Article No. 043/2018
The following is the full text of the Inaugural Address delivered by Mr. B.S. Raghavan IAS (Retd.), Patron of C3S, at the International Seminar on ‘Trends & Transformations in China’s Geopolitics, Strategy, Society & Business’ jointly organized by Chennai Centre For China Studies (C3S); and National Maritime Foundation -Tamil Nadu (NMF-TN), on 8th & 9th June 2018 at Savera Hotel, Chennai. The seminar marked the 10th anniversary commemoration of C3S.
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.
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.
ENIGMA OF CHINA
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, and the five vertical and seven horizontal national motorway projects, shipping 6,500 miles from Shanghai to the US the whole of a 2,050 feet long bridge to be fixed, Lego-like, across the San Francisco bay, China has topped it all by its Belt-and Road Initiative.
Five of the world’s top 10 contractors, in terms of revenue, are now Chinese, with the China State Construction Engineering Group overtaking such established American giants as 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.
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 forever. 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 the rise and fall of nations and empires. One of the first signs of a downslide in the turning 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 US corporate elite, for the most part, has abandoned all loyalty to its country…” and become a sinister symbol 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 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 the international political, economic and military order in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, India and Russia are also making impressive advances on the strength of their core competencies and competitive advantages.
China will soon 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, and not 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 in its own right 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, and becoming a new centre of gravity of the world political and economic order and the flywheel of progress and prosperity.
Hints to this effect from the Chinese side have been there for some time. The most explicit expression was given to them by an editorial in the China Daily some time ago, prefacing it with the astonishing remark that the boundary question is ‘just a tiny part’ of China-India relations.
It emphatically asserted that the two countries are not competitive rivals, but cooperative partners, and that their differences count for nothing before the convergence of their interests. Calling them “emerging powers in Asia”, it pointed out how they were vitally important players in respect of global issues such as world economic recovery and climate change, and how they could have a lasting impact on peace, security and cooperation in the region and beyond.
The Chinese President too has been reiterating the same sentiments.
But India had always been guarded in acting on these hints. It has been leery of adopting a forward policy in conjunction with China or even in asserting the role of a regional power devolving on it by virtue of geopolitical factors.
In fact, it has not implemented even such a simple decision as the establishment of a hot line between the leaders of the two countries, taken as far back as February 2010 at the level of Prime Ministers.
There are many factors dampening India’s enthusiasm for China’s call to join it to form the political and economic pivot of Asia.
First, of course, is the memory that still rankles of the humiliation it suffered in 1962 at the hands of China. Second is China’s belligerent and intolerant attitude when it comes to what it unilaterally proclaims as its ‘core interests’. Next is the uneven record of organisations such as ASEAN, SAARC, SCO and APEC. Fourth is India’s unwillingness to incur the displeasure of the US and other industrial countries by being overly receptive to Chinese overtures. And finally, the lingering influence of shades of non-alignment on India’s behaviour and conduct.
It is time to put them behind. I can only hope that India’s PM and the Chinese President made their last informal summit the occasion to effect a turnaround by discarding the old inhibitions and complexes bedevilling their relations and used it as a golden opportunity to decide on brave, new moves to promote mutual trust, economic cooperation, and collective effort to build a new world order.
With these words, I have great pleasure in inaugurating the 10th Anniversary celebrations of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, and the associated International Seminar jointly organised by the Centre and the National Maritime Foundation.
[Mr B. S. Raghavan I.A.S (Retd.) is former Policy Adviser to UN (FAO), Chief Secretary, State Governments of West Bengal and Tripura, Secretary to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Government of India, and is currently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and Adviser to Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He was a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time of China’s invasion of India. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of C3S.]