There have been few, if any, instances in history when within three decades, a relatively backward country has risen to become a global power, wielding vast economic and military power, as China has done in the recent past. But historical traits of Chinese rulers do not change, despite their immense achievements. The Chinese consider themselves as inheritors of a superior civilisation, located at the centre of the earth. They are regarded as being afflicted by what is popularly known as the ‘Middle Kingdom Syndrome’, which requires neighbours to acknowledge their supremacy. Strategic thinkers like Sun Tzu have spelt out the strategies for China to use all available means to achieve national aims. An important difference between China and India lies in the fact that while China absorbs lessons of history, few Indians read, or practice, what the sage Kautilya advocated over 2,300 years ago.
China wisely followed the strategy articulated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s when its military lacked teeth and its economy was similar to that of India. Deng then advised: “Hide your strength and bide your time.” Within three decades, China developed its “Comprehensive National Power” so rapidly that it has now emerged as a global power by adopting strategies and diplomacy that enabled its rise with American, European and Russian economic and military technology and investment. But, once it became powerful, old patterns of behaviour, labelled in the Soviet Union as “Great Han Chauvinism”, returned. China historically considered neighbours as vassals or barbarians. Beijing today has maritime territorial disputes with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. It uses force to back its territorial claims, which have no basis in international law, as embodied in the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. While acting patronisingly towards India, China recognises that within Asia, its power can be balanced by a combination of Japan, Vietnam and India—more so, if they are backed by the US.
Recognising that India has its own civilisational heritage and is too large to be treated like a vassal state, China has its own distinct approach to dealing with India. A major aim of Chinese policy inevitably becomes the use of all available means to ‘contain’ India. This is achieved by tying India down in a maze of problems and challenges with its South Asian neighbours, especially Pakistan. The Sino-Pakistan ‘all-weather friendship’ has involved not just economic aid but also the unparallelled transfer of technology for manufacture of nuclear weapons and missiles, and a vast array of conventional weapons, including fighter aircraft, tanks and frigates. In maritime terms, China has sought to surround India with a ‘Maritime Silk Route’, seeking berthing facilities for warships and submarines in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Maldives and Seychelles. It has kept India uneasy militarily by frequent cross-border intrusions.
Recognising the emergence of new groupings and strategies in its neighbourhood, China also realises that it has to hold out ‘carrots’ to India, which India finds attractive, so as to move India in directions that it wants. It flatters Indian egos by praising India’s “independent foreign policy”, while seeking to keep India at some distance from powers like Japan and the US. This is combined with the not-too-subtle threat that “it is pointless and even counterproductive to contain a rising China”. The Chinese obviously hope to keep a relatively weaker India in its place by a combination of strategic containment, military superiority and sops like investments in areas like infrastructure and energy. China assiduously cultivates India’s corporate sector. Journalists, and politicians from mainstream parties like the BJP and Congress are feted while its erstwhile Communists are discarded, labelling their thinking as “outdated”. Dealing with an assertive and aggressive China requires political and diplomatic skills to derive economic and occasional diplomatic benefit from investment and diplomatic support that it can provide, while firmly countering the strategic challenges it poses.