When Joshua Kurlantzick coined the term ‘charm offensive’ for China in 2007, it simply referred to China’s use of soft power to improve its global status and image, as part of its peaceful rise. Many strategists named Mao Zedong’s era as China 1.0 and Deng Xiaoping’s era of opening up of economy as China 2.0, wherein USA helped China get richer, least realising the magnitude of challenge it may pose after its rise.
Xi Jinping’s rise to power as “Chairman of Everything” in 2013 saw a transformation of peaceful China to Assertive China (China 3.0) marching towards its Dream of national rejuvenation, and the goal of turning China into a modern socialist prosperous and strong country, by 2049. The charm offensive then transformed into what China termed as “Public Diplomacy”.
Michael Pillsbury decoded this trajectory in his 2016 book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. The competition between China and USA in Xi’s era also transformed into Cold War 2.0, with both sides intensifying the economic, political and diplomatic competition between them. The COVID-19 pandemic and push back against China, seen to be profiteering out of it, besides aggressive postures in neighbourhood, led to “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” and coercion, aimed to avoid criticism of its actions during pandemic.
The constitutional oath-taking ceremony in Beijing at the ‘two sessions’ 2023, started with Xi Jinping 3.0 era, with challenges of internal dissent due to ‘Zero Covid Policy’ and increasing decoupling, which has led to a ‘Smart Diplomacy’ as latest version of Charm Offensive, where it seems to have made some significant gains in denting US influence in many areas. The ‘Telephone Diplomacy’ by new Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China of talking to his counterparts globally, and series of successful visits by Xi Jinping have seen some favourable results. The obsession of Biden Administration with war in Ukraine, pursuing Cold War 1.0 with Russia, in addition to Cold War 2.0 with China has worked to China’s advantage, leaving US overstretched to pursue both cold wars simultaneously.
Growing Strategic Footprints in West Asia
Chinese smart diplomacy of Xi Jinping 3.0 era aims at having strong relations with any country, which has troubled relations with US due to any reason, on Chinese terms. It signed a $ 400 billion deal with Iran, to ensure its long term supply of oil, which suited Iran too, which was suffering under US sanctions. What Chinese have learnt is to avoid picking up issues with partner country, which do not impact it economically. Therefore, China ignores what Iran is doing to its women protesters, or Taliban doing to its people as part of its new smart diplomacy. In contrast US obsessed with global moral policing (despite inability to control its own internal gun violence) arrogantly assumes moral right to lecture the world on human rights, thereby spoiling relations with many countries including friends, on issues not necessarily relevant to US interest.
President Xi Jinping’s successful visit to Saudi Arabia, after not so welcomed visit of US President, scored a diplomatic point with many commercial agreements in place. China brokering resumption of diplomatic ties between arch rival Saudi Arabia and Iran, has bigger implications in shrinking US strategic space in West Asia. The Arab unity seems to be rejuvenating with some of them welcoming Syria in Arab fold. The biggest advantage which China may gain is that such group of partners will soon be trading in local currencies/Yuan which marks the beginning of decline long term monopoly of dollar, which made US most powerful, due to its hold on global financial system.
Is China a Wild Card in Russia Ukraine War?
President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow with “Strategic Partnership with no limit” tag was impressive optics, but nothing worthwhile in terms of military hardware support to Russia. It however gave stern diplomatic message that neither Russia is diplomatically isolated as US led NATO will like to imagine, nor sanctions can bring Russia to knees and both countries are looking towards “Multipolar Global Order”. The partnership also assumes significance in context of Sino-Russian footprints in Arctic region and North Atlantic Ocean.
China has left USA led NATO speculate with concern, the extent of Chinese lethal support to Russia (if any), notwithstanding Zelensky’s reports of increasing traces of lethal support, as it may become a crucial turning point of war. US threatened China for sanctions, which responded by mocking US as morally not qualified to give orders to China, after sending billions of dollars’ worth in aid, to fuel the war and its history of invasions in Iraq and Libya. China, however is unlikely to compromise its largest consumer market in US and EU; hence, has denied any combat/lethal support to Russia. China also improved its diplomatic score by offering a 12-point peace proposal, which it knows that US/Ukraine will never agree.
The most significant diplomatic ripples are visible in Europe, which under immense economic pressure seems divided in following US dictate in prolonging war or decoupling with China, which is largest trading partner of many European countries. During visit to China, President Macron’s suggestion that European countries were too subservient to the US and should not be Washington’s “followers. His remarks “Being an ally does not mean being a vassal” and similar sentiments by various segments of society in Germany have adequately discomforted the US led NATO and can be encouraging for China’s smart diplomats. The beeline of visitors from Europe and other continents (including President Lula) to Beijing on excuse of using Chinese influence to moderate Putin, in real term indicates economic interests outside US orbit.
Growing Trade with Global Players
During peak of COVID-19 pandemic, the global pitch was to decouple from Chinese led supply chain. Interestingly, last one year has seen that trade volume of China with every competitor, and critique has increased despite each of them announcing the relations as strained. Be it US, Europe or India, all have made significant gestures of decoupling, but ended up with more trade with China. Incidents of application of Chinese ‘Three Warfare Strategy’, influence operations, secret police stations, spy balloons and digital encroachment have been reported, but it hasn’t affected trade to the extent claimed. In case of India, despite the ongoing standoff at Ladakh, the trade grew to record $ 136 billion and trade deficit crossed $100 billion in favour of China. It indicates a smart power play in ‘Big Power Contestation’ in Xi Jinping 3.0 era.
What Can India Do?
In ongoing global powerplay, India has made some good diplomatic moves in recent past including not taking sides in Russia Ukraine War and withstanding pressures from China as well as the West, in its own national interest. It has made India’s position important for West as well as anti-West camps, as both will like to have India on their side, as it changes the strategic balance significantly. For US led West, its not possible to keep China under check without India and for India too China with unresolved border and ongoing standoff, can’t be its friend, so long the border issue sees some resolution.
India therefore needs to continue with all ongoing strategic partnerships, not take sides, continue acting as per its national interest and most importantly develop its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) through self-reliance and diversification of inescapable dependencies in both opposing camps. Till India attains a high level of CNP, self-reliance, military capacity building and infrastructure development and inclusive growth on borders, it has no choice but to continue with strategic balancing in Big Power Contestation, while maintaining its strategic autonomy, besides maintaining strong military posture to maintain its territorial integrity, on its borders and at strategic points in maritime domain.
The world community must take note of the Chinese new era of Charm offensive, use of soft power, infrastructure offensive, digital and economic encroachment to pursue Chinese interest and undermining interest of others and acknowledge it as a threat. It must counter it in similar dimension, collectively, to ensure that assertive China` doesn’t become too aggressive to build a China centric chaotic world order on the name of multi-polar world order.
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