I. What explains China’s hypnotic spell?
There is an unceasing flood of academic and journalist writings, as also seminars and workshops, on China with no end in sight. The irresistible attraction the country holds for governments, think tanks and institutions of learning all over the globe is something without precedent. Every bit of every thing that emanates from there is dissected, scrutinised, analysed, discussed and written upon in the form of books, articles, papers, op-ed pieces, columns and commentaries. What explains this extraordinary phenomenon?
It cannot surely be China’s GDP ranking or the prospect of its heading soon for the top position overtaking the US and Japan in purchasing power parity terms. Nor can it be its huge foreign exchange holdings nor the fact of the US being under its debt to the extent of a trillion dollars. These provoke interest but do not account for the veritable hypnotic spell cast by China.
One can only grope for an answer. If one wants to be facetious, one can repeat the answer of George Mallory who, when asked why he was so particular about climbing Everest, promptly retorted: “Because it’s there!” China is not only there, looming large like Everest, but, in many respects, fits the famous picturisation of Russia by Winston Churchill at one time as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
There are familiar rule books by which most countries of the world have for centuries worked out their domestic policies and economic frameworks, and played their geopolitical and diplomatic games with the outside world. But they are of no use in unravelling what China’s decision or action will be in a given situation.
For, China’s rule book is unique and its very own. It spans millennia of its own brand of evolution which combines within itself precepts and practices rooted in a self-centred, self-absorbed, somewhat paranoidal and irredentist, feudal society. At the same time it draws on a magnificent and incomparable cultural heritage encompassing every aspect of human efflorescence: Literature, fine arts, science, kingship, statecraft and military strategy.
No other civilisation comes anywhere near the Chinese blend of vitality, resilience and self-confidence marked by a tinge of arrogance of being the centre of the world. It is this pronounced Chinese characteristic that influences its conduct in both domestic affairs and external relations. Thus, only a country like India, whose own past is distinguished by its ability to manage contradictions and complexities, can hope to understand the motivational and attitudinal reflexes of China.
The tacit tension between India and China may well be the result of both knowing too much of each other in this respect, since India, too, can claim to be the same treasure house of tenets and traditions over as long a period as China had.
The fascination for China in recent times stems from its spectacular record of reconciling the irreconcilables. A country subject to the trauma of pestilence, invasion and war over the last few centuries, and put through a misguided phase of terror and tumult in order to maintain the communist ideological purity, is now making the world sit up with awe and admiration by its economic miracles and engineering feats.
Not content with accomplishing the marvels of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s highest railway line to Lhasa, the Beijing-Shanghai high speed rail link, the West-to-East power transmission project, the South-to-North water transfer project, the five vertical and seven horizontal national motorway project, China is shipping 6500 miles from Shanghai to the US the whole of a 2,050 feet long bridge to be fixed logo-like across the San Francisco bay.
Five of the world’s top 10 contractors, in terms of revenue, are now Chinese, with the China State Construction Engineering Group overtaking established American giants like Bechtel.
The enigma of China has also a lot to do with the inability of analysts to figure out the working of its model of development based on what it calls “free market socialism” which, in actual practice, has made strange, though productive, bed fellows of foreign capitalists and investors on the one hand and the high-end policy wonks of a monolithic, authoritarian regime, on the other.
II. India as an equipoise to China
China’s colourful canvas is studded with dramatic achievements, no doubt, but from this it would be wrong to conclude that it has acquired an unchallengeable, eternal dominance over other countries and their economies, or that it holds all the aces in the political, strategic, military or diplomatic domains. Labouring under this facile assumption will vitiate the policies and attitudes of especially those countries which are in its immediate neighbourhood. It is, therefore, necessary to put this matter in the correct perspective.
At one time, the US was at the pinnacle of power and prosperity, and it seemed like it would last for ever. But already there is a plethora of writings detailing evidence of the decadence and decay towards which that country is heading. As a paper published in September puts it bluntly, “The American economy is in the doldrums, the American political system is dysfunctional and paralysed, and a series of elective, far away foreign wars is ruining the country.”
There is, indeed, a cyclical phenomenon, as propounded by Arnold Toynbee, of rise and fall of nations and empires. One of the first signs of downslide in the turning of the wheel of fortune has been clearly identified as widespread corruption permeating institutions and sectors. The result of that corruption, as highlighted by the same paper, is the emergence of “a sub-standard class of politicians to administer (the country’s) affairs who are not the servants of the common good, but who rather serve happily the narrow money interests that finance them. The U.S. corporate elite, for the most part, has abandoned all loyalty to its country…” and become sinister symbols of senseless greed.
China is not yet in a similar situation. Its growth momentum and rising trajectory are yet to peak, and, maybe, they will last well past the middle of the century, before the slowdown sets in. Of course, almost every observer of the Chinese scene talks of the conspicuous prevalence of corruption among government officials, ideologues and apparatchik, and a noticeable degree of consumerism and love of luxury. But it will be some time before their effect takes its toll on governance and polity.
Hence, China will necessarily continue to figure in the power calculus of international political, economic and military order in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, countries such as India and Russia are also making impressive advances on the strength of their core competencies and competitive advantages. China will, sooner or later, have to confront the prospect of their catching up with it. They will then begin exerting their countervailing pull by not only displaying their increased assertiveness as its equal but even taking it on if it oversteps the red line to acquire any hegemonic status and deny their legitimate space to other players in the world order in general and the Asian region, in particular.
India has very strong credentials to be such an equipoise to China. It should, therefore, prepare itself from now on to play a catalytic role aimed at strengthening relations and furthering mutuality of interests in a spirit of understanding and accommodation.
This it should do, not by resorting to any overt attempts to undercut, contain or checkmate China, either by itself or on behalf of any other power by allowing itself to be manipulated to that end. Nor should India assume the mantle of a rival meddling with, if not setting at naught, China’s forward policy in respect of projects, investments or aid. It should reinvent itself as a credible force, capable of doing its own thing with supreme self-confidence.
Such a policy may even encourage China to adopt a constructive approach to issues and claims that have become embroiled in clashes of national egos. From then on, both countries may even proceed to forge a common plank for the launching of a United States of Asia, thereby calling a New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.
III. Indian and Chinese sagas can run in parallel
Just as there are Generals who are fighting the last war, there are those in charge of running countries who are still preparing for a world that is on its way to extinction. That explains their inability, as far as international relations are concerned, to shed outdated shibboleths such as ‘balance of power’, ‘containment’, ‘encirclement’, ‘spheres of influence’, ‘deterrence’, ‘preemptive strike’, ‘realpolitik’ and the like. Convergence of interests is no longer the only criterion for peace and harmony among nations.
Undreamt of vistas have been opened up by the revolutions in knowledge, communications, and science and technology, that are taking place simultaneously. Time and distance have been abolished and notions of sovereignty and nationality are going to take a beating, leading to a world without walls (which is what www stands for!). Nothing is going to be ‘either-or’, black or white, or zero-sum.
In this scenario, there is going to be room for every country to realise its maximum potential, without having to practise one-upmanship. The Indian and Chinese sagas too can run in parallel towards fulfillment of their goals and aspirations without getting into the hair of each other.
This is despite India’s present concerns as regards China. The first step in the process of cooling down temperature is for both countries to enter into a specific and categorically worded pact ruling out war for all time to come on any count whatsoever. This will immediately bring down the temperature in their relations.
As for the issues which have been much talked and written about, the ones that have the greatest relevance for India are the border dispute with China, the asylum given to the Dalai Lama, China’s suspicions of India’s clandestine support to Tibetan dissidents, the Chinese claim of jurisdiction over the South China Sea, and China’s close and growing ties with Pakistan.
It is my belief that China would be disposed to conclude a settlement acceptable to India on the border if somehow India gets the irritant of the presence of the Dalai Lama and the so-called Tibetan Government-in-exile on the Indian soil out of the way. This is not asking for too much considering that India, having subscribed to Tibet being an integral part of China, has no right to keep that country on tenterhooks by letting the Dalai Lama carry on his anti-China activities from India.
As regards the South China Sea, it will not be politic for India to ruffle China’s feathers by openly or indirectly contesting the claim. Instead it should offer its good offices to put together an international effort, in cooperation with China, to establish the legitimacy of its claim.
There can be no doubt that China and Pakistan have often appeared to act in a manner that is deliberately calculated to spite India. There is hope, from India’s standpoint, of cracks developing, and possibly widening, in the relationship. Like the US before, China is now discovering that its trouble in Muslims-dominated Xinjiang province is traceable to training in explosives and firearms of the Islamist separatists linked with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s “terror camps”. The break may not come soon, but is a distinct possibility in the foreseeable future.
The remaining two major causes of India’s unease with respect to China are its much hyped “string of pearls” strategy and its intensive project-cum-aid diplomacy in Africa, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
The purported aim of the former is to encircle India with naval bases and intelligence stations throughout littoral South Asia. A recent incisive write-up has dismissed it as “more fevered imagination than actual military threat”. India can afford to let well alone on this matter.
India is certainly way behind the quantum and volume of China’s involvement in Africa. But then the continent is so huge and sectors needing development so numerous that there is enormous scope for India-China coopetition (cooperative competition) in capitalising on opportunities for trade, investment and project exports. This applies to other emerging economies as well into which China is supposedly making inroads.
Thus, with a certain adroitness in approach, India can set about creating an environment conducive to a mutually beneficial entente cordiale with China.
(Mr B.S.Raghavan, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, former Adviser to the UN and Chief Secretary to the Governments of West Bengal and Tripura. He is presently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China studies.e- mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)