China’s Regional Policy: The Dragon Crawls

Every age in China produces a great sage who can summarize the flavor of the times in short crisp characters. This Chinese legacy has been passed down from Confucius, Sun Tzu, Lao, to Mao Zedong and then the great reformer Deng Xiaoping. Given the rise of China, Deng’s “24 Character Strategy” is probably the most oft quoted Chinese phrase in international relations today. Simply put it states, “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” All those who have read Sun Tzu would notice the subtle similarity between the writings of the great warrior-scholar and Deng. It is a perfect application of Sun Tzu’s principles to modern balance of power, which Chinese have refined, to the twin theories of, “Shi” or strategic configuration of power and Comprehensive National Power (CNP). The principles of CNP are some what similar to the theory of national power in the West while Shi could be stated as balance of power applied after creating an advantage and in the manner that Deng propounds, “maintain a low profile; never claiming leadership.” The practice of these concepts in the context of Chinese regional ambitions is more than evident in the past few years. While China has assiduously maintained a steady distance from confronting larger powers except in symbolic terms as the anti satellite missile and aircraft carrier, it is aggressively pursuing its goals with many smaller powers in its periphery. Let us see how.

To China’s south is Myanmar. Chinese presence in Yangon’s corridors of power is extremely strong and they wield tremendous influence with the military junta to be able to goad, arm-twist or cajole many strategic, commercial or energy benefits. China has undertaken extensive road construction while Chinese business is proliferating across the country. In the north, Chinese are known to dominate the area and influence of Beijing is all pervasive. China has already opened the Ledo road and is now set to clear the Stillwell road opening a link to North East India.

In the South China Sea there is Brunei a small sultanate that may appear an anachronism in the large states surrounding it. Lacking an armed force of consequence of its own, Brunei has adopted means varying from locating Gurkhas from the British Army to fighters from Singapore to defend itself. Now China is making overtures towards Brunei. In the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) held in Seoul recently Chinese Foreign Minister met with Lim Jock Seng the Second Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Brunei and offered cooperation in a wide variety of areas as economy, trade, energy, information and communication. The South China Sea dispute was to be settled through, “shelving disputes and joint exploration” what ever that means. The minister from Brunei hoped for a just and friendly solution.

Another country, which shares a common border with China, is Bhutan. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also met Bhutan’s Information and Communication Minister Leki Dorji in Seoul. Bhutan’s foreign policy has until late being guided by India. However, the reviewed Indo Bhutan treaty of March provides it greater freedom in diplomacy. China expressed willingness to strengthen bilateral ties with Bhutan by enhancing cooperation and exchanges. Bhutan also came up for special praise for steadfast support to China on issues as Taiwan and Tibet. Duoji also expressed the confidence that the China-Bhutan border will remain peaceful, a sentiment concurred with by Yang.

In Nepal, the Chinese ambassador to Katmandu Mr. Zheng Xianglin who was the first to present his credentials to the Prime Minister rather than the King after monarchy has taken a back stage in the country indicated that, “Any foreign intervention in Nepal will not be tolerable for China.” This was a loaded statement in a lengthy interview in Kantipur, Nepal’s premier daily much meandering over the influence being exercised by the USA and India in Nepal. Chinese Ambassador in Bangladesh Zheng Qingdian who took over almost the same time as his colleague in Nepal expressed a desire for closer relations in all sphere particularly trade. The strategic land linkages being established were also indicated from Teknaf and Kunming through Myanmar.

The steady crawl of the Chinese by engaging the smaller states on the periphery is perhaps a part of what Deng calls, “secure our position.” The Dragon would prefer to crawl, “hide __capacities and bide __ time, till he is able to challenge others.

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