Is China on ‘Backfoot’?

China seems to have put into action one of the dictums propounded by Sun Tzu in the Art of War, viz. ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak’.

China’s weakness came to the fore when it failed to effectively handle the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan in its initial stages and was caught on the backfoot with the US, Australia and other countries blaming it and seeking an investigation.

So then, what did China do? Rather than adopting a remorseful demeanor, China portrayed itself as ‘strong’ by displaying an aggressive attitude. Not only did the Chinese diplomats turn into ‘wolf warriors’, taking on all those who questioned Beijing, but the Chinese Communist Party regime also came harsh on Hong Kong, displayed belligerence in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and East China Sea, and engaged in land border clashes with India.

But China seems to have gone too far in this faux display of strength. So much so that it has now created new adversaries for itself and is struggling to handle the backlash.

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Take the example of India and the recent Sino-India confrontation in the Galwan Valley. The cordial relationship that India and China had built consequent to summit meetings between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram in 2019 has been jeopardized due to China’s action along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In its anxiousness to appear ‘strong’, China revealed its ugly, untrustworthy side to India. In response, India adopted a string of measures in various spheres – diplomacy, military, economy and technology.

Other countries also stood up in support of India and voiced opposition to China’s latest territorial expansionist move in the Himalayan region. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo minced no words in condemning China and its ‘incredibly aggressive action’ on the Indian border. According to the US, the incident ‘dovetailed with a larger pattern of Chinese aggression in other parts of the world’. French Defence Minister Florence Paley, expressing condolence over the death of Indian soldiers, conveyed the French Armed Forces’ firm and friendly support to India. Japanese Ambassador to India, Satoshi Suzuki too expressed opposition over China’s ‘unilateral attempt to change the status quo’. Australia too took a similar approach, with Barry O’Farrell, Australian High Commissioner, commenting that both India and Australia were ‘grappling with the implications of creeping authoritarianism’. Notably, the Australian media was flooded with articles and op-eds condemning China’s actions in the Galwan Valley and elsewhere (such as South China Sea). They hailed the recent elevation in Australia’s relations with India and signing of military pact, opining that closer ties between India and Australia to counter China was the need of the hour.

India’s own strong response, and the support it received from other countries over the clash, rattled China. Afterall, Beijing was only trying to ‘appear strong’ when it actually was not! Until now, China had felt secure in the awareness that India, while being cautious of China’s rise, assertiveness and belligerent moves elsewhere, had avoided outrightly aligning itself with other countries in countering it. Even though the US repeatedly mentioned about India’s importance in its Indo-Pacific framework, India had taken a cautious approach towards it. New Delhi had also maintained a balance and did not join the Western forces in blaming China over the COVID-19 debacle. However, now China is wary that India, as a result of its mis-adventure in the Galwan Valley and push from the Western governments and media, could adopt a path that was not in China’s interest.

One look at the editorials that appeared in Global Times, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, after the Galwan Valley clash reveal the extent of China’s apprehensions and anxiety. Normally one would have expected Global Times to launch a barrage of criticism and condemnation on India for taking strong anti-China measures. However, its tone towards India has been surprisingly sober. Instead of directly confronting the Indian government, Global Times blamed the US-led Western countries and media outlets for ‘fanning the flames of tension between India and China’ by portraying India as a ‘hero’ standing up to China’s ‘bullying’. It repeatedly cautioned India against getting influenced by the Western countries and ending up as a ‘cannon fodder’ for them at the cost of its own interest. It also tried to play up the sentiment of regional bonding with India. Highlighting that the territorial disputes in East Asia were actually the legacy of the Western colonial rule or the US’ occupation after World War-II, it urged India to adopt the path of ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the countries of its region (including China).

Beijing’s sense of insecurity over the prospect of losing India’s goodwill came out particularly vividly when a Global Times editorial tried to convince that ‘China has never been a ‘wolf’ in its relations with India and in other issues concerning China’s core interests.’ Further, it desperately tried to dissuade India from joining the ‘Five Eye alliance’, stressing that it would not serve India’s national interest. It expressed hope that the Modi administration would overcome anti-China sentiments coming in from all quarters and embrace amicable bilateral relations with China.

While trying to portray that India cannot afford to apply a coercive policy towards China, Global Times fails to hide the fact that, at this stage, it is China that cannot afford to antagonize India, lest India too joins the Western countries in countering China.

A similar scenario is brewing among the countries of South East Asia too which are troubled by China’s increasing expansionism and aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

Sun Tzu’s strategy seems to have backfired on China! It has only further weakened Beijing’s standing in the world. China now seems to have more adversaries than supporters, and is reeling under the constant fear of being totally cornered, and crushed.