India-China Ties: Rethinking the Terms of Engagement
China has mastered the art of bullying as strategy. Pradeep Khosla, an American of Indian origin, who is Chancellor at the University of California, San Diego, did not anticipate the reaction from Beijing, when he naively invited the Dalai Lama to give a talk at the university.
Through a blistering editorial in a Chinese daily, he was personally castigated for being used as a pawn by New Delhi ‘to divide China’. The editorial went a step further and warned that provocative actions would attract retaliation.
The language is by no means temperate or new, nor was it meant to be and reflected the official line.
For several decades, Beijing has cautioned the global community to be unilaterally mindful of its interests. Indeed, it considers this to be a legitimate entitlement, whether with regard to the Dalai Lama or Taiwan or its territorial ambitions. Under Xi Jinping’s ‘forceful diplomacy’, this has been fine-tuned. Today, hard talk, open threats and bullying are central to Beijing’s foreign policy strategy.
There is a background to this. China’s rise as an economic powerhouse whetted her appetite for superpower status. Drawing on the Monroe doctrine and the US experience, she sought regional hegemony, including through force. Recognising the threat of the Asia Pivot on her sphere of influence, for instance, Beijing’s usurped the South China Sea islands to establish military bases as a deterrent to those inimical to her interests.
Beijing gambled and arguably well on three counts: first, that there would be protests but they would not pose any significant challenge; second, the US would not exercise its military might to enter into a dispute; and third, once it effectively seized the islands and set up military bases, it would hold a strategic advantage in the Asia Pacific. All three effectively played out along the lines Beijing gambled.
The unanticipated challenge came from Manila under then President Benigno Aquino, who decided to take the matter to the UN. Beijing saw it as an insult and refused to participate in the hearings and challenged the legitimacy of the ruling. Simultaneously, she broke ASEAN unity and prevented any resolution that called her territorial expansion illegitimate. The opposition to the seizure now lies in shambles with the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, taking a softer line. Only Japan stands in the way.
US President Donald Trump emerged as the new and significant threat. His cosiness with Taiwan and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tough talk on South China Sea were a cause for anxiety and suggested that a fundamental shift in US foreign policy might be in the offing. Beijing opted for a forceful response, including the threat of war. A week later, both Trump and Tillerson did an about-turn and Beijing achieved a great victory.
Any strategist would advise against making empty threats. Trump played without knowing his cards and Beijing called his bluff.
This has worrying implications. At one level, the global community was confused as to what President Trump might do vis-à-vis China, as a hostile response from Beijing would plunge the world into chaos. At another level, the about-turn meant that bullying and open threats had won the day.
But there was yet another and more damaging development: The world which had, till now, known only one bully – Washington – now had a second contender, who surprisingly and unanimously won the first round. The victory will encourage Xi Jinping to perceive belligerence, expansionism and the pursuit of force as legitimate strategy.
For India, this requires rethinking her China engagement. For several decades, made more acute under Xi Jinping’s leadership, Beijing has resorted to action inimical to India’s interests and clearly aimed at belittling India. New Delhi, on the other hand, has repeatedly shown remarkable sensitivity towards China’s concerns, including championing a bigger role for Beijing in global affairs or endorsing a one-China policy.
The true test for Indian diplomacy would be to ascertain how far it is willing to go to recast its terms of engagement with Beijing and to persuade China to recognize that sustainable respect is not one-sided. Anything short of that would serve neither country’s interests.