SPEAKING FREELY India blinded by China's shock and awe
By Madhu Bhalla
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One is used to hearing the shock-and-awe of a Beijing experience from Indians who travel to China for the first time. China's roads, airports, coastal cities and metropolitan centers broke down the stereotype of a drab, unstylish Maoist China years ago. The glitz and the glamour of new China seems light years ahead of India's urban mess.
If one is on an official visit, the shock and awe is even greater, for
the Chinese are great hosts. Every meal is a banquet and every banquet betters the previous one with calls to a spirit of accommodation to China's interests. And who is to argue against that? China's soft power works to create a haze of wellbeing in the face of which many have succumbed to the lure of being anointed by Beijing as "friends of China".
As long as this is the state of those who are not directly involved in policy making it can be viewed as a way to overcome the trust deficit that affects India-China people-to-people relations. But when the foreign minister of India makes a visit to Beijing after a tense three-week military confrontation and quips that he would like to live in Beijing it should set us thinking.
Even more, when an opposition MP in Arunachal suggests that India accept China's stapled visa regime (with visas issued on a separate piece of paper rather than being stamped on passports) for residents from Indian territories claimed by China since this is the only way Arunachal residents can visit China, we need to think how we got to this position.
The notion of China as a new-age El Dorado seems to permeate our political and policy making elite and, no less, some portion of our academic elite. This despite evidence that China's shock-and-awe has a hard-power element to it as well which upsets our security calculations and the strategic balance in South Asia.
China's maritime neighbors have been at the receiving end of it in the last year alone and the recent Debsang episode in the Himalayas has brought it home to New Delhi more starkly than any of the other aspects of China's policy of attrition on the border and elsewhere these last few years.
The foreign minister's comment is symptomatic of how we think about China and the strategies we evolve to deal with it. It is also symptomatic of what we tend to ignore in China's own rendering of its foreign policy objectives and the strategies China uses to meet these objectives. In the event, it is instructive to set out the distance in the basic assumptions on which India and China act and the need to examine these in Delhi if our China policy is to be re-set, as it must be.
First, Delhi moves on the assumption that China's rise is about Asia's emergence as a region and a change in the rules of international politics in the interest of Asian states. For China, its rise has to do with its own re-emergence to the global stage after a couple centuries of decline.
China sees its rise as separate from Asia's destiny. When it does pay lip service to the "rise of the Asian century" discourse, it is to reach out to an Asia that might challenge China's rise to power.
Since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party first declared the Common Program of the new Chinese state, it has been concerned with an examination of how dominant states achieve power. It has studied as well how dominant states use power to sustain the enhancement of their power. Critically, the Gandhian notion that one can exercise more power by having less is foreign to China's understanding of power.
Hence, the Chinese obsession with comprehensive national power as a basis for state and regime security. The difference in the two assumptions means that Beijing's "win-win" statements need to be examined in Delhi with more reference to India's interests than China's desires.
Second, Delhi moves on the presumption that the bilateral relationship between India and China is about accommodation on the border dispute. Beijing, on the assumption that the bilateral relationship with India is about its territorial integrity and sovereign rights, which are non-negotiable.
China's international relations (IR) theorists have recently begun to develop a Chinese theory of IR drawing primarily on historical understandings of sovereignty, among other things. In this reading, sovereignty is closely tied to regime legitimacy and the survival of the Chinese state, unlike other states where the giving up of sovereign rights to some territory is not necessarily tied to the demise of the state.
Given the interweaving of notions of sovereignty with the "mandate to rule", it is a rare Chinese leadership that will agree to a bargain on the border unless India makes a strong argument using a variety of instruments of state policy.
Third, India moves on the assumption that the economy is becoming central to the relationship. China relegates this aspect of the relationship to its border provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in the backward western regions with Beijing itself concerned with its much more important economic engagements with the United States, Japan, the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which are linked to its thriving coastal provinces, the heart of China's economic growth.
Ironically, Beijing's linkage of India with its backward provincial economies has now become the frame of reference for Delhi's optimism on the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) economic engagement.
Delhi should be cautious of working to Beijing's plan, a plan based on reversing the mistakes of its coastal development policy. The reasons for the economic backwardness in India's Northeast are clearly different and will have to be addressed through a different set of economic regimes and platforms.
Any realistic assessment of the nature of India's trade with China also indicates the fact that both the current levels of trade and the basket of commodities traded are not sustainable unless India wants to revert to a neo-colonial existence as an economy based on resource extraction.
The excitement over China's domestic economic turn needs to be reviewed as well. China's domestic market is unlikely to present a level playing field for Indian investors unless there is deep reform in its state-owned enterprises, the largest part of its manufacturing sector. The fact that major Chinese companies abroad are state-owned companies means that their investments in India would primarily be investments by the Chinese state, a situation that should create unease in Delhi.
Finally, there are few compatibilities between the Indian and Chinese economies, given their differing sectoral focus, which would ensure a dynamic and long-term economic relationship. Some of these issues were on the table at the India China Strategic Economic Dialogue last year but need to be addressed more urgently.
To move ahead to grow its infrastructure and the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, India should look at China where possible but also beyond China. While China's economic presence in East Asia is dominant, other East Asian states have done as well without the liabilities China has created in terms of economic and social imbalances.
Fourth, India moves on the assumption of mutuality and reciprocity, China on the assumption that its interests alone must be jealously guarded. Therefore, we have had the absurd example of India, and the world, being held hostage to China's demand that it endorse the one-China policy and the position of Tibet within China. Not to mention the even more duplicitous opposition from Beijing to India's exploration activities in what it regards as disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam when China marches ahead with infrastructure and development activities in Kashmir as well as maintains a hold on disputed territories in Kashmir "ceded" to it by Pakistan.
In a silly foreign policy sideshow, there is the other situation where India banks on its history of supporting China's admission in the United Nations but comes up empty when it asks China's support for its candidature to a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
Mutuality and reciprocity are well entrenched principles in international law, and Delhi would be well within its rights to demand this from China or else cease its verbal support for China's position on Taiwan and Tibet while raising the issue of its activities in disputed territories in Kashmir in a consistent manner.
Finally, India moves on the assumption that foreign policy is the sole domain of the mandarins in the Ministry of External Affairs or the Prime Minister's Office depending on how the cookie crumbles; China, on the assumption that foreign policy making is a "whole of the government" effort.
Thus, when Chinese Premier Le Keqiang went to New Delhi he presented a case based on inputs from all civilian and military departments, ministries and advisory bodies which look at India-China policy as well as the PRC's policy in South Asia. This is likely to be another aspect of China's shock-and-awe tactics unless South Block, home in New Delhi to the Prime Minister's Office, Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of External Affairs, is as well prepared.
If India is to make a case that would re-set its China policy, it would have had to start the process at least six months ago. The fact that it spent four weeks before the visit scrambling to save face at Debsang indicates that it is not likely to have done so.
To have a credible and workable China policy, India must make its assumptions and their implications clear to China. So far we have seen little in our China policy that speaks to our foreign policy assumptions.
The disjunction between assumptions and policy creates a murky space for casuist reinterpretations and confrontations, as at Debsang. Hence, we can only assume that China shares our concerns or that we agree with China's at our own peril.
It is imperative to begin to understand the many different levels at which we need to engage with China to resolve issues. Given the narrow of window of opportunity in front of us before China's rise becomes truly credible, succumbing to shock and awe is an option we do not have.
Madhu Bhalla is a professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University, Delhi, India.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.