Ever since His Holiness the Dalai Lama [HHDL] took refuge in India in 1959, the Chinese authorities have lost no opportunity to slam the government of India for allowing HHDL to meet high dignitaries in India. Not only that even on his visits abroad, the Chinese authorities have taken deep umbrage if any foreign leader met with HHDL. The Chinese have even gone to the extent of threatening economic and political consequences. As the Chinese economic and military strength grew exponentially, most states began to defer to the wishes of the Chinese authorities. It was therefore a very pleasant surprise when little Mongolia, on China’s northern doorstep, refused to bow to a Chinese dictate and received HHDL and was even prepared to face the consequences of defying China. The Chinese were livid and demonstrated their ire when they unilaterally blockaded the Sino-Mongolian border and refused to allow any trans- shipment of goods. Mongolia being land locked is heavily dependent on China; just as Nepal is on India.
However the recent Chinese outburst against the “Indian side” for allowing HHDL to meet with President Mukherjee during a children’s conference shows just how touchy the Chinese authorities have become. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang had the following to say: “The Chinese side is strongly dis-satisfied with and firmly opposed to the meeting. We urge the Indian side to see through the anti-China separatist nature of the Dalai-clique, fully respect China’s core interests and major concerns, and take effective means to remove the negative impact caused by the incident to avoid any disturbance to the China-India relationship”. Of particular point to note in this statement is the reference to China’s “core interests”, as also to “major concerns” when referring to HHDL. What has not been clarified is whether HHDL is a “major concern” or whether the reference to “core interests” is a reference to Tibet. If HHDL has now become a “major concern”, it obviously means that the Chinese authorities are sufficiently rattled to go to the extent that they did with Mongolia to order a blockade. What made the Chinese even more irate was the appeal of the Mongolian Ambassador to India, Gonchig Ganhold that India should help Mongolia to deal with “China’s counter-measures against Ulan Batore”.
It was not very long ago that the Chinese authorities were proclaiming a “new peripheral” policy that was designed to bring states on its borders closer together and to attempt to encourage them to take advantage of the rise of China as an economic power. The “One Belt, One Road [OBOR]” was one such major initiative of President Xi Jinping. The Chinese authorities were never tired of proclaiming a “win-win” situation, if states accepted the OBOR concept. As President Xi said “China should promote neighborhood diplomacy that turned its neighboring areas into a community of shared destiny”. But at the same time, President Xi emphasized that while China would adhere to the path of “peaceful” development; it would not abandon its legitimate rights and interests, or the nation’s “core interests”. Therefore the message was quite clear. If the circumstances so required, the Chinese leadership was prepared to play rough as well.
In view of recent Chinese belligerence, I requested Prof John Garver, who is the Professor Emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech and who has done seminal work on Chinese foreign policy, as to what he thought about recent developments in China’s peripheral policy. Prof Garver’s views are as follows:
China under Xi Jinping has abandoned Deng Xiaoping's wise directive of 1990: "keep a low profile, hide your brilliance under a basket, and never claim the lead." Now, under Xi Jinping, China's interests and ambitions will grow as China's power grows. Chinese analysts expect "China's rise" to produce some initial resistance. But eventually other countries [first and foremost China's neighbors] will recognize the wisdom of coming to terms with a rising China. The dream of many Chinese is for China to become the leading Asian power and a co-equal of the United States as a global leader. Demonstrable progress toward that "Dream" of the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" justifies and legitimizes the absolutist rule of Xi Jinping and the CCP party-state.
China will expect its neighbors to "respect China's core interests” as the quid pro quo for China's "friendship." Abstaining from activities facilitating the efforts of "splitists" [as Beijing dubs the Dalai Lama to be] is, from Beijing's perspective, an essential part of this requirement. I don't think China's leaders fully understand how China's neighbors perceive China and its policies. I think the most likely course over the next decade or so will be a steady growth of Chinese assertiveness and, contrary to China's expectations, slow formation of a coalition of China's neighbors increasingly apprehensive of China's power.
Thus the Chinese authorities probably expect that India would desist from permitting HHDL from playing any public role, other than living quietly in Dharamsala. But the reality is that Chinese peripheral policy is not making much progress, for with the notable exception of Pakistan, the Chinese are having issues with almost all their important neighbors. While relations with North Korea remain unequivocal, those with South Korea have recently soured. With Japan the dispute over the Senkaku [Diaoyu] islands remains as tense as ever. And with Trump rattling the Taiwan issue and US Admiral Harris raking up South China Sea dispute; China’s periphery is suddenly alive. Having successfully stoked the fire of nationalism and having made it synonymous with the Chinese “dream”, it remains to be seen how President Xi Jinping handles these delicate foreign policy issues. A deemed failure could also have domestic political repercussions, considering that the next party Congress is only a year away.