing. The annual ritual of the Pentagon report castigating China for lack of transparency and follow up stories which blare of a budget which is at least two to three times that of actual Chinese expenditure on defense may even less so. The Currency Exchange Rate Oversight bill as an instrument of restraint is even more unrealistic and possibly that is the reason why it is unlikely to see the light of the day. The futility of containing a sovereign state which has almost one fifth of the World’s population, a large portion of its land mass, is rapidly striding towards full scale industrialization and is run by a government which has complete control over the economy and its people is obvious.

Fortunately, national politics and international relations follow laws of nature which denote that balance is the prevailing order. Thus China could face prospects of containment which could be externally or internally driven. Some external drivers are already in place as identified in the foregoing paragraphs. So what about the internal drivers of containment.

Democracy is one very strong factor which is touted by many China watchers as likely to lead to a disruption of the rocketing progress of the china man.

When China democratizes, there will be great upheaval which will take away all the gains made in the past three decades is a hypothesis which needs closer examination. The Chinese themselves state that they are even more democratic than the West. While the western model has candidates from more than one party, Beijing claims in China it is one party many candidates.

The Chinese also proudly indicate figures of over 70,000 agitations across the country each year as a measure of democratic transparency. But that is not the whole story. Dissent at the local level is more than tolerated because the Chinese know very well the deficiencies of their system. There is however limited acceptance of attempts at questioning central authority. Woe behold those who have the temerity to do so. Marginalization is likely to be followed by state driven ghettoisation in society, thus there are not many stories of Chinese dissenters at the higher levels. The leadership is particularly wary after Tiananmen and with the Olympic Year fast approaching, there is increased focus on controlling dissent.

Yet how long can Beijing manage the aspirations of its people for individual rather than collective freedom remains to be seen. For once forces of modernization in political thought gather momentum these will be hard to suppress. This marker may come sooner than Chinese leadership will like to believe.

So China will and can be contained only by its own people, not from outside. While Beijing may like to believe like all authoritarian regimes, that it can check its people, experience of unleashing the forces of freedom deem it otherwise. While external impediments to Chinese growth will to an extent dampen prospects of development, in the final analysis it is what happens internally in China that will determine its place in the comity of nations in the decades ahead.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.