A superpower with an inferiority complex
China appears to have picked the right moment to remind India of the border dispute between the two countries. India is preoccupied: Its government is busy imposing cultural norms on unwilling people, Kashmir is on the boil, and its major television networks are hounding dissidents at home by calling them “anti-national” and holding the opposition to account for the government’s shortcomings. Meanwhile, in Chumbi valley, Chinese troops are getting closer to the “chicken’s neck”, the narrow corridor that links India’s North-East with the rest of the country.
China has been building a road at Doklam (also known as Doka La), near the point where China, Bhutan and India meet. Bhutan is understandably wary of any Chinese infrastructure investment so close to its border, as such a road would make Chinese troop deployment more efficient. But Bhutan does not have formal ties with China, and it relies on India to represent its views. And the Indian state that’s on the Chinese border happens to be Sikkim, which was independent till 1975. Sikkim’s merger with India was controversial, but it is recognized internationally, with even China coming round to accepting it in 2003.
From a strategic perspective, India is right to be concerned. The current situation contributes to the broader tensions pertaining to the disputed border in other regions where India affirms its sovereignty over parts that China occupies, while China claims land that India considers its own. Little wonder the Chinese media is now issuing warnings to India in characteristically laboured prose. Prior bones of contention include the dispute at Sumdorong Chu in the 1980s, the Dalai Lama’s several visits to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh since 1983, and the presence of Tibetan refugees in India.
China believes its border with India is an imposition by the colonial British over a weak China. India has inherited that border, the Chinese say; those inherited parts aren’t necessarily Indian. India drew a large amount of international sympathy over its 1962 war with China, but critics like Neville Maxwell remained sceptical of Indian claims. His account, India’s China War, was deeply unpopular in India, as it did not rhyme with the nationalistic outpourings celebrating the valour of the Indian Army—think of the emotive appeal of Lata Mangeshkar’s Ay Mere Watan Ke Logon. However, Maxwell was remarkably unchallenging of Chinese claims.
China believes its time has come on the global stage, and plenty of international cheerleaders echo that view. Reviewing relations, renegotiating treaties and redrawing territorial boundaries are all part of that world view. Imperial powers imposed treaties on a “weak” China; it’s time for China to regain its authority.
China has border disputes with virtually every neighbour. It has a quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu in China) and the Ryukyu Islands. It is one of the six claimants over the Spratlys in the South China Sea and has built aggressive installations in the area, rattling its neighbours. It has an old dispute with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, and in 1979 it invaded Vietnam “to teach a lesson”, even while Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then India’s foreign minister, was on an official visit to China, forcing him to cut short his trip. China bullies the few remaining nations (at last count 21) that recognize Taiwan, which China considers as its renegade province.
In 1999, Macau returned to China from Portuguese control. Through its words and actions, China has indicated quite clearly that it sees little value in the “one country, two systems” model under which Hong Kong returned to China from British rule in 1997. The 1984 Sino-British accord is meant to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years. But late last month, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the “handover”, as the sovereignty transfer was called, a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry termed the accord “a historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”. In a 2014 white paper, the Chinese state council said parts of the joint declaration were not binding, implying it would reinterpret laws and treaties it did not like.
The effects in Hong Kong are clear: When asked to bend, many in Hong Kong have crawled. The Hong Kong branch of New York’s Asia Society recently cancelled the screening of a film that commemorated the umbrella revolution, when many in Hong Kong demanded greater freedoms. Beijing continues to dictate choices in the severely limited elections Hong Kong holds.
China is justified in objecting to the unequal treaties its feeble emperors signed in the 19th century. But today China is a world power. Indeed, when compared with US President Donald Trump, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sounds internationalist, almost statesman-like, in his defence of the Paris climate accord, or when he speaks up for trade and globalization. But in its dealings with neighbours, China is acting exactly like the imperial powers it once scorned. That is the mark of an immature superpower with an inferiority complex.
India and China are polar opposites—India is a democracy, even if flawed; China is a dictatorship, despite the veneer of modernity. India needs to react calmly and creatively, instead of stoking nationalistic fervour that can rouse passions at home, but whose effects are too devastating to contemplate. It requires qualitatively different thinking from what the Indian political leadership has shown.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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