Updated: Aug 31, 2022
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India as an Antidote to China: A Philosophical Approach
India probably finds itself in the most difficult geopolitical environment since the Cold War and the Pokhran nuclear test. With a forgettable history of colonialism and the bitter experiences with China across the border, foreign policy decisions have been anything but easy. Given the situation, one must commend India’s Minister of External Affairs for his clear articulation of India’s interests and its position on several pressing international matters in his recent public and diplomatic interactions with the West, Russia, and China. Today India is in a world where the West and Russia have reignited the Cold War syndrome with the ongoing war in Ukraine and an expansionist China that aims to take advantage of every opportunity to project itself as an emerging superpower.
In such a scenario, India is left with few options to deal with China and to carve out its own political, economic, and cultural space as a power to reckon with in the world order. Overcoming these challenges requires India to define its philosophical underpinnings to become a balancing power in Asia and to present itself as an antidote to what China has come to be. To achieve such a status, India must bring about a greater understanding of China; construct unique, holistic, and inclusive foreign policy narratives; reorient its neighbourhood policy; develop an indigenous growth story, and eventually build a society that is resilient and confident.
Understanding China and Broadening Foreign Policy perspectives
The Union Government of India must actively decentralise contributions toward foreign policy thinking. Foreign policy remains an elite domain largely exclusive to the national capital and some educational institutions in New Delhi. Decentralising foreign policy thinking at a scholarly level will enable diversity in inputs and eliminate the elitism in national foreign policy consciousness. People from different parts of India tend to have unique perspectives due to their distinct cultures and this diversity will facilitate a fresh approach to foreign policymaking.
India failed to understand Mao’s China which resulted in the 1962 war and significant loss of territory. New Delhi still does not seem to understand the Chinese mind enough to eventually build bilateral trust toward lasting peace. To bring about a greater understanding of Chinese thinking, the Union and State Governments must make an orchestrated effort to promote the Mandarin language in their respective educational curriculums beginning from high school. For this purpose, India could work closely with Taiwan and bring in Taiwanese Mandarin instructors on Government scholarships to every major city. Such an initiative has to be carried out as a campaign with a well-defined goal to be achieved within a specified timeline.
India and China have largely had a friendly relationship throughout history but for the last sixty years. However, peace in the past was possible as there was a buffer state between India and China in the form of Tibet which has been occupied and annexed by Beijing. The Great Game of the 19th and early 20th centuries provides a perspective to comprehend the significance of a buffer state and having a friendly neighbourhood as the first line of defence. India might not have been able to develop a friendly relationship with Russia if the outcome of the Great Game had been in favour of the Tsars as Afghanistan acted as a buffer state between the former Russian empire and pre-independent India. Assuming Beijing’s annexation of Tibet is irreversible in the foreseeable future and with Nehru acknowledging the ‘One China Policy’ (further reaffirmed by Vajpayee in 2003), an effective China policy for India hinges on cultivating favourable neighbourhood relations.
To create a long-lasting friendly neighbourhood, India must stake a claim as the religious and cultural patron of South Asia. Our neighbours are Buddhist, Islam and Hindu majorities with Buddhism and Hinduism having roots in India. Buddhists across the world (especially from Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Tibet) must embrace India as a nation that gave birth to the religion and its cultural practices. Domestic political and electoral interests must not deter India from realising this vision as Buddhism is largely associated with a specific section of the Indian society. These differences must be overcome to celebrate Buddhism as a unique religion in equal measure to that of Hinduism. India also has Islamic shrines that are significant to Muslims in different parts of the world. Sufiism and the teachings of Sufi Saints in India have made great contributions to the Islamic world and Indian society. These distinct cultures must be embraced within India and promoted globally.
New Delhi should establish a political linkage with its neighbours based on its unique cultures spread across the nation. Destinations of religious importance must be developed and promoted as birthplaces of cultures and to facilitate global pilgrimage. The Government and the people must put in a concerted effort to promote India as a cradle of civilizations and global cultures that is not monolithic. This will lay the path for South Asia to have a common and shared destiny with India in the long run.
Beijing may be actively pushing for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in India’s neighbourhood, trapping its neighbours in debt and continue pursuing its chequebook diplomacy with an intent to encircle India. In the long run, these actions will not translate into Beijing gaining any significant political footprint if India becomes a leader in creating a common and shared destiny for the South Asian region that is based on cultural practices and identity. This in turn will address India’s security concerns vis-à-vis China. It may also eventually persuade Beijing to realise that it has much more to gain by resolving differences and cooperating with India on mutually beneficial terms.
Democracy: Setting an Example
Politically, India’s neighbourhood policy must reflect the will of the people in its neighbouring countries. For instance, the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka has declared a national emergency and they have run out of public favour among the Lankans. Based on India’s tryst with a brief period of emergency rule in the 1970s, New Delhi must officially condemn the Rajapaksas for this move and stand with the people of Sri Lanka in their moment of political and economic crisis. Condemning the imposition of an emergency will gain India the goodwill of the Sri Lankan people which will aid in building long term trust and friendship with the people of the island nation. It will also reflect India’s principled stance on democracy and enhance its political standing globally.
China is an Asian communist autocracy despite having a decentralised democratic process within the party. Yet the Chinese political system does not allow dissent against the party by outsiders nor does it give space for political opposition. By adopting a principled stance on democracy for the South Asian neighbourhood, India must project itself as an Asian antidote to the Chinese state. Such posturing is necessary both domestically and as well as regionally for India to be identified as a nation that shares political wisdom. A democratic worldview by India may incidentally be reflecting the Chinese conscience and therefore act as a counter to Beijing’s autocratic system within Asia. It will also enable India to become the balancing political force in the continent.
India should develop a growth model that is unique and independent. It must not aspire to emulate the Chinese model which is built on the inhuman working conditions of its labour force through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. It is neither just nor practical for any country to replicate China’s model. As an alternative, India must pursue a model that is promised to its people by its Constitution. The federal structure as a Constitutional promise played a central role in the National Integration process of independent India. No political dispensation must attempt to undermine the federal nature of India which has ensured unity despite its diverse geographic and cultural orientations.
India’s Union and state governments must strive toward building and strengthening cooperative federalism which will encourage economic competition between states. Any attempt to limit federal powers or its jurisdictional authority over multiple domains will result in an Empire syndrome leading to economic inefficiency. Every state in our country has a unique offering and their production cycles must reflect this distinct quality based on their respective strengths. Interstate differences and disputes should be addressed culturally and institutionally without letting vested domestic political interests trigger discrimination internally.
Addressing India’s economic interests with a holistic view based on the federal promise of its Constitution will aid in developing a unique Indian model. It will also be an antidote to the Chinese model which has resulted in the internal displacement of millions of Chinese people who today are unaware of their roots. An economic model with its foundations in federal principles will ensure that India’s objective is not to compete with China, but to rather look inwards to construct its own growth story that is resilient and sustainable.
A Resilient Society
India must educate its youth about its contributions to the modern world to instil self-respect and confidence among the young population. A majority of the Indian youth are not aware of the nation’s contributions to the UN Peacekeeping missions. The Indian armed forces are one of the most revered among the UN Peacekeeping missions and they command respect globally. They are also one among the most trusted by the people affected in conflict zones in different parts of the world. India’s younger generation is also unaware of the role of the Disarmament & International Security Division in the Ministry of External Affairs in ensuring a peaceful world. Its contributions toward global disarmament and restrictions on Weapons of Mass Destruction are enviable in the global arena. Greater awareness must be created about India’s role as a responsible nuclear power and that its bid for permanent membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has its foundations in its international conduct as a nuclear power. Such examples will cultivate confidence and pride among the youth in India.
On the contrary, China has built itself based on the ‘a century of humiliation’ narrative. This is counterproductive for China as its desire to develop stems from negative rhetoric. It does not augur well for the people of China to move away from the bitter experiences of their past. As a state, their present actions are hence based on a great sense of insecurity rather than their rich history of being a civilizational power. Any nation that uses force due to such forms of insecurity is more likely to commit human rights violations and breed a genocidal mindset while they occupy and annexe territories. Such violations by the Chinese state have been witnessed in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet in China.
The human rights violations by China in these regions give them a false sense of overcoming their past humiliation and they reflect the lack of confidence within the Chinese state. As a counter-narrative, India must aspire to develop based on its historic achievements and contributions to the world and thereby build a confident society whose ambitions are based on a positive outlook toward the past. This will project India as a balancing force in Asia by cultivating a confident and resilient society.
Given the current geopolitical challenges, it is necessary for India to articulate a clear and profound philosophical outlook that will safeguard its interests in the long run. India must look beyond short-term political gains domestically by embracing its rich diversity and by acting as a counterforce to authoritarianism in Asia. While policy decisions have to be made on specific issues vis-à-vis the economy and security (internal and external) in the short term, a plural philosophical grounding will direct such decisions to make India a balancing power in Asia for future generations. It will also give India a unique position in the world order while addressing its regional concerns arising due to an assertive and expanding China.
((Dr.) Sundeep Kumar. S is PhD scholar in international relations from the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras. Sundeep has successfully submitted his PhD thesis titled ‘Afghanistan’s Mineral Resources: A Geopolitical and Economic Narrative’. He is currently a part-time Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, Loyola College, Chennai. His research interests include India’s foreign policy, Afghan geopolitics, China’s BRI and international political economy. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)