Nalanda and Sunanda K Datta-Ray: China: A suitable suitor?

In the West they say China is taking over the world. But, no, it’s only bankrupt Europe that faces the prospect of being taken over while monks and nuns come to a fiery end in Tibet, the Dalai Lama continues to mark time, and the Karmapa Lama’s millions of followers wait for India to adopt a rational policy towards a young incarnate monk who could be the face of Buddhism’s future.

The West is understandably impervious to these nuances because of its own priorities. Europe needs money and China, the world’s biggest creditor with foreign exchange reserves of around $3.2 trillion, has it. “If the Chinese, who have 60 per cent of the world’s reserves, decide to invest in the euro instead of the dollar, why refuse?” asks Nicolas Sarkozy archly, hoping to distract attention from Europe’s persistently extended begging bowl.

Klaus Regling, chief executive of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), which was set up last year and has already provide financial aid to Portugal, Ireland and Greece, expects the Chinese to chip in so that the bailout fund that was agreed on at a recent summit in Brussels can be increased from ¤440 billion to ¤1 trillion. He told the media in Beijing that Asian investors had already snapped up 40 per cent of the bonds that the EFSF issued, but didn’t disclose China’s share of the purchase.

As coy as Sarkozy, he hopes to tempt the Chinese to invest $100 billion in the fund, saying “We all know China has a particular need to invest surpluses,” and that China is “interested in finding attractive, solid and safe investment opportunities.” The inscrutable Chinese haven’t said so. That doesn’t daunt Regling’s salesmanship. “I think the EFSF can offer a good product that is commercially interesting,” he says, adding that the bonds are guaranteed by the 17 euro zone member states. If those 17 governments are so creditworthy, the Chinese might wonder, why come cap in hand to them?

But China’s Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao didn’t dash Regling’s hopes though he didn’t exactly bubble over with enthusiasm. Zhu welcomed the Brussels consensus in tones that were both patronising and lecturing. “Europe needs to listen to opinions in designing the instrument, and it will take some time for a technical framework to form.” China is playing hard to get.

According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Beijing is willing to make joint efforts with the international community to stabilise the global financial market and expand cooperation with Europe in the investment, trade, finance and technology sectors. According to another report, China would prefer to buy European factories and railways instead of wobbly government bonds. The commerce minister has promised to send a delegation to Europe next year. “Traditionally, Chinese involvement in overseas infrastructure projects has been as a contractor only. Now, Chinese investors also see a need to invest in, develop and operate projects.” That could be the beginning of the takeover Europe hopes for.

But China is also anxious to project a humane image in keeping with its superpower-in-waiting image. Hence the agreement with UNIDO, the UN’s industrial-development organisation, to invest $3 billion in Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace. Hence also the reported pledge of $1 billion for the Nalanda project that Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun made to Amartya Sen, leader of a delegation of the Nalanda University Mentor Group, in October. According to Chinese reports, the “two sides exchanged opinions on the rebuilding of Nalanda University and China-India cultural and educational exchanges and cooperation… Nalanda University was known in ancient times as Nalanda Temple where Monk Xuanzang of Tang dynasty fetched Buddhist scriptures.”

But such gestures don’t stand alone. They must be assessed in the context of the whole. Australia’s Gareth Evans, international crusader for human rights who threatened to cancel a trip to China unless he was allowed to visit Tibet, once told an interviewer, “What they (the Chinese) need to appreciate is that the Dalai Lama is the best thing they are ever likely to have going for them, in terms of someone that is not arguing for independence, is only arguing for cultural autonomy, is capable of carrying the Tibetan people with him both inside and outside the country.” Today, Evans, who will address the first-ever Australia-India Institute conference in Kolkata on Monday, could add that with the Dalai Lama getting on in years, and with little prospect of a credible and uncontested reincarnation, Ogyen Trinley Dorjee, the 17th Karmapa Lama, is the world’s best bet.
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