What appears ostensibly to be a boundary dispute between India and China is in reality the symptom of a far more serious malady—Chinese expansionism. Driven by a sense of historic entitlement, China is the quintessential expansionist power of today, sometimes clandestinely nibbling away at land belonging to others and at other times brazenly flaunting its military prowess both on land and at sea to intimidate its rivals.
Slowly but surely, through coercion, lure and deceit China has been expanding its footprints over the world both physically and economically. In the last decade, the ascendancy of Xi Jinping and China’s mounting economy has given a new impetus and new sense of urgency to its avowed objective of world domination.
Post the Chinese communist rebellion that seized control of China in 1949, China viciously distanced itself from its feudal past. However there has been a gradual transformation in recent times. Under Xi Jinping there has been a concerted attempt to merge the past with the present.
To recapture the diminishing appeal of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi Jinping has tried to sell the CPC as the inheritor and successor to a 5,000-year-old great Chinese empire. In this charade, President Xi Jinping envisions himself as a modern-day Chinese emperor in the mould of rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the two great dynasties of historic China.
Traditionally, Chinese emperors were considered to be Godly creatures (Son of Heaven) with the divine sanction (Mandate of Heaven) to rule the entire world; the entire world as per the Chinese was an entity that spread concentrically from the imperial court to include China and its tributaries, with barbarians occupying the space beyond this circle. The Hua-Yi dichotomy (China vs barbarians or uncivilized tribes), an important tenet of Chinese culture, formalises Chinese superiority. Not surprisingly, the traditional name of China in Chinese is Zhongguo or the Middle Kingdom, implying that China is the epicentre of the world.
President Xi Jinping’s heavy emphasis on historic symbolism is a resounding reiteration of Sino-centrism. His leitmotif, the “China Dream”—an aspiration to make China a powerful and prosperous nation inspired by the greatness of its past and as a vindication of its victimhood of the 18th century, was rolled out in 2012 within the precincts of National Museum of China that showcases the continuity of China’s great civilization. And in 2015, Xi Jinping hosted a spectacular ceremony at the ancient imperial palace (which had been deliberately avoided by its modern leaders) in which dignitaries from a host of countries walked up a 70-metre red carpet before being greeted by Xi Jinping in a fashion reminiscent of ancient Chinese Emperors.
The significance of these events must not be lost on the world. Sino-centrism is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and remains the fountainhead of Chinese thinking even today. It is this supremacist philosophy that fuels the hubris laden Chinese drive to dominate the world.
It is imperative to draw a parallel between today’s China and Nazi Germany to check the rise of another tyrant and to avert another World War. The similarities are frightening: two charismatic ambitious dictators crazed by a sense of historical destiny heading well-disciplined, ideologically driven authoritarian movements.
Territorial expansion was at the heart of Nazi Germany’s drive for supremacy. So is the case with China.
Hitler began his expansionism unobtrusively by consolidating those German territories that once belonged to Germany like Saarland and Rhineland. When he encountered no resistance, it emboldened him to annex Austria in 1938. Then he forced the Allies to cede Sudetenland, a Czechoslovakian region inhabited by native Germans and a year later he overran Czechoslovakia and Poland. The year 1940 saw Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, France and Belgium fall to the Nazis. By the end of 1941, in a span of 6 years, Hitler had stamped his domination on the whole of Europe.
China’s modus operandi follows the same pattern, albeit in a more gradual manner. Paradoxically, China’s imperial ambitions were discernible even during anti-feudal egalitarian communist revolution that led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Like Germany, China initially focused on traditional regions that were within its immediate sphere of influence.
Devoid of the culturally, historically and demographically distinct and expansive autonomous regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, China is a runt of land populated by the majority Hans occupying a small central area of what is known as China today. These major autonomous regions are recent additions, forcibly incorporated into China during the communist movement or immediately thereafter.
Tibet was always a distinct entity governed by successive Tibetan dynasties. Even under the Qing dynasty (which was China’s basis for claim on Tibet) Tibet had a fair degree of autonomy with the Dalai Lama as the official head. Tibetans constitute over 90% of the population, although in recent times there has been an attempt to alter this balance by relocating Chinese Hans to Tibet. In 1951, the PLA invaded Tibet and gradually took over its administration, with the Dalai Lama fleeing to India in 1959.
Both Xinjiang (Uyghurs 45%) and Inner Mongolia (Mongols 17%) harbour large non-Han populations and have always considered themselves separate from China. In the early part of the 20th century, vibrant independence movements rocked these areas. In fact, parts of Inner Mongolia (Mengjiang 1939-45; Inner Mongolian People’s Republic) and Xinjiang (Second East Turkestan Republic) were sovereign political entities before they were invaded and absorbed into the PRC by repression of the local population.
The suppression of China’s non-Han population has continued into recent times. The treatment of the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang has in it echoes of the Nazi suppression of Jews. Millions of Muslim Uyghurs have been herded into internment camps to indoctrinate them. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China calls it “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” (Atlantic, 28 August 2018). Uyghur women are regularly subject to pregnancy checks, have to undergo forced sterilizations and abortions and are coerced into using intrauterine devices—all with an aim to affect a demographic genocide.
Once the CPC had consolidated what it considered as vassal territory, China turned its attention to its neighbours. Its first target was India under an idealist Nehru. Even as it proclaimed amity between Indians and Chinese (Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai), China encroached into Indian territory (Aksai Chin) and surreptitiously constructed a road linking Tibet to Xinjiang. When India objected, China settled the issue via a bloody border war in which it dealt India a decisive and humiliating defeat.
Aksai Chin is strategically important to China for maintaining a link between Tibet and Xinjiang and for safeguarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that provides China access to the Persian Gulf via the Gwadar port. Additionally, occupation of Aksai Chin gives China a vantage position vis-à-vis India. According to a Chinese language article published in 2010, Aksai Chin is like a Damocles sword hanging over India’s head; possession of Aksai Chin allows China to easily run over New Delhi, sweep across Mumbai, India’s economic centre and defeat India once again. The article claims that occupation of Aksai Chin was the personal vision of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Today, China remains in control of 38,000 sq km of what is legally Indian territory in Aksai Chin. China is also in possession of another 5,300 sq km (Trans Karakoram Tract in the Hunza-Gilgit region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which legally belongs to India), which was ceded to China by Pakistan in I963. The current dispute is another attempt to make further inroads into Indian territory.
That China is embroiled in no less than 18 boundary disputes, both land and maritime, with its immediate neighbours is further evidence of its hegemonic trait. China demands complete suzerainty over the South China Sea to the detriment of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Large tracts of land belonging to Russia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Tajikistan are claimed by China, based on historic precedent.
Even entire countries fall within the ambit of its avarice. Floating a revisionist theory—the “Northeast Project”—of the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), a government-backed think tank seeks to rewrite the premodern history of Manchuria and Korea that the kingdom of Goguryeo (from which Korea derives its name), which ruled the Korean peninsula for 600 years from the first century BC to the 7th century AD, was in reality a vassal of the Middle Kingdom. Thus China has at times asserted that both North and South Korea are legitimate Chinese territory.
Countries like Pakistan and Nepal (under Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli) are for all intents and purposes China’s vassals.
This sums up the extent of Chinese expansionism. China is a dangerous cocktail of the past and present. Hidden behind the reassuring façade of modern aspirations in tune with the changing world lies a ruthless medieval mindset that subscribes to notions of territorial expansion, international hegemony and inherent superiority.
The geo-political climate today approximates that of pre-World War II Europe. China, because of its huge population and increasing economic clout is a far greater threat to world peace than what Germany posed in the last century
Sardar Patel, India’s first Home Minister, rightly diagnosed Chinese communism to be an extreme and dangerous expression of nationalism. Nehru initially disagreed but after the debacle of 1962 he concluded that China was in reality “an expansionist, imperial minded country deliberately invading another”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked: “The age of expansionism is over; this is the age of development. History knows that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.”