India Right in Standing Up to China's Bullying
Amb Kanwal Sibal

China has been strikingly inept in its international diplomacy over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Lui Xiaobo. China’s global stature today is formidable. Its economic growth in the last three decades has been spectacular: millions have been moved out of poverty, the country has a world class infrastructure, foreign investment continues to pour in, its exports flood the global market, it is itself investing heavily in natural resources in various continents and rapidly spreading its political influence there on the back of its huge financial capacity.

It is now the world’s second largest economy, its foreign exchange reserves amount to a few trillion dollars, the financial and economic interdependence between it and an economically weakened US has changed the balance in international relations. Its growing military muscle, its recently demonstrated high technology defence capabilities, its naval expansion etc are impacting on the global power equations.

Along with genuine admiration for many of China’s achievements, concerns about its rise abound. A country of 1.3 billion rising as fast as China is, the singleness of purpose and the determination to excel that seems to animate it, cannot but generate anxieties. Talk of past humiliations, nursing of historical grievances, encouraging nationalism, recourse to highly intemperate language when opposed, raise doubts about an increasingly powerful China’s future conduct. Its recent self-assertiveness against is neighbours in the South China Sea and in the Yellow Sea, unilaterally declaring the area as constituting its “core interest”, foreshadows domineering behaviour in other contexts in the years ahead. If China’s sense of vulnerability because of US military alliances and the physical presence in the region of powerfully equipped US forces on land and on sea may account partially for its decision to adopt a new pugnacious posture in East Asia, how to explain its stepped up pressure on India in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, where the vulnerabilities are Indian, not Chinese.

It is understandable that as its external stakes and its resources to protect them expand, China, like any other rising power, would find justifiable reasons to increasingly exert power abroad through political, economic and military means. The challenge before China as it carves out more space for itself globally, and before others as they cede room to it, is to do so as far as possible through cooperative mechanisms, multilateral processes and adjustment of interests with least possible disruption and conflict. In an increasingly globalized world it is no longer possible to be indifferent to the nature of the internal political system of a powerful state.

A democratic, pluralist and tolerant polity that respects human rights and freedoms, and is based on the rule of law, is preferred internationally to a non-democratic, authoritarian state that suppresses dissent, limits individual voice and choice, and has an opaque system of governance that makes it difficult for outsiders to understand its decision making processes. The reason why India’s rise is viewed with less apprehension than that of China has much to do with India’s democratic and open face.

In this background, by being so combative over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, China has futher damaged its international image, opened itself to more criticism of its human rights record, attracted more negative attention to the absence of political freedoms in the country and exposed its intolerance of dissent. China may have good reason from its point of view to deplore the decision of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to honour the incarcerated Chinese pro-democracy dissident. It could well accuse the Committee of interfering in its internal political affairs. The past decisions of the Committee have been at times perplexing, whimsical and blatantly political. This decision to honour Liu Xiaobo was deliberately intended to touch China’s raw nerve and embarrass it before the world.

It is unclear why China thought that launching a world wide campaign against the Committee’s provocative decision would win it better international understanding for its position. The Committee could not have realistically believed that the Chinese under moral pressure generated by the award would release Liu Xiaobo, allow him to travel to Oslo, receive the prize and either not return to the country or, if he did, put him back in prison again! Allowing his wife to travel to Oslo to receive the prize on her husband’s behalf would have been an unrealsitic expectation too as that would have assumed China’s readiness to play the Committee’s political game and show a degree of forbearance that the country’s political leadership clearly lacks.

China could have limited itself to repudiating the bona fides of the Committee in deciding to honour Liu Xiaobo, stated its official position on the reasons for his imprisonment in as vigorous terms as it thought necessary, and left it largely at that. But to vent their ire against Norway, abuse the Committee in undignified language- calling its members “clowns”- and exhorting countries to boycott the prize giving ceremony, exposed precisely those political failings that mar China’s reputation and raise questions about the implications of its rise for the global community. China’s bullying diplomacy was evident in its warnings to countries that their bilateral relations with China would suffer if their representatives attended the Oslo ceremony. By resorting to these tactics China showed presumptuousness in believing that it had become enough of a global power centre to cow countries into submission- an uncomfortable preview of what the future may hold. At the same time, it shows China fragility- a country that has risen so dazzlingly also feels so insecure.

In the face of Chinese pressures our decision to attend the Oslo ceremony deserves to be commended. More so as the goading not to attend came shortly before Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. China quite wrongly tried to convert its anger at the decision of the Prize Committee into a bilateral issue with the countries it pressed not to attend the prize giving function. India has not sat on judgment on the controversial decisions of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and our acceptance of the invitation to attend the award ceremony is not contingent on our approval of the Committee’s choice of the recipient. Attending, for instance, the ceremony to honour Kissinger would not have implied endorsement of US bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia under his watch.

Attending a ceremony to which our Ambassador has been invited by an organization of international repute in the country of his accreditation does not signify political endorsement of the proceedings he witnesses, whereas boycotting a ceremony which he would normally be expected to attend in the course of normal diplomatic functioning would be a highly political act. India has never taken an adverse position on the human rights situation in China, including on the Tibetan question which touches us. That is what should be important to China, not our presence at the Oslo ceremony. If our diplomatic gesture in receiving Premier Wen Jiaboa tomorrow, and even extending a warm welcome to him, would not mean that we endorse China’s policies towards us, why should the mere presence of our Ambassador at the Oslo function mean that we endorse the Prize Committee’s decision to honour Liu Xiaobo?

Published in Mail Today dated December 14, 2010

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