Inscrutability, Thy Name Is China
I am no China expert, not even posted to China ever.
My only visit to China was after I left the Foreign Service to attend a seminar on disarmament organised by the Americans.
But China has been a part of my consciousness professionally and personally, not as a benign presence in international affairs, but as an enigma, an adversary and a problem to deal with for the foreseeable future.
I have dealt with Chinese diplomats at every one of my postings, particularly at the UN centres in New York, Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna. There were many issues on which we worked together like trade, environment and global inequalities as fellow developing countries.
I have read a fraction of the enormous material available on China. But the only word I can describe China as is inscrutable.
The reason may well be that I was introduced to China at the time of its aggression in 1962 after I had chanted the mantra of my childhood “Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai.”
As an undergraduate in a college which had a huge following for China, I went to my neighbour to catch the news on the radio and to hear the increasingly feeble voice of Pandit Nehru about the great betrayal.
I knew there was a border problem, there was a Tibet problem, but I could not imagine that these two countries would ever go to war. I was even more perplexed when the Chinese suddenly withdrew from many areas with the only explanation that the purpose was only to teach India a lesson.
The Chinese behaviour made a deep negative impression on my young mind. In the final year of graduation, I participated in an essay competition in my college and the surprise topic given to me was “Short term and long term measures to meet the Chinese aggression.”
I had read enough on China by that time to win the Harvey Memorial Prize for the best essay of the year. I recall making strong recommendations for manufacturing nuclear weapons before the Chinese did, for declaring the Dalai Lama the ruler of Tibet in exile and not trading with China.
I had also suggested that we should not talk to the Chinese till Aksai Chin is returned and till China withdraws the claim on Arunachal Pradesh. My feelings of anguish and frustration about China have only deepened during my entire Foreign Service career and beyond.
I dealt with many Chinese diplomats at various levels in many countries and we were courteous to each other, entertained each other and exchanged ideas, but I could not make a single friend among them.
They were always stiff, formal and inarticulate as they had to check everything with Beijing except when they were reading papers translated from the Chinese language.
Personal friendships had no place in Chinese diplomacy. I remember a senior diplomat who led the Chinese delegation to most of the working level environment conferences, who had some humour in his presentations, but not in personal conversations. He had a Chinese proverb for every occasion. But he was adamant about whatever he said even when he was wrong. For instance, he once asserted that “China is a developing country and shall always remain so.” We were amused by the statement and asked him whether Chinese ambition was limited to being a developing country, he reiterated the statement without batting an eyelid.
Quite obviously, wanting to be a developing country is the Chinese way of building up a constituency. They cannot relate to the club of developed countries and so they show off their links to the developing countries.
They did not join the G-77, but got the group re-designated as G-77 and China. They defined their relationship with the non-aligned countries through the G-77 and joined the consensus in the group when it confronted the rich countries. Even their left handed compliments to India as a fellow developing country was tendentious.
Group entertainment is what the Chinese diplomats are good at. Every Chinese Embassy is well endowed and well decorated. Even these are impersonal and formal. But the best Chinese food you get in any city is at the Chinese mission. But there is very little interaction and social distancing is very much part of the drill long before the onset of Coronavirus.
One funny story I heard in the seventies was about our charge d’affaires in Beijing, Lakhan Mehrotra, walking out, along with his wife, from a banquet hosted by the Chinese Vice-premier in honour of Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
The Chinese leader had raised the issue of self-determination for Kashmiris and endorsed the idea. Mr Bhutto mischievously told Mrs Mehrotra later that he thought she and her husband did not walk out of the banquet but “had gone to the lavatory”. To which Mrs Mehrotra replied, “Mr Prime Minister, we never go at the same time,” a case of an Indian diplomat’s wife outwitting Pakistan in China.
Negotiating with the Chinese diplomats is a pain. They always use interpreters even when they know English because they can hear everything twice and even after that the reply is always delayed. The first response is always innocuous and even misleading.
In the UN, lots of resources are wasted on interpreting every statement into Chinese and translating all documents into Chinese for just one delegation and for some Chinese speakers in the Indian delegation. The Chinese normally do not react to any document unless it is available in Chinese.
This is not the place for analysing the long list of grievances against China which keeps getting longer every day. Even with the frequency of high level meetings, where the Chinese leaders maintain a poker face, I can think of only two issues on which China made concessions to India.
At the time of the nuclear deal, China relented, under pressure from the US, to give an unconditional exemption to India from the application of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines. But when it came to the membership of the NSG for India, they stood like a rock against us.
The second was in relenting on listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist after much resistance. When I mentioned the expanding list of Indian grievances in an ‘Indian Express’ article some years ago, the ‘Global Times’ criticised me by name as “an irresponsible diplomat.” But when I applied for a visa for a seminar in Beijing, no objection was raised by the Chinese. I had a very pleasant visit, but I was not dazzled by the look of Beijing.
The biggest inscrutability of China was demonstrated by its approach to the border issue. Contrary to the pledge we took in 1962, India not only agreed to hold talks, but also signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquility on the border, which meant we agreed to a new temporary border with Indian land in Chinese hands.
China has nothing to lose by delaying a settlement of the border and it has the additional advantage of infiltration at crucial moments as long as the border remains un-demarcated. Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017 are milestones. China, of course, still maintains its claim over the whole of Arunachal Pradesh.
The informal summit in Wuhan still remains a mystery. The relations are supposed to have been reset and India softened its approach to several issues, but there is no sign of any change in Chinese attitudes.
And on top of all these is the current violation of the Line of Actual Control which amounts to occupying 40 to 60 square km of land claimed by India. Now the onus is on India to make territorial concessions to avoid a conflict!
What is inscrutable of all is the latest explanation by the ‘Global Times’.
“With a fresh border spat brewing between China and India in recent days, India also hopes to send a signal to China by endorsing the US' G7 expansion idea. Many Indian strategists suggest that their country should move closer to the US in order to exert pressure on China," the article said.
“It's fair to say India has been active in many of US plans that target China. In the post-pandemic era, if the rise of China's strength and international status cannot be stopped while the US remains in a state of decline, it's very likely that India will align with the US to contain China despite it claims to maintain strategic autonomy," it said.
What was jointly declared as a local incident, which could be resolved at the military level is now being projected as counter to the increasing cooperation between India and the US to contain China!
The inscrutability of China is a consciously cultivated attribute primarily to hide their weaknesses.
The whole world was curious to know what happened inside the bamboo curtain. China deliberately kept itself out of the limelight till it was ready to flex its muscles.
Even today, a fortune is being spent on studying China, but every one concedes that we do not know enough about the country. In fact, many say that we are not doing enough to know China and the onus is on us to study Confucius to unravel the Chinese mind.
Like the old Soviet Union, which kept its weaknesses as a state secret, China also may reveal itself sometime in history, surprising the whole world a final time.