The scar on Qi Fabao’s forehead was barely discernible in the bright Beijing sun when he started his run in the torch relay kicking off the Winter Olympics last week. But China’s choice of Colonel Qi, a People’s Liberation Army officer who was wounded commanding a regiment in a deadly border clash with India two years ago, ripped a gash in the atmosphere of peace and friendship surrounding the Games.
Within a day, the Indian government announced that its diplomats would boycott the opening and closing ceremonies and blasted Beijing for implicating politics in the Games that it has frequently urged others not to politicize.
The incident has reignited debate over why China frequently makes decisions with application to its international relations that its neighbors, partners and adversaries can only see as provocative or aggressive.
For years, China has stepped up military and paramilitary pressure in disputes with neighbors including Japan, Taiwan, rival claimants in the South China Sea and India. It has simulated attacks on US naval ships and unleashed punitive economic measures against countries from Canada to Australia, all while its diplomats have scolded, cursed and ridiculed those seen as disrespectful of Beijing.
“Many of their decisions and statements seem inherently counterproductive as they would fan distrust of China and opposition to it,” said Helena Legarda, an analyst focusing on Chinese foreign and security policy at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
The elevation of a certain figure to be seen as an affront at an event meant to showcase the nation’s greatest pride highlights the breadth of the divide that has opened between China’s values and those of many other nations since Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 – an occasion many remember as a joyful celebration. Analysts believe that in China’s own perception, having a model soldier among the 1,200 torchbearers was justified and necessary, and Col Qi was the obvious candidate.
“Beijing is becoming stronger and does not need or want foreign countries to dictate how it operates or what it values,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington think tank. “It is likely that Chinese Olympic planners knew that including Qi would upset India, but Beijing views that it is more than justified to honor [those] who they view as war heroes for their sacrifices and use the Olympics to message to the Chinese domestic audience of the types of leaders and citizens Beijing values. ”
“Given the PLA’s limited combat experience, if Beijing wanted to choose a soldier who has actively and repeatedly defended Chinese territory, made significant sacrifices to do so and sustained serious injuries, it’s likely that this soldier would have to come from Chinese units operating on the China-India border, ”she added.
This is not a widely shared view. Many Chinese foreign policy scholars and diplomats focus on understanding other countries, according to Chin-hao Huang, an assistant professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. “These folks see Chinese power through the lens of how other countries would perceive it but they are definitely not in the driver’s seat now,” he said. “There are more assertive voices, such as the PLA’s, which want to interpret national power through exercising military power.”
President Xi Jinping’s nationalist rhetoric, which experts believe is behind that faction’s rise, has fled to worry even some well-known hawks. Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing and one of the doyens of the discipline in China, observed in a speech last month that students were overconfident about their country’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals and had a condescending view of other nations. They often thought China was the only virtuous nation, he added.
Foreign observers blame Xi’s security tightening. Under the concept of “overall national security”, the Chinese Communist party has expanded the reach of its security focus from traditional areas such as military and political spheres to a total of 15 categories including “deep-sea security” and “space security” .
“The securitization of everything reflects a party paranoid over risks and threats everywhere, but at the same time confident in its own right and ability to suppress these risks,” Legarda said. “Lower-level officials will try to respond to these expectations, and it creates the willingness to bear costs – such as China’s international reputation.”