Hollywood actor and musician, Johnny Depp, was bullied everyday in school by a big fat boy. "Punch him in the face once and he will not bother you any more!" said his mother one day. Depp did just that and the rest, as he told a group of student at The Actor's Studio, was history.
International politics is incredibly more complex. But there may be a lesson to be learned from Johnny Depp's story, especially when dealing with the People's Republic of China.
Due to its lack of self-assuredness and multiple domestic crises, Beijing outwardly needs to act tough. This thuggish behaviour is currently being propped up by China's financial 'strength' — resulting from decades of unbridled economic growth — and is fuelled by the current global economic debacle. However, since the China's apparent tough outlook does not stem from inner strength, it actually may be far easier to face it head-on than many think.
Earlier this month, Beijing vehemently opposed and pressured Mongolia over its decision to invite the Dalai Lama to visit its capital city Ulan Bator. The small land-locked country, perhaps remembering its ancestral warriors, did not bow to China, which is its biggest trading partner. Mongolia even allowed the Nobel laureate to go ahead with his public talk at the 4000-seat Buyant-Ukhaa sports stadium built with Chinese money.
On 26 November, India refused Beijing's demand to stop a planned speech by the Dalai Lama at the World Buddhist Congregation in New Delhi on 30th of this month. "We have always opposed any country providing a platform for the Dalai Lama to engage in activities to split China in any form," said Hong Lei, the Chinese spokesperson, to a regular press conference. Enraged by India's decision, the Chinese have called off the 15th round of the talks between Special Representatives. The Communist Party, in the throes of a leadership transition, seems particularly nervous to have its State Councillor, Dai Bangguo, in Indian capital for the border talk at the same time as the Dalai Lama.
The Indian decision not only reflects its new-found confidence but also a calculated strategic step keeping its long-term interest in heart. "Beijing is upping the assertiveness towards all its neighbours. The Chinese are carefully testing the waters to see how far they can go," said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian foreign secretary, to the Guardian newspaper. India is closely watching China's inroads into Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma, and recognizes the importance of standing up to China. In this battle of Asian supremacy and geopolitical influence, India has the advantages of having strong democratic institutions such as the free media, an independent judiciary and the growing economy with strong fundamentals.
Mongolia's decision on the Dalai Lama's visit and the Indian resolution to let the Tibetan spiritual leader "to pursue his activities" — and the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's strong message to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, to keep off from South China Sea at the recently-concluded Asia-Pacific Conference — show the world that capitulation to Beijing is not the only way.
However, China is relentless in its mission to restrict Tibet's spiritual leader. A few years ago, many attempts were made for the Dalai Lama to visit Indonesia. Nothing materialized. Later, it was learned that Beijing was funneling as much as a billion dollar into Indonesia to prevent the Nobel Laureate from obtaining a visa. This is no stray case.
In 2007, China demanded Belgium to cancel the Dalai Lama's long-planned visit to Brussels. In exchange, Beijing said that it would allow the Belgian trade mission headed by the crown prince into China. Belgium acquiesced. The Dalai Lama issued a statement: "The Belgian government shared with me their predicament on account of pressure from the People's Republic of China," and that he had "decided not to visit Brussels this time."
In fact, according to a study by Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, countries whose top leadership met with the Dalai Lama, have incurred an average 8.1 percent loss in exports to China in the two years following the meeting. Called the "Dalai Lama Effect," the study by the University of Gottingen in Germany found the negative impact on exports began when Hu Jintao took office in 2002.
If true, this is indeed a huge economic loss. But there are equal losses for China as well, which the one party rule does not allow the world to see. Moreover, temporary financial gains can and must not influence national policy and sovereign matters. Beijing may have already peaked its economic cycle and within a decade its financial train may run out of stream. In such an eventuality, any compromise on national policy now will have gone wasted.
Finally, from all accounts it seems that the Chinese leaders are pretty much like bad, angry and vulnerable dogs, the more you run away the more they are likely to bark and chase you.