Prime minister Narendra Modi goes to China weighed down by traditionally bad geostrategics and even worse policy.
Consider the underway Chinese initiatives in India’s neighbourhood—the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to access the warm water port at Gwadar, submarines and combat aircraft to Pakistan, the Qinghai-Lhasa railway with a loop-line to Xigatze on the Nepal border, the “maritime silk route” and the “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, the old silk route connecting China with Central Asia and Russia majorly through Kazakhstan, investment in infrastructure and extractive industry in Afghanistan, and the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) scheme worked out of Kunming to provide the fast industrialising western provinces an opening on the Bay of Bengal. These developments are enveloping India in a geostrategic mesh—the essence of Wei-qi, an ancient Chinese board game and template for Chinese statecraft.
In Wei-qi, the objective is to fill as many of the squares on the board with one’s pieces, the corners inwards, to crowd the adversary and leave him little manoeuvring space and freedom of action. Using trade, aid, military assistance, and cultural exchanges with countries around India and farther afield, China means to influence India’s policies by influencing these states that otherwise fall naturally within the Indian strategic penumbra.
What is the Indian geostrategic model to compete with Wei-qi? From ancient times the Hindu sense of the subcontinental space bounded by the mountains, deserts, and the seas is that of Jambudwipa—the great big island state. It is hardly surprising that its outlook has been insular, and friends and foes conceived on the basis of geometric determinism dictated on the basis of a simplistic formulation of the mandala, codified in the Arthashastra. The mandala concept of concentric circles—the inner-most circle comprising adversaries, followed by a tier of friends, the next outer circle again of enemies, and so on has ensured maximally-riled neighbours. Whatever its utility in pre-historical India of perpetually warring kingdoms, the mandala scheme virtually disabled rulers from envisaging distant threats, because vast intervening spaces made perceiving nations far from the homeland as friendly or adversarial difficult, whence the preoccupation with smaller, weaker, adjoining states—a foreign policy affliction to this day. Wei-qi obviously scores over the less engaged mandala-infused approach (non-alignment, strategic autonomy).
Against a more equal rival such as the United States, however, Wei-qi turns, in effect, into a classical balance-of-power game, with moves countered by corresponding moves to deny the opponent spatial domination. Against a strategic vision deficient-India that, for instance, did not respond with alacrity to China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan by prompt transfers of nuclear and conventionally warheaded missiles and major armaments to Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries on the Chinese periphery, Beijing will always have the upper hand.
The new thing Modi brings to the table is his boundless confidence and ready wittedness. An impactful incident of Modi’s diplomacy that few know about occurred during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit last September. With the intrusion of an armed unit of the People’s Liberation Army in the Chumar sector of the disputed Aksai China region as backdrop, Modi asked Xi if the PLA in China dominated the political leadership in the manner the army does the government in Pakistan. Cut to the quick Xi professed ignorance of the intrusion, but PLA troops pulled back the next day.
This little episode no doubt induced in Xi respect for Modi, particularly for the manner in which the message was conveyed, complete with the derisory allusion, and in light of the history of PLA provocations as accompaniment to high-level meetings. Recall that China invaded Vietnam in February 1979 on the day external affairs minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reached Beijing, a symbolic slap and a warning to India that it may be next! But can the personal regard Xi has for Modi be converted into real benefits for India? Doubtful, because Chinese leaders, pickled in the brine of China’s centrality in the world, are not swayed by flummery. For them the strategic end-state matters, not small profit from marginal attributes.
The larger picture is still more worrisome. Deng Xiaoping’s 1991 guideline—“hide your capability, bide your time”—has been given the heave-ho. Xi has apparently determined that China’s economic and military capability is sufficiently muscled to flex it and that now’s the time to begin challenging the United States for supremacy in Asia. This is evident in the growingly aggressive military measures—naval patrolling in far-off waters, announcement of the air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, embedding of sonar buoys around the disputed Senkaku Islands to monitor Japanese and US warship traffic, and by rendering potential partners of the US, such as India, less effective once Beijing starts acting decisively in Asia-Pacific.
This is the reason why despite Modi prioritising the resolution of the border dispute, the 18th meeting in late March this year of the Special Representatives—National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and the former Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi—achieved nothing. This outcome was preordained, because keeping a border solution dangling keeps New Delhi in check. Then again Beijing has had to do little for Indian governments to unilaterally cede ground on the Tibet issue—surrendering of inherited Indian rights in Lhasa, recognition of Chinese suzerainty, then sovereignty, “One-China” policy, stapled visas, in return for zilch (unless Beijing’s infirm acceptance of Sikkim as part of India is considered a big deal). But this is the recessive China policy the ministry of external affairs has flogged, and Modi has not retracted.
Modi will get investment but only if India stays with the Chinese line on Tibet, and the lopsided, neo-colonial, $75 billion trade—Indian minerals for Chinese finished goods—and a skewed balance-of-payments problem that cost this country $37 billion last year. This imbalance will not be dented by increased Indian exports of vegetables, fruit and, ironically, in the face of the brouhaha over cow slaughter, of beef. The fact is the China-assisted infrastructure build-up, a rousing welcome for Modi in Xian, and a hall full of screaming Indians in Shanghai do not compensate for India’s strategic reduction.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com