Friday, December 10, 2010

Tantrum time

Paper tigers and the empty chair in Oslo

By Swapan Dasgupta

The mass of classified US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that the Great Powers of the West occasionally conduct themselves as paper tigers. The American diplomatic reportage of the circumstances surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset-al-Megrahi would seem to suggest that the "thuggish" Libyan regime of President Muammar Gaddafi succeeded in intimidating the British Government. The British Ambassador to Libya, it was revealed, expressed "relief" when al-Megrahi was released from prison on humanitarian grounds and came home to a hero's welcome. The alternative was grim: Gaddafi "would have cut us off at the knees."

Gaddafi's growl appears to have served as deterrent. The US Ambassador to Libya informed Washington that "If the (US government) publicly opposes al-Megrahi's release or is perceived to be complicit in a decision to keep al-Megrahi in prison, (America's Libyan diplomatic) post judges that US interests could face similar consequences." The US was asked to look the other way as Britain negotiated the release of a terrorist whose actions caused the deaths of 270 people (mostly US citizens) on board a Pan Am flight in December 1988.

The story in the leaked cables is an eye-opener. They revealed that a dodgy dictator of an erstwhile Bedouin kingdom can bulldoze his way through the self-esteem of 'responsible' powers if the latter is psychologically fearful of the consequences of saying 'No'. The WikiLeaks didn't embarrass the outlandish Libya; they, however, punctured the United Kingdom's ethical pretensions.

China's importance in the world far exceeds the commercial clout of Libya over a cash-strapped UK. At one level, China has assiduously nurtured and cultivated many regimes that crave respectability and are only too willing to shower those who oblige with generous economic concessions. At another, it has presented a picture of sweet reasonableness and untiring enterprise and awed the world by its dramatic rise as the second-largest economy, after the US. Complementing both approaches is an imaginative and generously-funded public diplomacy that has been described as a "seamless extension of China's global ambitions for resources and influence."

China's "smart power" diplomacy marked by purposeful generosity in the promotion of its own national interests and simultaneously respectful of the national sovereignty of others, has made steady progress and kept pace with the country's economic rise and rise. In an environment marked by a recognition of an eastward shift in the balance of global power and a perceived decline of the West, China has made new friends not merely in Asia but all over Africa and Latin America. There are, of course, continuing concerns over what China's dramatic rise means for the rules of global engagement. But many of these have been kept in abeyance by reasons of expediency: the need to keep China happy at a time of economic crisis in western capitalism.

Considering the unhindered rise of China and the steady, if grudging, acceptance of its Great Power status, it is somewhat of a mystery that Beijing has chosen to take a leaf out of Gaddafi's book in its reactions to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo. Having failed to persuade the Nobel committee to ignore demands from notables such as Valclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu to refrain from honouring a leading light of Charter 08, the newest symbol of democratic resistance to the Communist Party's monopoly over political power, China has chosen to bare its fangs. It would have been understandable if Beijing's anger had been focussed against Norway and its Parliament. A war of words between Beijing and Oslo would, after all, not have agitated the rest of the world.

The Nobel Peace Prize has never been devoid of controversy. In 1935, Hitler fumed and fretted over the award to Carl von Ossietzky, a German citizen jailed for treason for revealing the story of his country's covert rearmament. The Soviet bloc was similarly exasperated when dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov won the prize in 1975 and Poland's Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was honoured in 1983. China, on its part, flew into a rage when its bĂȘte noire, the "splittist" Dalai Lama was awarded the prize in 1989.

What is intriguing is China's determination to make attendance in Friday's Nobel awards ceremony in Oslo a test of the "with us or against us" question. It has invoked the principle of national sovereignty and the integrity of its judicial system to denounce the celebration of a "criminal". At the time of writing, some 18 countries including Russia, Pakistan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran and the Philippines have decided to not attend the ceremony. The The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has also indicated she won't be among the guests in Oslo owing to "another engagement".

India, which had earlier indicated its presence, has been sent a demarche by Beijing warning of "consequences" if its Ambassador was present to witness the award being presented to an empty chair. There is an implied threat that the visit of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Delhi next week to discuss the strains in bilateral relationship may be called off if India is also seen to be joining the "clowns" backing Liu in an "anti-China farce".

To be dragged into a controversy not of its own making is never pleasant. Left to the departmental wisdom of the Mandarin-speaking club in South Block, India would probably have found some way of discreetly leaving its chair empty in Oslo. South Block has its fair share of those reposing faith in the Lord Halifax school of diplomacy to handle China's new-found assertiveness. Why, it will no doubt be argued, rile China needlessly and jeopardise the Wen visit? True, there is a cost but offending Norway and Sweden is preferable to adding another item to India's bilateral problems with a powerful neighbour. Why not take comfort from Wen's speech in August that China must also undertake political modernisation to safeguard its economic gains?

If life was so simple, solidarity with the considered judgment of the Nobel committee could have been discarded in favour of winning brownie points with Beijing. But will a post-dated cheque be forthcoming from a China that has sought to insult India over 'stapled visas' for residents of Jammu and Kashmir and shown increased belligerence over the status of Arunachal Pradesh? Instead, will a possible boycott of the Oslo ceremony be interpreted as conclusive evidence that India too is a paper tiger, a wimpish pretender on the world stage? In persuading countries to boycott a ceremony, China is encashing many of its IOUs. Fortunately, India owes China nothing.

For India, the costs of non-attendance are colossal. For the past few years, Western interest in India has risen exponentially. This is partly recognition of India's entrepreneurial dynamism and its commonality of values with the West. But equally it stems from the desire of a declining West and a stagnant Japan to bolster another Asian power to offset China's hegemonism. India is in the process of leveraging its geo-strategic location and economic growth for maximum national advantage. This process will be compromised if it is seen to be wilting in the face of a Chinese tantrum. . In any event, the company of those attending the Oslo bash is more wholesome. That, in the final analysis, may be the reason why India will be represented at the anticipatory celebration of Chinese democracy.

The Telegraph, December 10, 2010

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