China has increasingly sought to confront India on their shared border, most recently at Doklam. These confrontations are typically discussed in tactical terms: that is, they are ascribed to differences over maps and precedents. But these explanations do not get to the heart of the matter. Prosaic issues like patrolling patterns would be irrelevant were the border settled. Since China is not keen on a border settlement, it presumably finds the uncertainty beneficial. This leads to the very simple but rarely answered question: What does China want?

There are two possible answers.

The first is that China genuinely wishes to annex territory, perhaps in order to strengthen its hand prior to negotiating a settlement. If so, there is only so much territory it can annex before posing an existential threat to India. We do not know where that red line is—Doklam, the Chicken’s Neck, Arunachal Pradesh or somewhere else. But should it be crossed, the outcome will be full-scale war. What happens thereupon is anyone’s guess—will India remain committed to no first use of nuclear weapons if China tries to bifurcate the country?

Assuming that China does not want to risk a nuclear war, the more plausible explanation for its adventures in the border region is that it wants to chasten India—either by staring New Delhi down repeatedly or by whipping India in a decisive localized war. Such a conflict would allow China to showcase its modernized military, to send a pointed message to other nations in the region, to test the US’ resolve, and as an added bonus, tarnish Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image.

Have China’s leaders thought through the ultimate implications of such action?

How China treats India will significantly shape how the world interprets China’s rise. India is the weathervane because it is a relatively benign and lethargic nation. If China decides to humiliate such a nation, then the wider world will not fail to discern what China’s rise implies for them. When a person stamps on an ant it says as much about the person as it does about the ant. The parallel that China should reflect upon is Japan. For three decades after the Meiji Revolution, Japan was on the lips and in the hearts of Asians, especially after its celebrated victory over a domineering Russia. But then at its acme, Japan’s savagery in Korea and Manchuria rendered it contemptible and hence friendless.

This analogy may leave China’s leaders unimpressed. Like the Athenians in Thucydides’ The History Of The Peloponnesian War, they may flatly respond that in international politics “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". But it is one thing to subjugate a small power like ancient Melos, quite another to antagonize a billion people. Have the Chinese thought sufficiently hard about what humiliation is likely to engender in India? They may not relish the answer.

For two centuries Indian elites have debated whether their country is destined to be a “normal" or an “exceptional" power. During the 19th century the scales moved back and forth. For every sage who reminded his countrymen of the composed realism of her ancestors, there was another who urged that education and commerce were giving birth to a new, more orderly, world.

The turn of the century upset the scales. Disillusioned by the terrible world wars unleased by power-hungry nations, a powerful subset of India’s political elite coalesced around the view that their country ought to serve as an example to the world. Hence, they consciously extolled the pacific and pluralist aspects of Indian civilization.

Upon coming to power in 1947, these elites learnt hard lessons about the ways of the world. They replied by turning inward, hoping to keep India safe by keeping the world at bay. During this time, voices calling for a more engaged and muscular approach to international politics—the Hindu Mahasabha being the most prominent example—remained in the minority and were firmly sidelined. Then came the 1962 India-China war. A few days of fighting in the hills was sufficient to unsettle the scales again. Those that had warned for decades that politics is governed by the “law of the fishes"—that the big readily consume the small—had been proven the wiser.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the child of this moment. Few remember that the BJP’s predecessor, the Jana Sangh, was initially in favour of nuclear disarmament. It held that wealth and power ought to be subordinated to the pursuit of social and spiritual objectives. After 1962, the Jana Sangh warmed to the harder views of its older cousin, the Hindu Mahasabha. It became a votary of economic reform, military investment, alliance formation and nuclearization. It called for India to behave not exceptionally but responsibly—to embrace rather than eschew the tragedy of great power politics. The 1998 nuclear test and the 2000 declaration that India and the US are “natural allies" were products of this world view, as are Modi’s strenuous efforts to deepen an array of strategic partnerships. The transformation has been halting but unmistakable.

This is the long history that should inform China’s renewed adventures on the border. The year 1962 set in motion a chain of events that has ultimately given rise to the kind of leader that surprised China by standing firm at Doklam. If China wants to refresh the lesson, then it should understand that India will likely respond to humiliation in the same way that China did—it will harden its heart and tighten its nerves. As the scales resettle, a very different India will arise: the country will arm itself to the teeth, flood its extremities with people, transfer sensitive technology to allies, and readily place itself at the US’ disposal. It is essential therefore that China thinks more than twice before rolling the dice, because rash actions will, in the fullness of time, imperil its own security.

Rahul Sagar is global network associate professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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