Its a different world: China may have chosen the Wrong Time to pick a Fight
A major reason for the seemingly interminable fraught relations between India and its two unfriendly neighbours – Pakistan and China – is that both these countries are scared of India’s soft power.
Pakistan is concerned that an improvement of ties through measures like erasing the Line of Control – the de facto cease fire line – that divides Kashmir, as was suggested by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and apparently had then Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf’s concurrence, will pave the way for India’s overwhelming and essentially Hindu cultural ethos – propagated in the main by Bollywood films and music – to undermine Pakistan’s Islamic tenets. Pakistan has to keep up its guard, therefore, by treating India constantly as an enemy.
China, too, sees India as an enemy, but for different aspects of the latter’s soft power. These are democracy and a multicultural polity, the two features of modern life which are alien to Chinese communism. Hence, its pinpricks along India’s northern border, evident by its present incursions in the Doklam/Donglang plateau in the India-Bhutan-China trijunction.
It will be naïve to believe that intrusions of this nature will stop if New Delhi and Beijing can reach a broad agreement on demarcating their 3,488 km long border because Chinese conduct is not always amenable to reason, as is evident from its refusal to accept international arbitration relating to the South China Sea. In this respect, China’s behaviour resembles a street fighter’s rather than an ancient civilization.
India has demonstrated such civilizational calm by refusing to be provoked by continual threatening outbursts of the state-controlled Chinese media. The restraint is notable because, to many Indians, China is the No. 1 enemy because of its military prowess – and not Pakistan because it is too small and unstable.
Military strength is not the only reason China is India’s foremost adversary. To the surprise of many Indians, including former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, China bared its fangs in the 1962 border conflict, burying the then widely held belief in India that the two giant neighbours, with their ancient culture and civilization will live in amity after having emerged from centuries of colonial dominance.
One of the reasons for the frosty relations was a misconception on the Indian side about the intentions of the inscrutable Chinese. Nehru acknowledged this mistake after 1962 when he said, “We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and we were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation. He said it would be “wrong to assume that the Chinese undertook this aggression only because they wanted some patches of territory … The real cause was something else. That something was the basic eternal conflict between China and India”.
According to Nehru, it was that “China did not want any country near her which was not prepared to accept her leadership; so, India had to be humiliated. Though India would not interfere with what was happening within China, yet she came in China’s way by the mere fact of her separate political structure and pursuing a separate policy which was succeeding”.
There is more to the “eternal conflict” than the dissonance between democracy and autocracy.
As Indian historian R.C. Mazumdar noted, “aggressive imperialism characterized the politics of China through the course of history … if a region once acknowledged her nominal suzerainty even for a short period, she would regard it as a part of her empire forever and would automatically revive her claim over it even after a thousand years”.
It is not the communists alone who have such imperial instincts. Mao’s mortal enemy, Chiang Kai-shek too, lists in his book, China’s Destiny, countries like Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Burma and Vietnam as China’s lost territories. The arrival of Chinese troops in Doklam has to be seen, therefore, like the 1962 war, as a part of an outlook which wants to make up for the time which China lost because of its subservience to the West.
However, the mistake which China is making in trying to fulfil its destiny is that it doesn’t seem to have made up its mind as to how to go about it. As India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has said, China’s “dramatic rise … is still being evaluated, perhaps by China itself”. While territorial aggression is one part of this “rise”, another relates to the economy, whose most significant manifestation is the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI).
Even as China bulldozes its way through disputed territories, such as the part of Kashmir which India says is “occupied” by Pakistan, to build the BRI infrastructure, Beijing still wants New Delhi to be a part of the multilateral trade and commerce endeavour led by it. What is more, as China tries to grab areas in Doklam which Bhutan sees as its own, the heated rhetoric of its media gives the impression that it is not averse to a war although a conflict cannot but adversely affect the BRI, since a prerequisite of economic development is a stable, peaceful environment. Evidently, there is a mismatch between China’s military and economic ambitions.
China also does not seem to have factored in the impact of its aggressive postures – it has disputes with several countries in its neighbourhood including Japan and Vietnam – on those unwilling to accord it the Middle Kingdom status of overlordship. Their obvious option is to band together as India is showing signs of doing with the US, Japan and Vietnam. The naval exercise of Malabar involving the US, Japan and India is one example of such collaboration whose obvious target is China, even if the three countries have disavowed any such intention.
As India’s proximity to the US and also to Israel shows – as evidenced by recent visits made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to both these countries – New Delhi has become far more hard-headed in its assessment of the international scene and no longer lives in “an artificial atmosphere of our own creation”. Unlike the previous governments which were wary of taking on China, the Modi dispensation is less circumspect. Some of its cold pragmatism comes from its right-wing philosophy which makes it more bellicose, especially towards communist China, than “socialists” in the Congress.
Modi’s outreach to Israel also showed that he is less interested in maintaining a balance between Jewish Israel and the Muslim Palestinians than the Congress, since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not care for the Muslim vote in India. A new mood of uncomplicated practicality now appears to guide the government where there is even talk of the CIA and RAW (Research Analysis Wing), India’s external intelligence agency, working together.
Although China likes to remind India of its superior military strength, India has let it be known that 2017 is not 1962. There is little doubt that if push comes to shove, India will not desist from an open confrontation with China. As a commentator said on TV, India may lose some territory, but it is still capable of giving China a black eye. For Indians, any such “achievement” will go a long way to erase the bitter memories of 1962.
India is also fully confident that in the event of a war with China, the sympathies of the world chancellories will be with India, as in 1962, when American aircraft dropped arms and ammunition as well as winter clothing for Indian soldiers on the battlefront. The US had told China of its resolve to come to India’s assistance if the war continued.
In more recent times, Israel came to India’s help during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan. Democratic India, therefore, enjoys advantages which totalitarian China doesn’t.
China may have also chosen the wrong time to pick a fight. Tibet remains restive and it is the same in Xinjiang, China’s northwestern province bordering Pakistan, which has been described as an open-air prison because of the official restrictions on the naming of children and the size of beards. The demonstrations by pro-democracy elements in Hongkong during Xi Jinping’s visit compelled the Chinese president to threaten to draw red lines for such protests. Taiwan, too, has reminded China about the value of democracy in the context of the death in prison of the Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. The world today is a different place from what it was in the heyday of the Middle Kingdom.