Xi’s STARK CHOICE
Since China’s Cultural Revolution of 50 years ago, the watchword in Beijing’s political thinking has been ‘stability’, as opposed to the ‘chaos’ wrought by constant upheavals under Mao Tse-tung.
With the democracy protests in 1989, the spectre of chaos briefly returned, only to be put down swiftly and violently so that stability could resume.
From there, China skilfully grew itself into the power it is today.
But over the past year, President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have been learning that stability and global expansion do not go hand in hand.
In June, this dilemma manifested itself in two Asian flashpoints – North Korea and China’s disputed border with India. Seemingly unconnected, the dramatic downturns called into question whether, in its present frame of mind, China can succeed in achieving the regional influence it wants.
In East Asia, Beijing’s medium-term goal is to see off the American military presence in South Korea and strengthen its ties with Seoul. Despite anticipated bumps, things had been moving forward, with North and South Korea edging close enough to hold a series of meetings between the two leaders.
Then a frost set in and, on June 16, with the symbolism of explosive destruction, the North Korean regime blew up the building used for liaison with South Korea in the city of Kaesong, and declared that it was cutting all contact with the south.
If US troops are to leave the Peninsula, then Beijing hasto make South Korea feel safe. It has yet to find a way to make that happen.
In South Asia, China needs to find an accommodation with its rival Asian giant India. The two countries share a long, mountainous border and have yet to agree on its demarcation.
Both governments had agreed that their troops would neither carry firearms nor use heavy weapons and, despite occasional flare-ups, there had been no casualties for more than 45 years.
But then, on June 15, in medieval-style bare-knuckle combat, soldiers fought hand to hand with the Chinese, using clubs wrapped with barbed wire designed to kill and cause severe injury.
Far from being cowed, the reaction in India has been a rise inanti-Chinese nationalism and boycotts of Chinese products. Delhi opened lines to Washington, Canberra and Tokyo, governments that make up a loose strategic alliance known as the Quad, aimed at countering the projection of Chinese power in Asia.
It was no coincidence that in the same week, Australia blamed China for a long-running cyber-attack and India underlined its involvement in joint naval exercises with the US and others.
Beijing’s strategy of expansion can be traced to two historical figures.
One is the eleventh century BC General T’ai Kung, whose Six Secret Teachings on the Way of Strategy advocated developing a trust between the victor and the conquered by using the ‘certainty of reward’ and ‘inevitability of punishment’ – in other words, a carrot and stick approach.
The second is the more famous fifth century BC General SunTzu, who advised that ‘the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’.
So far China has spread its global influence without a shot being fired in anger. It has succeeded with the reward and punishment method with a swathe of weaker governments in the developing world.
But with India, the Korean peninsula and its march toward the sophisticated governments of Europe, Beijing may have met its match.
Opposition to Chinese activities is increasing globally, while President Xi presides increasingly over a government led by his cult figure, massive posters, doctrinal slogans and repressive control.
Such governments often end in upheaval.
Mao’s pragmatic successor, Deng Xiao-ping, ruthlessly suppressed the 1989 protests and went on to deliver wealth and stability, advocating simply that ‘to get rich is glorious’.
It is difficult to see how clubbing to death Indian soldiers on a remote mountain range helps achieve either wealth or glory.
To help it decide between expansion and stability, Beijing would be better off discarding ancient war advice and reminding itself what created the modern, wealthy and influential nation that China is today.
If President Xi does not adjust his approach, he may find himself overseeing not China’s expansion but its decline, with stability fading and chaos beckoning.