From Mao's China to Xi's China
China is going places. It is everywhere. It is reshaping geopolitics. In these past few weeks and months, Beijing's reach has extended to regions in a manner that has left many beyond China impressed. Conversely, China's growing influence has had governments, especially in the West, worried. An instance is the meeting of US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Albanese and British Prime Minister Sunak in San Diego at an AUKUS summit.
For such governments, China represents a threat, the suspicion being that Beijing may be poised to seize Taiwan in a brazen show of military power. And there is too the Chinese attitude on the Spratly Islands question, which has left some nations in the region worried to no end.
At another level, Chinese largesse aimed at promoting economic development in such regions as Africa and in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka has stoked fears of a debt trap laid by Beijing for governments, a legacy which will likely be obstacles to the future for their peoples.
Hambantota and Gwadar and scores of projects in Africa are references which come up with any mention of China's expanding global economic clout. People are afraid, therefore. And yet there are people who look at this whole sequence of events as history on the move.
Part of that history was made in Beijing last week when President Xi Jinping was voted to office for a new five-year term. That was a dramatic moment, not that anyone was surprised. But sit back, to reflect on the careful, determined manner in which Xi has moved to consolidate his hold on power. He has broken with the post-Mao constitutional stipulation of the country's supreme leader being in office for no more than two five-year terms.
And that was when Xi convinced people that for the first time since Mao Zedong here was China going out to meet the world on its own terms. Xi could be in power for the rest of his life. For all the world's worries, does Xi Jinping care?
In the next seven years, so we have been told, China will overtake the United States as the leading global economy. Is that a surprise? Philosophy and well-grounded politics have brought the Chinese to this seminal moment in their history.
And we are reminded of the intellectual that was Zhou En-lai who, when asked about the ramifications of the French Revolution on history, responded, 'It is too early to tell.' That statement informs you about the place of Chinese wisdom through the civilizational ages of mankind.
Remember Napoleon's warning of the need to desist from disturbing China, because China was a sleeping giant and would shake the world when it awoke?
Well, China woke up a long time ago. Today it is wide awake, alert to the world around it. In an era of transformational diplomacy, the world or at least part of it is going to China. The Saudis and the Iranians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and for ages opposed to each other's view of the world, have been to Beijing to explore the chances of a resumption of links.
The Chinese brought them together, convinced them to bury the hatchet and restore diplomatic ties. In the next two months, Riyadh and Tehran will reopen their embassies in each other's capital.
It is patently a Chinese achievement. Here is a nation of unambiguous communism bringing two Muslim countries back to speaking terms. Where once conflicts between nations were deliberated on in western capitals, the winds have now shifted to the east.
French President Emmanuel Macron will be travelling to Beijing in April. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping remain in touch over the Ukraine war, informing the world that the West's obsession over the need to arm Ukraine, to have Zelensky beat the Russians in the battlefield is a narrative composed differently in the East.
The diplomatic initiative is now China's, given that Biden, the European Union and NATO have through their belligerency closed off all avenues to a negotiated settlement of the war in Ukraine. Xi Jinping has publicly, for the first time, referred to the United States as China's adversary.
One is reminded of the times when in the 1960s Maoist Beijing constantly castigated Washington as an imperialist power and its supporters as running dogs of US imperialism. The language has changed, of course, with decency and pragmatism having taken over since Richard Nixon's defining trip to Beijing in February 1972.
The hope engendered by the Nixon visit has not died, but in the realities thrown up by twenty-first century perspectives, the Chinese have come of age. Washington has been upstaged by Beijing in global significance.
Where in the 1950s and 1960s anti-communist regional bodies like CENTO and SEATO were unable to contain China, today it is AUKUS and the Quad which desperately seek to check Beijing's growing global influence but are seemingly unable to do the job.
And yet there is a growing requirement for the Chinese leadership to acknowledge the necessity of cooperative diplomacy as it goes about reinventing is outlook on the world. Global worries about Chinese ambitions in the Spratly Islands and about Beijing's attitude to Taiwan need to be allayed by reassuring Chinese action.
The Chinese are a near superpower, but that rise must not be at the expense of the world beyond Beijing. Indian worries about Chinese troop movement, allegedly, in its territory call for Beijing's attention and action in a spirit of diplomatic cooperation.
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar was emphatic about the Indian position when he let his Chinese counterpart know at the recent meeting of G-20 Foreign Ministers in Delhi that if China wished to have normal ties with India, it would first need to vacate Indian territory.
Xi Jinping will ignore this point at peril to broad Chinese diplomatic acceptability in the region. Chinese claims on Indian territory are obstructive to fruitful cooperation with Delhi in the future.
President Xi's endeavour ought to be to reach out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, deliberate on the entire gamut of Sino-Indian ties and perhaps explore a re-inauguration of the era which between 1949 and till 1962 defined links between Zhou En-lai and Jawaharlal Nehru.
French President Charles de Gaulle, whose government created waves and worries in the West when it accorded diplomatic recognition to People's China in 1964, was once asked what he thought of China. He came forth with a facetious response: 'China is a big country; and many Chinese live in it.'
Decades on, should we read between the lines in that Gaullist statement?