Is China the New Ambassador of Globalisation in the Trump Era?
The purpose of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ positive comment on Prime Minister Modi’s Davos speech is quite transparent. When the election of Donald Trump had dampened the ardour of globalists at Davos in January 2017, Xi had made a robust defence of globalisation and said that protectionism would be the equivalent of “locking oneself in a dark room”.
Modi’s attack on protectionism is being spun by the Chinese media as confirmation that Xi has positioned China as the champion of this key issue. Nevertheless, they are only one facet of the increasingly complex Sino-Indian relationship.
The Chinese spokesperson hailed Modi’s opposition to protectionism, and said that it conformed to the belief by most countries that economic globalisation is in the interest of all countries.
Asked whether there would be coordination between India and China to oppose protectionism, the spokesperson said that China and India “have a consensus and common interest” in opposing trade protectionism and promoting globalisation.
Speaking of the China-India relationship, he said China believed that India was a big neighbour and that their imperative was to maintain a steady growth in the relationship and enhance “mutual understanding and trust”.
There should be no reason to raise doubts about this posture. Globalisation has been the key to the Chinese economic miracle and will be the key to ours as well. There is therefore a common interest in ensuring that the forces of protectionism are opposed at every turn.
Even so, an important reason for the Chinese posture is the fact that in the era of Trump, Xi Jinping is seeking to make China the leader of the forces of globalisation. Not surprisingly, “globalisation with Chinese characteristics” has its own nuances as is evident from the design of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
But in this one year since Xi seized the standard of globalisation at Davos, we have also seen other aspects of what is being called China’s “sharp power” – the bullying of countries like South Korea, influence peddling in Australia and New Zealand, reports of Chinese heavy-handed tactics to force companies to transfer technology and so on.
In this past year, India and China have also had one of their most serious confrontations in the Doklam area. This is an issue which has not quite gone away, given the fact that China has strengthened its military forces in the area and there is every chance that once the snows melt, there could be tension once again.
2017 has also seen India drawing perceptibly closer to the US. This has been marked by the revival of the Quadrilateral, a politico-military coalition of the US, Japan, India and Australia aimed at balancing Chinese power in what is being called the “Indo-Pacific”.
None of this should occasion any surprise. For some time now, Sino-Indian relations have featured the 4 C’s in varying measure – conflict, cooperation, containment and competition.
Doklam was the indication of conflict, but so, too, did we have cooperation manifested by India (and Pakistan) becoming full members of the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in June 2017.
On issues of globalisation and trade, India and China have been closer to each other than India and the US. China and India are joined together with Russia, South Africa and Brazil in BRICS and the Shanghai-headquartered New Development Bank that it set up to promote the growth of developing economies.
Likewise, India is a founder member of the Beijing-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank .
Containment and competition are somewhat more difficult categories to define.
China is seeking to pin down India in South Asia and its chosen instrumentality is Pakistan. As long as Pakistan is hostile to India, China does not have to do much but give strategic assistance to Islamabad to enable it to offset India’s size.
Over the years, China has provided Pakistan with not just economic and military aid, but helped built its nuclear weapons capacity and missiles as well.
The Chinese have now stepped up their efforts to pin India down in its own region by sharply stepping up its activities in South Asia. On one hand, they have developed deeper links with Pakistan through the CPEC programme. On the other, they are stepping up their economic and political links with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
We can speculate that the reason Doklam occurred was because China wants to push Bhutan away from its close ties with India and decided that shaking up Thimphu a little bit could aid the process.
In turn, the Chinese worry about India becoming part of a US-led containment system aimed at China. The facts are that in the era of globalisation, it is simply not possible to contain large nations like India and China. This is not to say that containment is not present in China’s South Asia policy or American policy towards China.
The challenge for both China and India is to find ways of doing business with each other. Conflict and tension would do them both great harm and is the worst of all options.
Both must work out ways of competing with each other for political and economic influence without getting caught in the kind of negative spiral that characterises their relations today.