From Confucius to Xi Jinping: Tianxia and China’s Quest for Regional Dominance
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Issue Vol. 39.1, Jan-Mar 2024 | Date : 12 May , 2024

In the intricate and multifaceted geopolitical landscape of Asia, the notion of Tianxia has emerged as an indispensable concept, particularly in deciphering China’s strategic ambitions and its intricate interactions with neighbouring nations such as India. Tianxia, deeply rooted in the annals of ancient Chinese philosophy, is more than a mere translation of “All under heaven”; it represents a grand vision of hierarchical order of states wherein China assumes a paramount position, exercising its sway over the surrounding states. This historical concept, albeit ancient, has resurfaced in contemporary times with remarkable vigour, finding expression in China’s resolute efforts to establish dominance over its periphery, notably in its approach towards India.

The concept of Tianxia finds its origins in classical Chinese thought, particularly Confucianism and Legalism. Confucian scholars envisioned a harmonious world order under the moral guidance of a benevolent ruler, typically the Chinese emperor. This notion emphasized hierarchy, with China at the center, radiating its cultural and political influence outward to neighboring states. Legalist thinkers, on the other hand, viewed Tianxia through a realpolitik lens, advocating for centralized state control and expansionist policies to ensure stability and dominance. These philosophical underpinnings laid the groundwork for China’s historical interactions with its neighbours, characterized by tributary relationships and periodic assertions of supremacy. The Confucian concept of Tianxia emphasized moral leadership, promoting virtuous governance as the cornerstone of regional stability. Meanwhile, Legalist thinkers viewed Tianxia as a pragmatic framework for consolidating power and expanding the state’s influence through coercion and military force. These divergent interpretations of Tianxia reflected the complexities of governance and diplomacy in ancient China, shaping the country’s approach to international relations for centuries to come. The combination of Confucian ideals of benevolent leadership and Legalist strategies of statecraft formed the basis of China’s imperial expansion and its interactions with neighboring states, laying the foundation for the contemporary application of Tianxia principles in the country’s foreign policy.

Comprehending the historical underpinnings of Tianxia, meticulously analyzing recent instances of its application, discerning the potential hazards it poses to India’s interests, and delineating pragmatic strategies to effectively counter its influence are crucial imperatives in navigating the labyrinthine complexities of Sino-Indian relations. In the modern context, Tianxia embodies China’s aspiration to shape the geopolitical order in accordance with its historical narrative, projecting power across Asia and beyond. This resurgence of Tianxia reflects China’s desire to reclaim its perceived position of centrality in global affairs, leveraging economic prowess, military strength, and diplomatic influence to assert dominance. As China extends its reach through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and geopolitical maneuvers in the South China Sea, its application of Tianxia principles becomes increasingly evident, posing significant challenges for neighbouring states like India. The strategic implications of Tianxia extend beyond mere territorial disputes, encompassing economic coercion, diplomatic maneuvering, and ideological influence. For India, navigating the complexities of Sino-Indian relations requires a nuanced understanding of Tianxia dynamics and a proactive approach to safeguarding its interests. This entails strengthening alliances, diversifying economic partnerships, modernizing defense capabilities, and actively shaping regional institutions to counterbalance Chinese influence. By embracing a comprehensive strategy that addresses the multifaceted challenges posed by Tianxia, India can assert its own position in the evolving geopolitical landscape and preserve its sovereignty in the face of Chinese assertiveness.

In contemporary geopolitics, China’s application of Tianxia principles can be observed in its strategic maneuvers vis-à-vis India. One prominent example is China’s expansive infrastructure development initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to enhance connectivity across Asia and beyond. While ostensibly promoting regional cooperation and economic development, the BRI also serves China’s broader geopolitical (Realpolitik) objectives by cementing its influence over participating nations, including those in India’s periphery. Chinese investments in South Asian countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar have raised concerns in India about encirclement and strategic encroachment. These investments often come with strings attached, creating a debt trap for vulnerable nations and allowing China to exert greater influence over their domestic policies and strategic decisions. Additionally, China’s infrastructure projects, such as ports and railways, have dual-use capabilities, enabling military access and potentially altering the balance of power in the region. As a result, India is increasingly wary of China’s expanding footprint and its implications for regional security.

The BRI’s Maritime Silk Road component, which aims to develop maritime infrastructure and secure sea lanes, further underscores China’s maritime ambitions and its desire to dominate key maritime chokepoints, including those in the Indian Ocean. This strategic encirclement not only poses immediate security challenges for India but also undermines its long-term strategic autonomy and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. In response, India has sought to enhance its own connectivity initiatives, such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, to counterbalance China’s influence and preserve its strategic interests. However, navigating this geopolitical rivalry requires a delicate balancing act, as India seeks to maintain cordial relations with China while safeguarding its own sovereignty and national security. As China’s influence continues to expand, India must remain vigilant and proactive in protecting its interests, forging partnerships with like-minded nations, and promoting a rules-based order that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states involved.

Moreover, China’s assertiveness in territorial disputes, particularly along the Himalayan border with India, reflects its adherence to Tianxia principles. The 2020 Galwan Valley clash, where Indian and Chinese troops engaged in deadly skirmishes, underscored Beijing’s willingness to assert dominance and redraw territorial boundaries to assert its perceived historical claims. This incident not only resulted in tragic loss of lives but also escalated tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, highlighting the volatility inherent in their bilateral relationship. Furthermore, China’s expansionist activities extend beyond land disputes; its assertive behavior in the South China Sea, where it has constructed artificial islands and militarized features, challenges regional stability and international norms. Concurrently, China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, facilitated by naval bases in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka,also its newfound strategic closeness with Maldives, further exemplifies its ambition to establish itself as the preeminent regional power, adhering steadfastly to the Tianxia worldview. This dual strategy of territorial assertiveness and maritime expansion underscores China’s multifaceted approach to consolidating its influence and reshaping the geopolitical landscape in its favor.

For India, the dangers posed by China’s invocation of Tianxia are multifaceted and increasingly complex. Firstly, it threatens India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as evidenced by repeated border incursions and escalating territorial disputes, which have led to heightened tensions and occasional military confrontations. China’s systematic efforts to leverage its economic clout to coerce smaller neighboring nations into alignment with its strategic objectives also pose a significant challenge to India’s regional influence. By exploiting economic dependencies and offering infrastructure projects under the guise of development assistance, Beijing undermines India’s standing in the region, potentially isolating it diplomatically and economically. Furthermore, the militarization of border regions, including the deployment of advanced weaponry and development of infrastructure by China, significantly escalates security risks for India. The possibility of miscalculations leading to full-scale conflicts looms large, necessitating a comprehensive strategy that not only safeguards India’s territorial integrity but also preserves regional stability through proactive engagement and strategic partnerships.

In tackling the multifarious challenges posed by China’s ambitious Tianxia aspirations, India must meticulously craft a multifaceted and comprehensive strategy that encompasses diplomatic, economic, and military dimensions. Diplomatically, India should vigorously deepen its engagement with like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific region, forging robust alliances with stalwarts such as the United States, Japan, and Australia. Through concerted efforts within regional frameworks such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), India can cultivate a united front aimed at countering China’s hegemonic ambitions and upholding the principles of a rules-based international order. By fostering closer cooperation and solidarity among regional actors, India can effectively bolster collective resilience against Chinese assertiveness, thereby safeguarding its own strategic interests and promoting stability in the broader Indo-Pacific arena.

Economically, India should diversify its trade and investment partnerships to reduce dependence on China and mitigate the risks of economic coercion. Enhancing connectivity infrastructure within the region is imperative. Initiatives such as the International North-South Transport Corridor hold significant promise in bolstering India’s economic integration with Central Asia and Europe, thereby reducing its reliance on Chinese-dominated routes. By investing in and expanding such transport corridors, India can not only diversify its trade routes but also strengthen its economic ties with regions beyond China’s immediate sphere of influence. This proactive approach will enhance India’s resilience against economic pressures and ensure greater autonomy in its economic decision-making processes. Moreover, fostering closer economic cooperation with neighboring countries through initiatives like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can further diminish China’s leverage in the region while promoting inclusive growth and development among member states. Through strategic economic diversification and infrastructure development, India can chart a course towards greater economic self-reliance and resilience in the face of geopolitical challenges posed by China’s assertive policies.

Militarily, India faces the imperative to modernize its armed forces and invest significantly in border infrastructure to fortify its deterrence capabilities and bolster deterrence. Moreover, strategic investments in surveillance technology, including drones and satellite imagery, are crucial for monitoring border areas effectively and detecting any hostile incursions promptly. Concurrently, closer coordination with regional partners such as the United States, Japan, Taiwan and Australia can facilitate intelligence sharing, joint military exercises, and the development of interoperable defense capabilities, thereby strengthening the collective security posture against potential Chinese aggression. Additionally, leveraging India’s burgeoning defense industry to foster indigenous production of advanced weaponry and military hardware will not only reduce dependency on imports but also enhance self-reliance and strategic autonomy in defense procurement. This multifaceted approach to military modernization and cooperation is essential for India to effectively deter threats and safeguard its territorial integrity in the face of evolving geopolitical challenges.

By closely monitoring China’s evolving strategies and tactics including the designs of Chinese intelligence agency which is seeking to influence the dynamics of the border regions of the country, especially the north-east for eg. Indo-Myanmar Border region with special operational emphasis on the Eastern region of Nagaland and “Naga Self-Administered Zone” in the Naga Hills area of Sagaing region of Myanmar, India can anticipate and proactively address potential challenges to its security and interests. Additionally, fostering cooperation among regional actors, including Southeast Asian nations and major powers like the United States and Japan, can help build a collective response to China’s assertive behavior and promote a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, investing in soft power initiatives such as cultural exchanges and educational programs can enhance India’s influence and counter China’s narrative dominance in the region. Overall, a nuanced understanding of Tianxia coupled with proactive diplomacy and strategic foresight is essential for India to effectively navigate the challenges posed by China’s rise and safeguard its strategic interests in an increasingly contested geopolitical environment.

As Lt Gen PR Shankar astutely observes, the days of India and China coexisting in mutual isolation are relics of the past. The looming turbulence in their relationship signals a dark and protracted period of uncertainty ahead. India must brace itself for the great storm, recognizing that the serious challenges posed by China’s assertiveness and expansionism require a resolute and unwavering response. The era of complacency has ended, and India must girdle up for the tumultuous journey ahead, navigating the treacherous waters of geopolitics with vigilance, determination and full strength.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr. Aniruddha Babar

is a Senior Faculty, Researcher & National Security Analyst, Dept. of Political Science, Tetso College, Nagaland and The Director of "Project Constitutional Justice," is a well- known figure whose influence spans across various domains, including public service, social advocacy, law, politics, research and academia. Dr. Aniruddha's expertise in Geopolitics, National Security, Civil-Military Relationship, Public Policy, Constitutional & Procedural Law and Governance has earned him significant respect and recognition within his field.

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