July 7, 2017

The standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on some remote Himalayan slopes on their common frontiers with Bhutan is like a good bowl of pepper rasam, tom-yum soup or shot of wasabi. It serves to clear our physical and mental channels.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

China is competing with the United States for nothing short of global primacy. It already wants everyone to acknowledge its dominance.

One of our foremost experts feels that Xi Jinping wants China to arrive” as early as 2020. At such a moment in history, India’s interests are best served by being a swing power” — pursuing better bilateral relations with the big two than they have with each other, and swinging our support from one to the other depending on where our interests lie. This can’t be had for the asking — we need to cultivate the capacity to inflict pleasure and pain on both the United States and China.

China’s worldview is very different from India’s. For thousands of years, Chinese emperors have not recognised any sovereign equal — only vassals and barbarians. Yan Xuetong, one of China’s foremost scholars, told me that the current-day rulers in Beijing remain influenced by this way of thinking. India was never a vassal, and this didn’t pose much of a problem in the past because the Himalayas were impenetrable. I think it is an issue now although nuclear deterrence plays the role the high mountains once did.

China’s geopolitical influence will expand in line with its economic power. So we cannot begrudge our neighbours for being receptive to Beijing’s overtures. We can, however, manage China’s influence in our neighbourhood by building our own influence east of the Malacca straits, in the South China Sea and beyond. There, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, Singapore and Australia welcome, if not seek, Indian power projection.

If we think this way, we will welcome strong bilateral economic links with China, in terms of trade and investment. We will also co-operate with China on issues like managing global climate change, multilateral free trade and so on. But we will not get into China-led blocs like OBOR, because we don’t need to sign up to secure the benefits, and because signing up explicitly acknowledges China’s leadership. Which is why joining the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was a bad move.

So what should we make of the ongoing standoff? It’s China’s fault (I am being objective). They tried to use their familiar approach of changing the status quo in a territorial dispute by building military infrastructure. Just ask the Vietnamese. When challenged, they cut out any room for a quiet diplomatic settlement by making aggressive public demands. Diplomacy is the art of not asking what the other side cannot give. China’s rhetoric and actions constitute bullying, not diplomacy. That’s why India must not yield, and simply hold the current position until the snows fall in September. See how our options stack up.

It’s important to demonstrate that we won’t be bullied into submission, not because of juvenile egoism but because reputation matters. Indian diplomacy will be that much more difficult if other countries come to see us as folding to China. Likewise, China’s diplomats will have to work harder if other countries realise you can successfully stand up to China. Those are the stakes.
 The bottomline is economic growth. Our China policy is Reforms 2.0. The lack of urgency in modernising the armed forces both structurally and in terms of equipment should shock us. But it doesn’t. The current standoff should be another wake-up call. Or an alarm bell.

Here are three books you must read. Howard French’s Everything under heaven is an excellent account of how China’s historical worldview influences its contemporary foreign policy. Liu Mingju’s China Dream argues that from Sun Yat-sen onwarda, China’s leaders have seen regaining global primacy as their grand strategic goal. John Garver’s Protracted Contest is an account of India-China rivalry of the past century.

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