Dr Patrick Mendis, a Sri Lankan-born American diplomat scholar, who is a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University and a senior fellow of the Taiwan Centre for Security Studies in Taipei delivered a talk on “The Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Strategy- Understanding China and its Vision, Mission, and Challenges” during the 62nd Roundtable of Synergia Foundation.
The rise of a world power is a seismic event which affects the security and economics of its region and beyond. In this context, China makes an interesting study.
Dr Patrick Mendis, as a professor of history and war studies having an active interest in both mainland China and in Taiwan, is uniquely placed to explain the larger geopolitical and historical aspirations of China. He relates China’s power projecting ambitions to its linkages with the golden period of Imperial China, the Tang and the Ming Dynasties.
Despite its communist credo, the Chinese leadership is deeply immersed in its Buddhist past and ensconced in Confucius philosophy. To decipher the Chinese way of thinking, a clear understanding of the linkages of modern-day China of Xi Jinping to the Tang and Ming dynasties is imperative.
No two countries have the same perspective of BRI. Americans have called it the 'Chinese Marshall Plan', linking it to their own efforts to reconstruct Germany and Japan after the destruction of World War II. But Chinese strongly refute this saying that they are not in the business of re-construction after wanton destruction but are only building upon what is existing. For China’s suspicious neighbours, BRI is a sinister ‘ string of pearls’ - a series of military bases on its vulnerable periphery to extend Chinese military power and strategic outreach to match the Americans in the Indo Pacific.
China advocates BRI supposedly to strengthen its land and maritime trade. Dr Mendis says that there is a far greater strategic motivation than just “peaceful trade”. “History has all the answers as to what Xi Jing Ping is attempting. China is experiencing a cultural revival which is shaping the Chinese national consciousness that is very different from what the world perceives China to be. BRI is the Chinese Dream and to understand it, we need a closer look at Chinese culture,” opines Dr Mendis.
The BRI has two strategies- The Silk Road Economic Belt (which is actually a land route going westwards from Xian to Rotterdam) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (which is, in reality, a sea route connecting the Pacific or the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean or the West China Sea). Both replicate the Eastern and the Western routes taken by Chinese traders and scholars during the Tang and Ming Dynasties, called the golden period of Chinese history. In sum, Chinese, who see themselves as “sons of heaven” are trying to regain their world dominance which they consider their rightful legacy. Therefore, when President Xi says, “The trend of history is in our favour”, he is making an extremely symbolic statement with respect to China’s conduct towards other countries.
Buddhism runs deep in Chinese psyche being the catalyst that integrated Daoism and Confucianism. Chinese attraction to South Asia is also linked to Buddhism- India being the birthplace of the religion and Sri Lanka as a staunch Buddhist nation faithful continuously for centuries and the depository of its holiest relic, the tooth of Buddha.
“At any time of the day, if you turn on the television, in China, you are likely to see a programme called the ‘Journey to the West’” says, Dr Mendes. The ‘west’ referred to here, is India. The programme is based on an old folk tale that follows the journey of a Buddhist Monk to the West along with his faithful friends, one among who is the Monkey God (similar to Hanuman). This story corresponds to the age of the Ming Dynasty, a much-venerated period of Chinese history.
BRI aims at the spread of Chinese influence through trade and commerce. It is creating linkages with all the countries along the two routes, showers them with investments and infra and ultimately secures an alliance which is respectful to China. This was the model followed in ancient China, when monks travelled far and wide along with merchants, using the excellent Chinese skill with astral navigation. “The Chinese believe themselves to be the sons of Heaven belonging to the middle kingdom. Their expansionist policy is propelled by this idea. They believe that the exchange of gifts will make other races bow down to them” explained Dr Mendis.
Chinese want the national consciousness of their citizens to be linked to this proud heritage, despite the obliteration of the past by Mao Zedong who villainised Confucius. China is seeking a national consciousness for a country which is not homogenous.
Having travelled across the length and breadth of the country, Dr Mendis found that each province was different. The Eastern part was more populous and prosperous with a Han domination. The West is sparsely populated, impoverished and inhabited by restive minorities like the Uighurs and the Tibetans. China wishes to anchor its present identity with its glorious past to integrate its large population. To do this it needs an inclusive indigenous narrative. The Tang and Ming Dynasties, the glorious Middle Kingdoms, provides this ancient linkage to its past to instil a sense of pride in the present generation. It also suits the Han majority as these were both Han kingdoms.
The Tang Dynasty (618-906) is considered a golden age of Chinese arts and culture. Tang China attracted an international reputation that spilt out of its cities and, through the practice of Buddhism, spread its culture across much of Asia. It was cosmopolitan and had a prosperous trade. The Chinese had leveraged their maritime capabilities and were far ahead of their European counterparts in voyaging, because of advancements in astronomy, they were capable of expert navigation.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) of the Han people, was yet another glorious time for China. It was during their reign, that China was the largest economy of the world, there were unprecedented developments in architecture, painting, literature, medicine and the arts. Admiral Zheng made his seven expeditions in the Indian Ocean to South East Asia and Saudi Arabia.
Doubts are being raised whether China can bear the financial burden of the BRI. Laying such doubts to rest, Dr Mendis said, “China earns around 200 million dollars from US debt servicing in a day alone”. So, it has deep enough pockets to dole out to small countries. It also finances the huge infra projects without stressing the Chinese economy. These infrastructure and huge loan amounts are the modern equivalents of “the exchange of gifts to make the other races bow down to them” or the ‘tributary system’. The fact that most of the construction activity is outsourced to Chinese companies also helps.
The tributary system was practised mostly in the Ming and Qing dynasties and was a loose network of trade and foreign relations which included military force, diplomacy and ritual. The lesser partner countries acknowledged the superiority of the Chinese Emperor and sent envoys and gifts. It enabled China to carry out peaceful trade in the entire region without having to prove itself being the suzerain through military means time and again.
“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Dr Mendis says that these words of Sir Mackinder, the English academic and politician, are music to the ears of Chinese Strategists. Earlier Soviet Russia, with its huge landmass, was considered the apt contender for the Heartland theory-now it is the Chinese who claim it as their legacy.
China is acutely aware of its lack of maritime power to control the ‘East Sea’ or Pacific and the ‘West Sea’ or the Indian Ocean. They need a strong blue-water navy and military bases dominating the major sea routes. To rectify this, they have a hugely ambitious naval construction plan to turn out aircraft carriers and other ships. Also, strategically located islands like Taiwan, Sri Lanka and the archipelagos in the South China Sea, are being seen as future ‘unsinkable aircraft carriers. With the militarization of the South China Sea, the US Navy has been pushed further east into the Pacific. China has built and is managing the Gwadar port off the Arabian sea in Pakistan and the Hambantota port is on a 99 years lease. All this is towards seeking control over the Indian Ocean.
- It is said that all politics originates from geography. No one understands this better than China. In fact, the congruence of geography with history is the strategy upon which China plans to chart its rise back to the ‘middle kingdom’.
- India on its part is aware of Chinese intentions. It has been declining participation in the BRI, and now even in RCEP because it knows that it is a subtle form of ‘Chinese Tributary System’ in which other participants are never equal partners. India has to counter this with its own grouping within South Asia and its 'Act East' policy as also by exploiting the Northern Sea route with Russia.
- While China may downplay the military connotations of its outreach in Asia, Africa and in Europe through BRI and its Maritime Silk Roads, hard power is intrinsic to it. However, the ‘iron fist’ will remain sheathed until such time China is confident that it has reached a level which is at par with the US.
- To counter Chinese efforts to convert the Indian Ocean into the ‘Western China Sea’, India has to enhance its own naval capacity and forge its own coalitions with like-minded nations. The Quadrilateral Forum which includes Japan, Australia, India and the US provides the best option as it has both the financial heft and the maritime hard power to go with it.