Money and muscle make anything possible.

After free markets and climate will China now emerge as a human rights champion
Voices Opinion Monday, June 19, 2017 - 16:33

The story was running on the wires as discreetly as the Chinese would have liked it. No headlines, no fuss, just a major move on an international process and a cold reminder to China-watchers about the money, markets and muscle-power of a country securing every goal it sets for itself internationally.

While we in India follow only one issue at the UNHRC – Pakistan – which most countries have stopped caring about, China put its Greek foot forward last week to scuttle a European Union (EU) statement criticising Beijing on human rights at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). This is the first time the EU has failed to secure the necessary consensus from all of EU’s 28 states on a statement that criticises China’s crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists. The move which diplomats view as very unexpected has taken the wind out of EU’s sails as the caretaker of human rights issues. For now, the message is clear. Access to China’s goods and markets come with a price tag while China continues to export – even dump – goods on markets worldwide. Human rights can wait especially in a forum where Saudi Arabia heads a group. 

As signals go, this is a sledgehammer. It means China has cut into EU in its own backyard in ways no one was expecting, not the least the EU leadership which had found a new ally in Beijing following the Unites States (US) pulling out of the Paris climate accord. A Greek foreign ministry official has been quoted as saying Athens blocked the statement because it was “unconstructive criticism of China” and said separate EU talks with China outside the UN were a better avenue for discussions.

In addition to reading signals, diplomacy is also a capacity to defend national interests and to do so without fear, hesitation and meaningless photo opportunities. From the perspective of India, it shows New Delhi where the real power can be found in its own neighbourhood. It also raises some questions. Was skipping the recent Belt and Road meet wise or does it make sense to alienate neighbours at a time when China is expanding its girth and goods not just internationally but also around India?

Earlier this year, the Chinese leadership charmed the world at Davos making a spirited plea for free markets even as US President Donald Trump was figuring out how to spell protectionism on Twitter. But the penny had dropped. The more belligerent the leader of the world’s free market appeared, the calmer and wiser the Chinese were as they made common cause with many countries especially the EU. The old continent, while protecting its markets and policies has often looked upon itself as the lead player in human rights nudging countries to abolish the death penalty or protect freedom of the press – issues that diplomats call “soft” in their parlance.

On the other side, not a day passes without China acquiring, showcasing or promoting its goods and services, whether it be state of the art trains, surface transport, goods and increasingly services. China's COSCO Shipping which owns the world's fourth-largest container fleet acquired a 51% stake in Greece's largest port in 2016. In roads via ports, in addition to creating jobs on one side, it allows control on the other. Propaganda aside, none can deny China’s emergence as a major player now sitting at the high table and maybe soon deciding who gets to sup with them. China makes few if any moves without cold calculation. Call it nationalism, patriotism, communism - China is always at the heart of the matter. 

The UNHRC move, coming weeks after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU governments agreed to release funds under Greece’s emergency financial bailout last week in Luxembourg, has thrown the EU in a difficult spot. By all accounts, China is in no hurry to calm nerves and smooth strains. China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner.  As trade between the two blocs grows, what is EU going to do about human rights and individual freedoms denied by China which is now offering to speak about them offline? 

There are lessons in this for India not the least of which is China’s mounting trade surplus with the country which now stands at $60 billion and according to Brahma Chellany, strategic thinker and author “…has increased Chinese President Xi Jinping’s territorial assertiveness.” The absence of clarity about the frontier is a ploy for aggression says Chellany adding that “…by acquiescing on bilateral trade – the dumping of Chinese-made steel in the Indian market is just one of many examples – India has inadvertently helped foot the bill for the PLA’s encirclement strategy.” Read here.

In another recent piece, former diplomat G. Parthasarathy wrote the following. “India has to recognise the reality that it cannot match China in weapons supply, or in a range of infrastructure and industrial projects. India, for example, cannot match Chinese supply of JF 17 fighters manufactured in Pakistan, as our much-touted Light Combat Aircraft has not yet been operationalised.” Read here.

There was a time not too long ago when European leaders would travel to Beijing with a list of to-do business and another one about human rights violations or people held in captivity for speaking out against the state. The latter disappeared as the former grew and while many saw this as a victory for human rights, it was China going about its business as usual, clear in its view about what was negotiable and what was not. Silence is also a diplomatic tool, which when used well, can demolish a million words. India is not a superpower. It is neither economically nor militarily strong to make its voice felt and heard where it hopes. What makes a difficult situation tricky is the hot air and empty statements we have marshalled over decades. The world is not amused. It is about time we read signals that are also telling us something in return for every statement we put out. 


Note: Views expressed in the article are personal.