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The Chinaman cometh

May 16, 2013

CHINAMAN is a left-arm wrist-spun ball named after Puss Achong the West Indian cricketer of Chinese origin.

Because of its unorthodox delivery, batsmen often find the ball difficult to read, not unlike the inscrutable Chinese mind layered with Confucian stealth and aloofness in the midst of raging chaos.

Read Henry Kissinger’s insightful book On China to see how a deeply revered philosophical outlook that precedes communism and other religions by several centuries holds the nation’s spine of steel and spring together. You look at any area be it in Africa or Asia, Latin America or Europe, the Chinese have used their Western rivals virtually as a road-clearing party to surge ahead quietly.

India and Pakistan have veered politically and economically to the right in recent years by a selective interpretation or even outright subversion of electoral verdicts. This should have ensconced them in the lap of neo-liberal corners of the West. But there you have Premier Li Keqiang, after an unnerving 20 days of sabre-rattling in disputed Ladakh, heading to shake hands with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In Pakistan, when Li meets Nawaz Sharif, his Confucian mind will not be blind to the bad blood generated by the Lal Masjid incident of 2007. The violent conflict was triggered between the army and well-armed mullahs in Islamabad after the military sought to assuage the angered Chinese whose women workers had become targets of the Muslim clergy’s ire for a variety of reasons.

Sharif was seen as siding with the clergy, not the least because the assault on the mosque was led by his bête noire Pervez Musharraf.

The Americans are said to spend much of their time toppling dictators and if necessary even democracies. The Chinese are rarely unwilling to work with both.

Instances are legion of China’s ability to play both sides of the street. You would have thought that Nepal’s Maoists were hugely lionised in Beijing. On the contrary, two Maoist fugitives from Nepal were picked up from Tibet and promptly delivered to the torture chambers of the monarch in Kathmandu. When the Maoists toppled the king and came to power in Nepal, the Chinese wasted no time in cosying up to them.

The Chinese recently offered half a billion dollars, according to reports, to shore up a proposed Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline that has angered the United States. Sharif’s proximity to Saudi Arabia should be a factor if the project is now shelved or put on the back-burner. Will it make a difference to the Chinese? Slightly, perhaps, but inscrutably so.

How different is their approach in dealing with friends and foes, without as much as an inflection of weak emotions compared to their two perpetually quarrelling neighbours in South Asia? Chopping of heads, killing of jail inmates, beating up of diplomats, not to ignore nuclear ultimatums they are known to issue with frightening ease to each other. Even in the middle of brief and hard won bonhomie Indians and Pakistanis are capable of spoiling it.

I watched with horror in February 1999, when a horde of Jamaat-i-Islami supporters of Nawaz Sharif descended on the Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore with gallons of water.

They were there to cleanse the place of his guest’s footprints; scrubbing out any incidental Indian lint Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s footwear might have left behind. (It is a different matter that the JI had absolutely no reverence for the historical importance of the Minar having opposed the creation of Pakistan, which the structure symbolises.)

In July 2001, a bunch of Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stable purified the monument to Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi after Pervez Musharraf laid a wreath there. (It is another matter that the RSS hated Gandhi perhaps slightly more than Musharraf who was groomed to have contempt for the leader of India’s independence.)

The Chinese must have watched both the incidents very closely. Right-wing is the ascendant star in India and Pakistan. But does right and left matter to the Chinese? They connect the ideological spectrum from Venezuela to Iran, from Sudan to Greece.

There is hardly a day when the secular brigade in India doesn’t go into raptures over the denial of US visa to Narendra Modi for what he did with Muslims and Christians in his domain. It might seem a bit like clutching at straws but a notional victory is still a victory for the secular partisans.

In the meanwhile, the Chinese quietly, almost surreptitiously, had smuggled out Modi for an intensive tour of their country. Considering that Modi’s right-wing Hindu party carried out the 1998 nuclear tests and blamed them on the perceived threat from China, it was a shrewd and far-sighted move by the Chinese to befriend the chief minister of Gujarat. He may never come to power in India, but the Chinese are prepared if he does.

Whatever the outcome of the 2014 verdict in India, Beijing is thus poised to strike a chord with either side. The Congress under Sonia Gandhi still swoons to the memory of Deng Xiaoping’s 1988 handshake with her husband.

And if Manmohan Singh wins another mandate in 2014 — he filed his papers for a safe Rajya Sabha seat from Assam on Tuesday — he could well usher an era of a market-based camaraderie involving India, Pakistan and China.

In the meantime, when it was raining bombs and missiles in Kabul where the West and, less frequently, the Indians were getting hit, does anyone remember how the Chinaman was coping in the swirling chaos? He may well have been pondering the next move, still 20 years away. Quietly.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.