IN today’s globalised world, one is no longer just strategising against enemies but indulging in ‘competitive strategic engagement’. Thus with China, after a 15 year standoff following the 1962 war, India resumed diplomacy and dialogue supposedly in a framework of cooperation and competition. Quite often however, her policies have suggested only accommodation.
It must be stated in parentheses that China became India’s neighbour for the first time in recorded history after her occupation of sovereign Tibet in 1949. Tibet till then had a chequered history of independence, expansion, conversion to Buddhism, and from the 13th century onwards an on and off subservience to or dependence on Mongol patronage (even when they ruled China) with reciprocal spiritual guidance (the Choe-Yon or priest-patron relationship which the British mistranslated as ‘suzerainty’.) Nevertheless she remained for the most part politically and administratively independent. China and India, separated by the large Tibetan landmass remained magnificently unaware of each other, and had neither outstanding conflicts nor alliances. To be sure Indian Buddhism reached China and flourished with acquired Chinese characteristics, but since Indic religions are not centrally organised, there was no enduring incentive for the two countries to take much interest in each other. To speak of millennia of friendship between the two countries is therefore to speak of a chimera: we had millennia of mutual ignorance – hence the fond remembrances of bliss.
Today’s India is the result of a modernisation originating in the west: i.e., of modern politics (the nation-state plus ideology) and modern economics (industrialisation). China’s forcible integration of Tibet, Outer Mongolia and Sinkiang into her territories marked the beginning of her attempted mutation into a modern territorially cohesive nation-state, of which she now claims, according to one Beijing professor’s classic circular reasoning: ‘Minorities in China are Chinese citizens and they are Chinese’, followed by the bizarre comparison: ‘This to say, China is not governing non-Chinese, unlike the US is governing Afghanistan or Iraq.’!
China understandably has ambitions to be the leading power in Asia: no country in the region can match her economic and military clout, not to mention her territorial spread, although it is said that India despite her weak governance is a possible economic, military and ideological rival. From China’s point of view, India is an aggressor illegally occupying or dominating territories in the cis-Himalaya which are rightfully Tibetan, ergo rightfully Chinese. Since this claim arose only after her occupation of Tibet, China is anxious, despite India’s abject disclaimer on Tibetan sovereignty, to wrest from her at every top-level meeting (including from President Pratibha Patil on her recent visit to China) a reiteration of India’s recognition of Tibet as part of China, of her having been so throughout history (the latter stipulation is not acceptable to India). India having thrown away her own hand by her recognition of China’s suzerainty and now sovereignty over Tibet has no legal claims in the northeast – the MacMahon Line was signed between the Raj and sovereign Tibet, but the successor Chinese government has repudiated the ‘imperial Line’.
So India depends on the Indo-Chinese agreement of 2005 by which the countries agreed to re-negotiate their border with regard to history, geographic rationality, strategic and security interests, and safeguard the due interests of their “settled populations”. Essentially India argues for the existing LAC to become the international border but China has staked a claim to Tawang: to back their positions both sides employ different clauses of the same agreement which are fairly imprecise. As matters stand India is vulnerable in all areas connected by Tibetan Buddhism to Lhasa: long ago China had declared Tibet the palm of her hand with five fingers reaching over the Himalayas into Arunachal, Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, a Hindu country with a significant Buddhist minority and she may dampen but never withdraw a claim. Thus she has never officially recognised Sikkim as part of India.
India is sometimes projected as catching up with if not outstripping China because of her inclusive democratic system and domestic market. Whatever the value of these projections, Beijing not surprisingly has initiated an insurance policy against any threats to her primacy by keeping India hemmed in within South Asia. Hence her ‘all-weather’ strategic relationship with Pakistan; her cultivation of neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh; her ‘string of pearls’ or dual use naval bases across the Indian Ocean (to protect her strategic oil shipping lanes and contain India); her attempts to curtail India’s nuclear programmes and strengthen Pakistan’s (as by her recent decision to sell her more reactors despite her international obligations and despite Pakistan’s flagrant nuclear irresponsibility) if not initiate Myanmar’s nuclearisation et al. This is accompanied by a diplomacy of smiles, academic and cultural delegations, student exchanges, trade agreements (which flood Indian markets with cheap Chinese goods), but does not prevent the frequent snub or provocation, the latest being the issuance of stapled visas to Indian Kashmiri citizens wishing to travel to China. Arunachelese are not issued visas at all.
China also has extra-regional ambitions – to America’s chagrin she would set new terms for an emerging world order. With Tibet, Sinkiang and the Uighurs apparently firmly under her heel and Taiwan virtually so and with Japan and the Koreas neutralised, she has boldly asserted claims to the Spratleys, Senkaku Islands and the Paracels in the South and East China sea to which the US and neighboring countries are beginning to raise objections. Her economic diplomacy increases her clout in other Asian countries, in Australia Africa, South America and the Middle East and she is now knocking at the gates of Europe through devastated Greece where she has recently sewn up a deal for developing the Athenian port of Piraeus, into ‘another Rotterdam’ to flood Europe with her products. No wonder she feels strong enough to challenge the post-war system.
China’s ‘takeover’ of Piraeus (which forms the backdrop to Socrates’ dialogue on Justice in the Republic) is symbolic of her desire to replace western democracy and human rights with her own political standards. Her think-tanks float the idea of democracy with Chinese characteristics (i.e., a paternalistic Confucian state, sans elections and sans civil society) or the false dichotomy between autocracy and democracy; they play with Confucian ideas de-emphasising individual freedoms in favour of social harmony compatible with hierarchies and elitism, all very attractive to struggling regimes in the developing world uncomfortable with the exacting norms of organisations like Human Rights Watch. China’s military-industrial cum food compulsions entail investments and resources from overland and overseas, even demographic exports to other countries. In a worst case scenario this might be building up to a Pax Sinica, a hierarchical world order with oppressions and injustices ‘necessary’ for maintaining Confucian harmony.
Thus the challenges from China are multiple-from a constant nibbling at Indian territory to threats to India’s economy, military clout and to her regional and international standing. By decrying liberal democracy China challenges India’s pluralist and egalitarian goals which have served her fairly well so far in giving most of her heterogeneous citizens a stake in the country’s system, while cushioning conflict and competition. Regrettably some ‘tunnel-visioned’ political, business or professional elites, disappointed by India’s slipshod governance not only applaud China’s achievements (as many had admired the Raj), but envy her communistic-capitalistic modus operandi- i.e., private enterprise with statutory Party control of big business companies and curbs on freedom of expression and association.
If we have anything to learn from China it is how to conduct a foreign policy fundamentally geared to national interest, tactically flexible, never weak, yet avoiding outright conflict. China’s bark is very fierce, but rarely has she actually bitten – so far.
To avoid being squeezed into a corner India needs to continue improving relations with neighbours: civilisational connections are powerful drivers but have not been leveraged in the case of Nepal and Sri Lanka, and further afield with Cambodia and Indonesia though there is more diplomatic activism with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Vietnam. There is no reason why India cannot host regular conclaves with Australia, Japan, Israel the US and other Asian democratic powers. She could also articulate her own preferred future-a multipolar order of nations in tune with the overall objectives of the UN.
(The writer is an expert on international diplomacy.)