China’s global vision may not augur well for India

Barely three weeks after top officials, including the national security adviser, berated the media for Sinophobia and war hysteria, New Delhi has been stung by what it regards as an astonishing lack of reciprocity from Beijing. It is one thing for China to routinely issue proforma denunciations of the “splittist Dalai clique” and object to every journey undertaken by the exiled Tibetan leader. Yet, even by the exalted standards of Chinese insensitivity, the protest against the visit of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Arunachal Pradesh for an election rally took the proverbial biscuit.

Those who make a living by deciphering the legendary inscrutability of India’s eastern neighbour may well suggest that the statement by China’s foreign ministry spokesman last Tuesday need not be taken literally. It can hardly be the case that Beijing seriously believed that the understated Manmohan travelled to Itanagar to “stir up trouble at the disputed area”. Yet, even a ‘nuanced’ view of the statement cannot distract from its symbolic significance. By targeting the Indian prime minister, China appears to have decided that only a frontal assault on Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh will serve as a deterrent to New Delhi’s going ahead with its ambitious infrastructural improvements in the state.

The sudden resurrection of the unresolved border problem over the past year — more or less since the Indo-US nuclear agreement passed all the cumbersome international and domestic tests — has upset some of the calculations of Indian strategists. Those who believed that Sino-Indian relations must be premised on economic convergence and healthy competition have been frazzled by some of Beijing’s wilfully provocative measures. Apart from the People’s Liberation Army’s ‘forward policy’ in Ladakh and Aksai Chin, China started issuing stapled visas for Indians resident in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The clear message to New Delhi was that Beijing didn’t recognize these two states as integral parts of the Indian Union.

At the same time, there exists a great deal of muddleheadedness in India over how best to deal with China. The issue acquires considerable relevance in view of the recognition that in another 25 years or so China may well overtake the United States of America as the world’s largest economy in terms of gross domestic product. No doubt India, too, would have progressed considerably by then — PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that India will be the fourth largest economy by 2025, after the US, China and Japan — but the distance between China and India would remain as yawning.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about the rise of China at the cost of the West. Economic forecasts don’t factor in unforeseen developments such as political disasters and spectacular scientific advances that have the potential to upset calculations. The West, and particularly the US, may yet witness an unexpected surge and India has often demonstrated an uncanny knack of being its own worst enemy. Yet New Delhi’s long-term assessment of China must be based on the assumption that the balance of world power is likely to tilt eastwards, in favour of China.

For the moment, even as the world marvels at the Chinese miracle, Beijing has been careful to convey the impression that it will be a benign force that will follow the rules of multilateralism and not upset the existing rules of international relations. So far Chinese diplomacy has yielded spectacular results. The political eclipse of the neo-conservatives in the US has been accompanied by a discernible softening of attitudes to China by the Barack Obama administration. There is a greater inclination to celebrate the rise of China rather than resist it. The cancellation of the Dalai Lama’s meeting with President Obama may be as trivial as the decision to decorate the Empire State Building with China’s national colours to mark the 60th anniversary of the communist takeover but appear to be symbolic of a new accommodation.

Some questions arise from the retreat (I still hesitate to call it decline) of the West. Will China’s global role remain as benign after it has succeeded in overtaking the US’s GDP? The rules of international relations were determined by the West after 1945 and reflect the cultural bias of Europe and North America. Will China persist with the status quo once its economic hegemony is established? How will a new global architecture impact India?

The issue is important because China’s global vision incorporates a political hegemonism that is fraught with ominous consequences for India. With the Han Chinese constituting some 90 per cent of China’s population, Beijing’s view of race and ethnicity is, predictably, linked to China’s inviolable unity. However, as Martin Jacques has noted in his insightful book, When China Rules the World, “The notion of China and Chinese civilisation is bolstered by a widespread belief that the difference between the Chinese and other peoples is not simply cultural or historical but also biological.” There was a racial underpinning to 19th and early-20th century European imperialism and China’s rise may be accompanied by similar assumptions.

Such a mindset has a bearing on China’s quest for the recovery of its “lost territories”, not merely across the Taiwan Straits and Outer Mongolia but also along the McMahon Line.

Stemming from this sense of superiority is China’s inclination to perceive relations with its neighbours, in east Asia at least, in terms of the tributary system that prevailed before the entry of the Europeans after the Opium Wars. The system was based on an institutionalized inequality in relations between the Middle Kingdom and the tributaries, and a corresponding consensus over the superiority of Chinese civilization. With China dominating the economies of east Asian countries, scholars like Jacques are inclined to believe that “China’s economic strength, together with its enormous population, could return the region to a not dissimilar state of affairs to that which existed in the past”. There is a possibility that the scope of the new tributary system could extend into central Asia and Australia. This is not to say that China’s hegemonism will be uncontested.

India never fell into the orbit of a Greater China. Traditionally, the Himalayas were a barrier to the spread of Hindu civilization eastwards and Chinese civilization westwards. India and China have, consequently, evolved over the centuries with only nominal contact and little understanding of each other. Tibet was the only point of perfunctory contact. This mutual incomprehension and memories of the 1962 border war may be factors in the recent climate of distrust. But China’s attitudes towards neighbours also follow a template in which the tributary system is firmly etched. China cannot countenance India as part of the West but it has yet to evolve an alternative to viewing a neighbour as anything different from either a subordinate or a potential vassal.

– Swapan Dasgupta