Can dreams of nations with dissimilar political frameworks collide or clash to an extent that their very contents become distorted and irrelevant? Chinese author Liu Mingfu originally conceived the idea of an innately Chinese political version of a dream in his seminal articulation, China Dream in the Post-American Age some years ago. Liu surmised, “When China is threatened, it has no choice but to use war to protect its right to rise.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has subsequently adopted the China Dream as a political motto. His serial pronouncements on the primacy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) make it quite self-evident. Chinese nationalism premised on “strong army-rich country” would be the base-frame for national strategic articulation particularly while discussing China’s territorial issues with foreign interlocutors. China would never concede territory to a neighbour as India once did to the immense benefit of Sri Lanka in the case of the Kachchativu Islands.
The recent heightening of tensions and the display of brinkmanship by PLA on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) should be viewed in this backdrop. That PLA continued adopting aggressive postures even when president Xi was visiting India should not be interpreted as its defiance of the political leadership. Rather, it should be viewed as part of a grand Chinese design. As many China experts have noted, Beijing’s not-so-magnificent obsession for territory often extends to the point of interpreting, even claiming, area propositions, such as Chumar in Ladakh, as their “own sovereign territory”.
National sovereignty in the case of China is preserved not through political dialogue or diplomacy but by PLA’s top guns in active operational command who spearhead decision-making within the Central Committee. This is the reason why 16 or 17 rounds of special representative (SR) level interface between India and China have yielded no credible positives.
It should be clear to New Delhi by now that the SR mechanism was more of a tactical ploy used by Beijing to keep India engaged in a realm of unreal hope. Meanwhile, China continued to buttress its economy and modernise its military. While PLA kept India on tenterhooks, China continued dumping goods into India, creating a massive trade deficit.
After taking over as PM, Narendra Modi has sought to bring about a subtle shift in India’s worldview. As he told the UN General Assembly, while India believed in and practised its philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, it will brook no compromise on its sovereignty and unity.
While adopting a no-nonsense approach on the border dispute with China and asking Indian forces to take on the PLA on the ground, Modi has challenged China in the economic sphere by launching his ambitious ‘Make in India’ scheme. Reports indicate that it has made a big splash in China and $15 bn announced by President Xi during his India visit is only the beginning. More will follow as India has many advantages in terms of labour, young people and open culture.
Modi had already deepened India’s multilateral ties with Japan during his recent visit and established a personal rapport with PM Shinzo Abe. He articulated a common perception of the two countries when he noted that the “expansionist” ideas of the 18th century are still visible in the world —some countries “encroach” on others, some “enter the seas”, and some “capture other’s territory”. While he did not name China, “encroachment” and “entry into the seas” are being interpreted as a reference to China’s spats with Japan over the Senkaku Islands.
After defining the parameters of India’s strategic approach in the immediate and extended neighbourhood in South and South East Asia, the new government seems to have finally worked out primary elements of its strategy vis-à-vis China. Its essential ingredients seem to be faster economic growth and steady improvements in military capability, regular engagement on the border and other disputes with China to prevent misunderstandings from leading to skirmishes, building a China containment coalition along with Japan and Vietnam, and steady projection of India’s soft power in the west and south-east Asia to counter China.
As a recent assessment by the US intelligence community predicted, China stands to more profoundly affect global geopolitics than any other country. China’s ascent, however, is dividing Asia, not bringing Asian states closer. A fresh reminder of that came when provocative Chinese actions prompted the new Japanese government to reverse course on seeking a “more equal” relationship with the US and agree to keep the US military base in Okinawa island. That outcome is similar to the way Beijing has been pushing India closer to the US through continuing military and other provocations.
Given that the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events as much in the Indian Ocean rim as in East Asia, Tokyo, New Delhi and Washington must work together to promote Asian peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes.
Menon is a former additional secy, Cabinet Secretariat