China terrorises its neighbours and has enemies everywhere from the Himalayas to the Western Pacific. It treats its so-called allies with sheer disdain and the paper dragon’s usury is also becoming known to its BRI partners. China often becomes the prime target of its adversaries and as such Beijing’s foreign policy looks like one big catastrophe. But for the past several decades, strategists across the free world have underlined the need to engage China on key issues.
An obsession of not annoying China on contentious matters is dictated by a poorly perceived myth of Chinese foresight and excellent planning skills. That China doesn’t have astute diplomatic understanding becomes clear from its mindless aggression in the Himalayas and the Pacific.
However, Western planners still think that Beijing plans in terms of several decades or even centuries. This myth has got nurtured over a sheer misunderstanding between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai way back in 1972.
The 1970s was the time when then US President Richard Nixon had started befriending China in order to capitalise upon the Sino-Soviet split and gain an upper hand over the erstwhile USSR. In this context, the then US National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger had met Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier under Mao Zedong in 1972. Due to the changing geopolitical circumstances, Kissinger was bound to think unduly high of China.
In this meeting, Enlai was asked, “What was the impact of the French Revolution?” Enlai’s answer was no better than that of a clueless Chinese diplomat. He said, “Too early to say.” Kissinger overestimated Chinese foreign policy planning and thought Enlai was speaking of the 1789 French Revolution. He was impressed at the thought of Chinese strategic circles thinking in terms of centuries.
But it is the mindless, self-obsessed Middle Kingdom that we are talking about. Enlai actually had no clue of the 1789 French Revolution, rather he was speaking about the much more recent student uprising in Paris in 1968. Enlai wasn’t thinking in terms of centuries.
Several years later, the translator of that conversation also made it clear that the then Chinese Premier was speaking about the 1968 “French Revolution”. But by that time the Western world became too obsessed with the idea of China that plans in decades and centuries. Today, a major chunk of the free world likes to believe that it cannot beat China in terms of diplomacy and foreign policy.
In the Western world, it is becoming well-known that China is a belligerent bully, yet several political leaders and outfits like the German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the Democrats in the United States continue to push for giving China a higher place in the existing world order. There is a continuous propaganda regarding the need to engage China for the sake of global stability.
At other times, there is simply a fear of annoying China in Western strategists. This fear is again rooted in the misconception that Chinese leaders are planning way ahead of their contemporary governments.
The same misunderstanding rooted in the 1972 Kissinger-Enlai conversation has got passed to other democracies of the world outside the West. Successive Indian governments, for example, refrained from constructing robust border infrastructure, countering China’s aggressive border moves or forming an anti-China alliance, due to the fixation surrounding the myth of long-term Chinese planning.
However, now the myth of centennial Chinese planning is coming out in the open. To start with, China has no soft power to boast about. Its foreign policy actions are often self-harming such as the diplomatic stand-off with Canada over Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou or the illegal detention of a Chinese-origin Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai that has ruined China-Sweden relationship.
Similarly, Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative has done more harm than good as the world has realised Beijing’s ill-will behind its “debt trap” strategy. Even the Chinese human rights violations campaign in Tibet and Xinjiang, or the interference in Hong Kong’s internal system has put China at risk of severe economic sanctions. However, China has unwittingly continued with such suicidal steps.
Within its neighbourhood, China’s attempted salami-slicing tactics in the Himalayas have invited India’s wrath. The Indian security forces keep giving the Chinese People’s Liberation Army one setback after the other and the incumbent Modi government has launched a relentless assault on the Chinese economy. Meanwhile, China’s centennial foreign policy planners seem clueless.
The myth of China’s foreign policy prowess and foresight was rooted in an awkward misunderstanding capable of becoming a source of derision. But the world must shed this myth now. The paper dragon is no visionary and its provocative actions are more often short-term blunders and not long-term policies.