Xi Jinping’s Version Of Lebensraum Is The Expansionist ‘China Dream’

Xi Jinping’s Version Of Lebensraum Is The Expansionist ‘China Dream’

by Prasenjit K Basu - Thursday, June 18, 2020 02:34 PM IST
Xi Jinping’s Version Of Lebensraum Is The Expansionist ‘China Dream’Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • Xi Jinping is pursuing his “China Dream” of ethno-nationalism, akin to Hitler’s notion of lebensraum, leading to multiple conflicts with neighbours.

Unbeknownst to those who don't follow China's weekly chess moves, communist China has been at war with all its neighbours since Xi Jinping took power. Some have kowtowed (Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan, the Central Asian states), but most others have chosen to resist (alone).

Deng Xiaoping advised China to "maintain a low profile" and instead focus on rebuilding China's economic strength. Xi Jinping abandoned that advice, instead pursuing his "China Dream" of ethno-nationalism (akin to Hitler's notion of lebensraum), leading to multiple conflicts with neighbours in the South China Sea, the high Himalayas, the Sea of Japan, and the Korean peninsula.

Xi Jinping told Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017 that "Korea used to be part of China" (a curious inversion of history).

In reality, much of China (Jilin and parts of Liaoning province) were parts of the Korean Koguryo kingdom — and China itself (in something approximating its current borders) was first created by the Mongols during the reign of Kublai Khan and his descendants of the Mongol or Yuen dynasty.

All previous Chinese dynasties had operated mainly between Shandong and Shaanxi provinces (a narrow area in north-central China inside the Great Wall).

In pursuit of the ethno-nationalist "China Dream”, China has proposed a "Nine-Dash Line" to effectively claim sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, including areas that are part of the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Similarly, China has revived irredentist claims over the Senkaku islands (uninhabited areas that have been under Japan's control at least since 1895). As part of its expansionist claim, China also questions Japan's sovereignty over the Ryukyu islands, which have been part of Japan for at least six centuries.

China's claims on the South China Sea were repudiated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague in its ruling (based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS) on 12 July 2016.

The PCA particularly ruled that China had "no historical rights" based on the arbitrary Nine-Dash Line, which were contrary to the principles of the UNCLOS.

However, China's position on its territorial dispute with the Philippines has been greatly aided by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte's quixotic pursuit of a new friendship with China.

Exploiting Duterte's obsequious approach, China has occupied every rock and shoal around the Thitu island, the second-largest island in the Spratly chain, which is internationally recognised as owned by the Philippines.

By reclaiming land from the sea, and joining various rocks and shoals (over which UNCLOS doesn't recognise any nation's sovereignty), China seeks to create a large, militarised man-made island that it will claim as its own invented territory, thus vastly expanding its exclusive economic zone into the heart of maritime south-east Asia.

In the Himalayas, China has a century-old dispute with India over the McMahon Line, which demarcates the border between Tibet and India, although China has quietly settled its border with Burma/Myanmar along the same McMahon Line. China is closely aligned with Pakistan, including fending off United Nations sanctions against key Pakistan-based terrorists like Masood Azhar.

And in Korea, the DPRK (North Korea) remains China's treaty ally. China effectively allows its ally to flout the norms of international diplomacy in pursuit of its nuclear and missile ambitions.

In 2017-18, China quietly punished South Korean companies like Hyundai and Lotte for South Korea's deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence shield.

Over recent years, China has systematically targeted smaller nations to either enroll them as allies or "warn" others that any independent foreign policy will meet with an aggressive response.

Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were among those wooed by China through massive aid and debt flows that bound them closer to China in the hope that they would adhere closely to China's foreign policy line — goals that have been achieved fully with Pakistan and Cambodia, largely so with Laos (thereby circumscribing the unity of ASEAN), but with rather mixed results with Sri Lanka (which has effectively sought to balance its ties with China and India).

Singapore, a long-standing friend of China's, sought to nonetheless maintain its military ties to the US and Taiwan. Singapore was ostentatiously punished in 2017, when a shipment of its military vehicles was impounded at Hong Kong's port and held up for several weeks as a very public show of disapproval for using Taiwan as a training base for Singapore's National Servicemen.

Subsequently, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not invited to China's Belt and Road Conference as a further show of disapproval.

Similarly, in June-July 2017, China engaged in a military confrontation with another small nation, Bhutan. Continuing a pattern evident since the 1950s (when China's PLA built a road through a vast area of India's Ladakh region), China built a road 2 kilometres inside Bhutanese territory.

Bhutan strongly protested and sought Indian military help. The Indian Army confronted the PLA in Doklam at the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, and eventually China stood down — the first time the Chinese military had been forced to retreat since Vietnam gave China a bloody nose in March 1979.

Unlike Deng, Mao Zedong was a classic Chinese imperialist, with an expansive definition of what constituted "China" that included every territory that the Manchu (Qing) dynasty ruled (or had "suzerainty" over) and also any territory that the Mongol (Yuen) dynasty controlled.

Thus, soon after the CCP's revolutionary conquest of China proper, Mao invaded Inner Mongolia, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet — nations that had not been part of the realms of the Ming dynasty (the last Han Chinese rulers of China), and weren’t part of Republican China since its establishment in 1912.

The Manchus and Mongols, for instance, had a symbiotic relationship with Tibet, in which the Tibetans were responsible for spirituality and the Mongols and Manchus provided military support in return.

With the end of the Manchu dynasty in 1912, Tibet proclaimed independence (although it offered Republican China territorial control of "Inner Tibet" — Qinghai and western Sichuan — at the tripartite Simla conference of 1914 with British India and China).

Mongolia ("Outer Mongolia") became a Soviet satellite state in 1921 (conquered by the Red Army during the Russian civil war). Inner Mongolia ("Mengjiang") had autonomy after 1912, and was completely independent of China in 1931-45. Stalin's August 1945 invasion helped deliver it to Mao during China's civil war.

Tibet and China's mutual animosity goes back at least to the Battle of Talas in 751, when Tibet (aligned with the Abbasids) defeated Tang China. Twelve years later, Tibet conquered the Tang capital of Chang'an (Xian) itself, although holding it only for a short period.

When Mao's PLA invaded Tibet in October 1950, India had full diplomatic relations with Tibet (including four consulates), China had none.

In fact, a diplomatic delegation from China had only reached Lhasa in early 1950 via Kolkata and Kalimpong (soon after India became the second non-communist nation to recognise communist China).

When Mao's PLA invaded Tibet, Jawaharlal Nehru hushed it up for a fortnight until the invasion of Tibet proper was complete.

El Salvador introduced a censure resolution in the UN, implicitly backed by the US. Disgracefully, Nehru's India acted in concert with Britain to kill off the resolution. Just before he died, deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel wrote an anguished letter to Nehru decrying his naivete on Tibet, and especially the fact that "we" had foolishly trusted China.

Sure enough, China's PLA began building a road right through an area of Ladakh known as Aksai Chin (which had been internationally recognised as part of Kashmir since Ranjit Singh's forces captured it from Tibet in the 1820s).

By 1957, the completion of the road was announced in the People's Daily.

This effectively meant that China had annexed an area of India that was larger than Switzerland. Nehru continued to pursue friendly relations with a transparently imperialist and irredentist power that was already in illegal occupation of vast areas of Indian territory.

Instead, he appointed V K Krishna Menon (denounced by Maulana Azad as a "communist fellow-traveller who could not be trusted") as India's defence minister.

Army chief Thimayya's repeated warnings that China was a hostile power was dismissed by Nehru and Krishna Menon as "war-mongering".

Lt Gen Thorat, who should have succeeded Thimayya, was shunted aside in favour of Gen Thapar (a Nehru/Menon yes man, and father of pro-Congress celebrity-journalist Karan Thapar), who was unqualified for the job and lacked combat/strategic experience.

On 20 October 1962, Mao's PLA invaded India, while the US was distracted by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nehru, paralysed into inaction, failed to deploy the Indian Air Force, which could have cut off China's supply lines, and India suffered a humiliating defeat.

The latest attempted intrusions by the PLA into Ladakh are of a piece with China's long-standing imperialist goals, only more intransigently expressed in the era of Xi Jinping.

If there were any remaining doubts that China considers India its #1 enemy (after the attempted blocking of India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and protection for Pakistani terrorists), this latest set of military manoeuvres should lay all doubts to rest.

An Indian colonel and 19 other brave-hearts have been killed. It is ludicrous that the rules of engagement allow only hand-to-hand combat with crude "weapons" even in the face of such grave aggression. The army and air force must be given the right to respond fully to any further aggression from China.

China's main tactic is to confront each adversary alone, with small provocations and steady grabs of small slices of territory that don't each result in a global uproar. The territorial aggrandisement simply becomes a fait accompli because the previous incremental steps haven't been responded to.

The obvious response has to entail: (a) formal alliances, starting with the Quad in the Indo-Pacific; and (b) a path toward eventual de-recognition of Tibet's annexation by China.

The latter will be a long process, but we must begin by allowing full-throated political activity by Tibetan exiles in India, and joining them in bringing international attention to China's denial of human rights and autonomy in Tibet, Hong Kong, East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia (each of which should be referred to by its historic name, not the one that China uses).

Steadily increased support for Taiwan, and deepening economic ties with that democracy has to occur right away.

The Quad should be expanded from its initial membership (US, Japan, Australia) to include other democracies like Indonesia, plus a bilateral military alliance with Vietnam. It is time to think strategically, and tame the wild dragon in its lair.

Prasenjit K Basu is the author of Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises From the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism (Aleph, 2017). He has served as chief economist for SE Asia & India at Credit Suisse First Boston, director of the Asia Service at Wharton Econometrics, chief global economist at Khazanah Nasional Berhad, and chief Asia economist at Daiwa Securities.

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