'Smokeless War: China’s Quest for' book review: Power, politics, pandemic
China’s rise and its impact on global politics has been a subject of much study for some time now.
China’s rise and its impact on global politics has been a subject of much study for some time now. In the Indian context too, there has been no dearth of literature on the subject. But ever since the border crisis of 2020 and the Galwan Valley episode, the interest in China in general and in Sino-Indian relations in particular has attained a new salience. Despite it being a pandemic situation, publishers have not been reticent in coming out with books on a subject on which now everyone seems to have an opinion.
From retired diplomats to defence officials, from academics to policy wonks, and from journalists to fiction writers all have views to share on the state of play. And almost everyone is a hardliner now. Those who were pontificating about the possibility of China and India cooperating against an imperialist America are now advising the government to stand firm and not give an inch. The fickleness of intellectual consensus is laid bare by this wanton display of movement from one extreme to the other.
Herein lies the value of this book, which is a reflective meditation on how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses different levers of power to shape the narrative about its own rise to its advantage even when it faces a situation as dire as the one after Covid-19 when the rest of world turned against China. How China has managed the political fallout of the outbreak of Covid-19 is the focal point of this book. It gives us great insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the CCP. This book underscores the need to look at the behaviour of China on the global stage through the prism of the evolution in the domestic political and policymaking landscape over the past decade and during the pandemic. As the anti-China sentiment across the world has soared to new heights, the Communist Party leadership remains more firmly entrenched in its view that this global backlash is manageable.
The way great power contestation is shaping up, the way middle powers are pushing back against Chinese belligerence and the way the globalisation is entering a new highly fragmented phase all point to a new phase in China’s rise. Kewalramani argues that a lot of this reflects an underlying failure of Chinese policy. But China could challenge the status quo to such an extent is also a failure of other powers who, despite all the signs, could not muster the will to take on China when there was still time. The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is indeed a difficult beast to manage and there is a reason major powers are struggling in coming to terms with it.
This book points to an underappreciated dimension of China’s rise—the use of ‘discourse power’ in China’s quest for geopolitical dominance. It has certainly been effectively deployed by the Chinese Communist Party even under some of the most trying circumstances, like the Covid-19 pandemic. And it also tells you how the West lost its ability to project its own ‘discourse power’. That an authoritarian, dictatorial Communist China that is conducting a veritable genocide against its Muslim minorities still manages to get support from the Islamic world is certainly a tribute to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to shape global discourse in its favour.
But so far so good. As the West now galvanises against China, the real test of competing ‘discourse powers’ has only just begun. If Kewalramani’s book is any guide, then Xi’s domestic political imperatives make it virtually impossible that any change in Chinese policy might be in the offing anytime soon.