It is natural when thinking about Asia to twin India and China. The difference between them is that while the former is open and has no strong national sense of self to match its unique cultural persona, the latter is a closed system but headstrong and has assumed the prerogatives of the “central kingdom” of yore, forcing the world to deal with it on its terms. The result is that India historically has been unable to resist external forces or to inspire respect and China, even when it was cruelly exploited through much of the 19th century, never gave in and occasions awe.
The difference was reflected in the reception accorded to the English envoy, Sir Thomas Roe, by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir in 1615. It ended in Britain securing permission to set up shop in Surat.
Roe’s counterpart to the “central kingdom”, Lord Amherst, bearing baubles as gifts, was contemptuously dismissed by the Yellow Emperor in 1792, with the scorcher that China lacked for little and whatever England had to offer was as nothing compared to the goods available locally! In the present day, it is reflected in the US and the West generally treating China with kid gloves, according it every consideration as an equal, and India being sought to be co-opted as an appendage.
China’s sense of self translates into a grand vision for the country that Beijing seeks to realize by whatever means—usually ruthless, unscrupulous, policies. India, on the other hand, predictably lacking strategic vision, seems satisfied with being part of another country’s game plan for Asia and the world, most recently the Washington-inspired strategic “quadrangle” of the US, Japan, Australia and India.
So, what does China do right and India wrong? For starters, China understands what matters in power politics and has prioritized the development of megaton thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles to put its strongest adversary and the world on notice. India is satisfied with fielding simple fission weapons and mostly short-range missiles that do not frighten even Pakistan.
Secondly, China made its reputation by militarily taking on stronger powers as it did the US in the Korean War in the 1950s and the Soviet Union on the Ussuri in 1969. India only intimidates smaller states, but when it comes to great powers, seeks patrons. It was the Soviet Union in the past; it is the US today. And it appears ready to pay any price for this patronage, even compromising national sovereignty, security and vital interests, as is happening with the nuclear deal with the US.
Thirdly, China has no qualms about violating agreements and treaties it signs in pursuit of its national interest. Thus, non-proliferation commitments were broken and nuclear weapon design, production wherewithal, and technical assistance passed on to Pakistan, to contain India to the subcontinent. India, on the other hand, shies away from strategically strengthening Vietnam to similarly discomfit China by forsaking policy leverage afforded by the indigenously developed nuclear and missile technologies on the plea that it believes in non-proliferation ideals!
Fourthly, Beijing conducts its diplomacy aggressively and with agility in a complex, non-linear, fashion with a view to maximize gains for itself and to disadvantage its rivals. The renewed rhetoric of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai”, for instance, does not preclude China’s arming Pakistan and Bangladesh to the teeth, formally laying claims to ever larger parts of India (all of Arunachal Pradesh, not just the Tawang enclave), weakening India’s energy security plans by undercutting its bids for foreign oilfields (Angola, Kazakhstan), and joining the US and others in keeping India down, in the UN and elsewhere. Despite these provocations, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls China India’s “greatest” neighbour, gives the impression he would prefer to accommodate Beijing than fight it, and follows a nondescript policy eschewing hard measures and counter measures, including playing the invaluable “Tibet card”.
Fifthly, China, without regard for ideology, has gone about methodically pacifying its periphery—making territorial concessions just so the ruling elites in these countries end up nursing goodwill for it. It has thus constructed a security cordon sanitaire, which adversary states find difficult to breach and where the Chinese card is impossible to trump. It has incentivized these states into accepting semi-dependency status by providing financial aid, trade benefits, and unhindered supply of military hardware.
India, just as meticulously, has gone about alienating the adjoining states and mulled interminably over transferring simple naval patrol craft to the Maldives and the Seychelles! The case of Myanmar is illustrative. By treating the military junta-ruled country as pariah, it pushed Yangbon into Beijing’s arms.
And, finally, and this is ironic, it is China that has acquired vast economic prowess by dismantling the socialist state apparatus even as India advances, higgledy-piggledy, along the economic reforms path with a lot less resolve and effect.
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org