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Opinion: Assertive China - Cooperation, competition or conflict?

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China is an enigma that continues to defy conventional analyses. It has in fact always been an enigma. From the time it came to regard itself as the Middle Kingdom, till the current era, there has been something about China that doesn't quite gel. It defies conventional wisdom on account of its many extraordinary achievements and simultaneous contradictions. The economic growth story is the envy of many in the world and an unparalleled success in human history. The largest number of human beings lifted out of poverty in the shortest span of time in an extraordinary achievement. But not all of China's achievements are worth emulating. Because at the same time as the growth story are wretched tales of environmental degradation, denial of basic human rights to its people, brutalities in Tibet and Xinjiang and flourishing corruption like there wasn't a tomorrow. It remains an enigma, therefore, because it displays extraordinary contradictions. In many ways it remains beyond scrutiny even in a networked age and information overkill.

China does not like scrutiny because that entails, nay demands, transparency. And an absence of transparency is the greatest psychological weapon employed by China. The world doesn't know where China is headed. Is the direction benign, or is it more sinister, is the fundamental question raising eyebrows and nerves around the world. Nerves because China tends to overdo its territorial claims and displays some quite pathetic images of itself. Two soldiers holding the Chinese flag in knee deep waters on Scarborough Reef make for a terrible sight, even if the xenophobic laud the effort on the mainland. It was an overkill and like all such efforts it bombed. That is why the world needs to know where China is headed, so such pathetic scenes don't lead to scare scenarios that get out of hand. In the recent past there have been ample doses of that with its neighbours to the east, or the one to the west.

Japan, Vietnam and Philippines can testify to Chinese edginess when it comes to border or boundary management. The East Sea, as the Vietnamese call it, or the West Philippines Sea as Manila calls it and the South China Sea, as the world refers to it, is the current focus of territorial claims by all; but in which China is pitted against them all. To the west China unilaterally sought to impose an alignment of the Line of Actual Control that took everyone by surprise. There was no reason to be surprised, because it was the culmination of an internal Chinese politico-military exercise that seeks to test responses. They learned their lessons, but have the Indian authorities learnt those that they are meant to?

India and China are the only neighbours in the world that had never fought until well into the 20th century. Throughout their extensive and rich histories the Asian giants maintained peaceful relations. Something changed in the two post-colonial societies in the last century that created bad blood. And that has still to be resolved. Its resolution will be the greatest diplomatic, political and military success story in human history. But it can only be resolved provided both sides want it badly enough. One-way tickets in international relations are fraught with dangers. Of which China seems to have caused enough to ample number of countries.


Manvendra Singh
Founding Editor, DSA

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