by Ng Weng Hoong

Photo Credit: Kremlin/CC

“WHAT DOES IT mean to be a friend of China?” On June 15, as University of British Columbia (UBC) professor Paul Evans pondered this question, Chinese and Indian soldiers were killing each other in a border clash that will do lasting damage to the bilateral relationship between the two Asian giants. On June 30, Hong Kong passed a new security law that empowers Beijing to potentially arrest and detain anyone that it accuses of engaging in acts of subversion against the central government, promoting the secession of Chinese territories, or colluding with foreign forces, regardless of where in the world they are.

These two disparate events add layers to Evans’s basic question.

Today, Xi Jinping, in his eighth year as China’s president and seeking to expand his government’s global influence, has loaded all discussions on friendship with Beijing with complicated conditions and fine print.

Disputed territory between India and China. Photo credit: Defense Mapping Agency/Public Domain

What are the costs and benefits of friendship with an easily offended China, then? Who would want to be a friend of China today? Can countries live without China’s friendship? Do they have a choice not to be friends with China? If the Chinese government is not a friend, what is that relationship? Can bilateral ties with the world’s second-largest economy be reduced strictly to trade and investment, minus the warmth of friendship?

In his speech to the Canada-China Friendship Society of Ottawa (CCFS), Evans, an international relations expert in Vancouver, referenced the concepts of friendship with China according to the renowned American scholar John K. Fairbank, a former Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, and a former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd. The three men, among others, contributed to the western world’s engagement with China over the past seven decades.

In Evans’s description, Fairbank was a hardnosed China historian who “never considered himself a friend of China, either in its Nationalist or Communist period.”

“As a scholar he valued detachment and often described how the Chinese Communist Party used outsiders for internal political purposes,” he said.

That detachment was crucial, as Fairbank was a pioneer in the 1950s in advocating that the US and the newly independent China under the CCP find ways to live with each other. Still, his efforts weren’t enough to prevent him from being caught up in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious witchhunt to “flush out” America’s alleged communist agents. But Fairbank survived the ordeal, and his legacy helped shape US engagement with the PRC while McCarthy died a tarnished fearmonger.

Trudeau’s attraction to the People’s Republic of China, according to Evans, was driven by pragmatism and intellectual curiosity.

“The logic behind recognizing the PRC was based on the strategic view that world stability depended upon ending China’s isolation,” said Evans. “It was never based on the idea that China would be expected or encouraged to evolve into a Western-style economy or democracy.”

There was also the matter of the Cold War, as the life-and-death struggle between the West and the Soviet Union was far from settled.

As China’s fall-out with the Soviet Union became starkly obvious in the 1970s, the West actively courted Beijing’s defection from the Soviet Bloc. This was an intelligent geopolitical strategy, as it helped tilt the Cold War in favor of the West. It was probably no surprise that Pierre Trudeau’s Canada was the first major western country to establish full diplomatic ties with the PRC in 1970 either. The US followed suit nine years later.

With western support, China began to free up its economy.  China became wildly richer over the next 40 years, growing 37 times to become an 11.5 trillion USD economy by 2019, according to the World Bank. Last year, China accounted for 13.6% of the global GDP, up from 1.1% in 1979.

Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Adnilton Farias/VPR/WikiCommons/CC

But China did not evolve into the liberal democracy that some proponents of engagement had hoped for. Instead, under Xi, the PRC has returned to its totalitarian roots.

Kevin Rudd, the only living member of the three men mentioned in Evans’s speech, now confronts the nightmare of a wealthier, powerful China pursuing an expansive, expansionist totalitarian agenda. Rudd, 63, finds himself increasingly on the defensive for his pro-engagement position, amply displayed during his first term as Australia’s prime minister from 2007 to 2010.

How would he handle Australia’s relations with the PRC today?

Evans said Rudd is “At a moment of despair in the downward cycle in the US-China relationship. Things are worsening.”

He retains a degree of access to Beijing’s inner circle, thanks to his deep China knowledge, Mandarin language fluency, and unique “zhengyou” policy. Delivered in a landmark speech at Peking University in Beijing in 2008, zhengyou refers to a true and honest friend who would tell China “unpleasant truths… uncomfortable opinions and counsels caution.”

Zhengyou has not stood the test of time. Xi has shown little patience for unpleasant truths and uncomfortable opinions.

But Rudd can take consolation that he isn’t the only one feeling cast out by this new China, perhaps.

The Special Case of India

CHINA AND INDIA have been more than friends and neighbors.

Home to over a third of humanity between them, India and China have lived remarkably peacefully with each other for a long time. Both suffered European colonial plunder for over a century. Following independence, their joint mission to help other newly decolonized states build a better world even came with a cheesy slogan, “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers).

But that innocence died in the harsh winter of post-independence geopolitics.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) chose the Soviet path at birth in 1949. India became a democracy on independence in 1947. In 1979, the PRC switched camps to reap the benefits of a friendship with the West that propelled its economy to become the world’s second-largest by 2010. India grew too, but at a slower pace, such that its economy today is only a quarter of the size of China’s.

As they grew apart under the shadow of the Cold War, bilateral relations were marked by numerous but still manageable territorial showdowns, including three deadly battles in 1962, 1967, and 1975, and territorial disputes regarding Kashmir.

But lingering goodwill between the two may have finally ended with the latest clash at the Galwan Valley in the disputed Himalayan territory of Ladakh. 20 Indian soldiers were killed while the Chinese suffered an unknown number of dead and injured.

Regardless of who was right or wrong, China may regret that it had not done more to prevent the unraveling of this crucial but underrated relationship. While India will suffer financial and economic losses, mostly from reduced Chinese investment and trade, China will be counting a new set of long-term strategic problems.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Photo credit: Marcos Corrêa/PR/Flickr/CC

China’s ambassador to India appears to have been either clueless or disingenuous about the depth of the two countries’ estrangement just weeks before the Galwan clash. In a speech delivered in New Delhi on May 27, Sun Weidong declared that “China and India pose no threat to each other” while promising to work with India to “elevate our bilateral relations to a new height.”

“We should gradually seek understanding through communication and constantly resolve differences. China and India should be good neighbors of harmonious coexistence and good partners to move forward hand in hand.”

Instead of Sun’s rosy scenario, India is now poised to become the latest hurdle to China’s foreign policy moves.

Long committed to non-alignment, India will likely be more open to the US’s proposal for a “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” that includes Japan and Australia to check China’s rise. Indian companies and consumers launched a spontaneous nationwide boycott of Chinese goods and businesses immediately after the Galwan clash. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is looking to block Huawei and ZTE from participating in India’s 5G telecommunications plan after announcing a ban on 59 Chinese apps including TikTok, Helo, Shareit, Baidu, Weibo, UC Browser and WeChat. India is the biggest international market for TikTok and UC Browser, and a fast-growing consumer for the rest.

Modi signaled a further hardening of India’s position with a surprise visit to Ladakh on July 3.

“I pay tribute to the soldiers who were martyred in the Galwan Valley,” he told a gathering of Indian soldiers in a speech. “Peace can never be won by the weak. Bravery is the precondition for peace,” he said.

This reads like a warning that Modi, a Hindu nationalist, will not back down in his country’s worsening disputes with China. India may even extend the theater of contest to include the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca while joining others to confront China in the South China Sea, where previously it had little interest. There is also talk of India reaching out to Taiwan.

On the diplomatic front, India lacks the aura of China’s military might, wealth or ambition, but it has soft power appeal to many countries (apart from Pakistan).

Many developing countries admire China’s rise and even welcome it as an alternative model of development to the US. But they will be alarmed by China’s decision to turn on India, a fellow Third World traveler and once-loyal comrade in the joint struggle against colonialism.

The split with India will further cast Xi’s China as an untrustworthy partner, a bully, and a difficult neighbor. In Pew Research’s survey of 34 countries last December, 45% of respondents said they lack confidence in the Chinese leader when it comes to world affairs, with only 29% approving. Few see China’s growing military benefiting their country, with those in Asia “especially doubtful”,” said Pew.

Modi visiting Ladakh on July 3rd, 2020, to inspect troop positions. Photo credit: Indian Prime Minister’s Office/GODL-India

The Beijing-Delhi fallout will be felt in Southeast Asia already reeling from territorial disputes with China.

Singapore, which has expressed pain at having to choose between the US and China, will be further tortured by the thought of an unprecedented Beijing-Delhi split. Until Xi’s presidency, Singapore dealt with the three giants from a comfortable position that allowed it to be friends with everyone. The balancing act is looking increasingly difficult.

Russia, which has been cultivating the friendship of the two Asian giants, has vowed to stay out of their quarrels. But it will grow warier of an increasingly temperamental China. So will the Middle East’s regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel have maintained good relations with both sides. India’s fate will prompt an uncomfortable question: when could it be their turn to fall out with Xi?

Even Pakistan may not be entirely safe. Pakistan and China’s “all-weather friendship” rests largely on Beijing’s generous funding for infrastructure-building associated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and their common opposition to the US and India. Will the friendship hold if China, facing its worst economic slowdown in four decades, is unable to continue with the corridor’s proposed US$60-billion investment that is part of Xi’s ambitious US$1-trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? How will Pakistan be affected if the CPEC fails to deliver on its ambitious targets? Both the CPEC and BRI are already under scrutiny for the financial viability of China-driven projects and the debt burden imposed on host countries.

The Special Case of Hong Kong

HONG KONG’S new national security law was hurriedly passed on June 30 without debate or consultation with the region’s government of chief executive Carrie Lam, business and legal elite. The law was drafted behind closed doors by members of Beijing’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), bypassing Hong Kong’s own elected legislative council.

Article 38 has captured the most attention: “This Law shall apply to offenses committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”

According to Donald Clarke, a Chinese law expert at George Washington University Law School, the article can be interpreted to empower Beijing “asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.”

On paper, it means the PRC government has the right to arrest anyone anywhere that it broadly accuses of involvement in acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers against China.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Studio Incendo/Flickr/CC

In including critics, Beijing has criminalized free speech everywhere, far exceeding the United States’ extraterritorial powers that target people suspected of terror activities.

Clarke further notes that the establishment of the Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong is empowered to “send people back to China for processing and sentencing in mainland institutions according to the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law.”

Its officers are “untouchable under Hong Kong law” and possibly even under mainland law as well. Vested with “Gestapo-level” powers, Clarke said they may commit murder “in the course of duty” and not be held liable.

This new law speaks to Beijing’s desperation to impose its will on the world.

How is friendship possible under such circumstances? In a friendly situation, laws are enacted and applied defensively. They are not designed to dominate and stifle the other party.

The question today is no longer about what it means to be a friend of China. Instead, the question needs to be reframed and directed to Xi and the CCP: what does it mean for China to be friends with other countries?

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