Singapore: Few scholars in Asia understand the nuances of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in China-India relations and China-US relations better than Jing Huang.
Whether it is advising on the “art of skilfully negotiating the asymmetry of power" between India and China to manage their peaceful rise, or focusing on pragmatic cooperation between the US and China to maintain regional security and stability, the academic is highly sought after by politicians and policymakers in both the East and the West.
To cite an example, when the Dalai Lama was seeking an advisor in 2004 on Tibet, he was keen that three conditions be met by an effective facilitator: he or she must be a globally regarded scholar; have a very good relationship with the senior Chinese leadership; and be “objective-minded" in his/her views as well as research.
The Tibetan spiritual leader met Huang during a visit to the Brookings Institution in Washington and they have been in close touch since.
Huang has traversed the East and the West with relative ease in the last five decades and remains committed to fostering a meaningful and productive dialogue between the two.
He has trained and taught in some of the best universities in the world including Harvard and Stanford in the US, and Fudan University in China, and has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Currently, he is a professor and director of the Centre on Asia and Globalization (CAG), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, at the National University of Singapore.
Huang—whose parents were both medical doctors in China in the 60s—was raised as an “army kid" who moved school 12 times during high school.
He credits this for making him adaptive and for understanding the legitimacy of issues faced by the “other side". He is somewhat unusual for a Chinese scholar as he speaks candidly and openly about China’s rise and its aspirations for the new global order. He thinks of India as an “ally" more than as a “rival" and one with whom China seeks to forge a stronger relationship in the coming decade despite its tense history of the last century.
“Notwithstanding the war of 1962, where China is probably the only country that won the war but lost the territories it had claimed", says Huang with a smile, “the Chinese largely view India with great fascination and interest."
He thinks this is in some part due to centuries of penetrating influence of Buddhism in China, with roots in Hinduism, and India’s pervasive culture of spirituality despite deep poverty, something that he notes is lost in China today in its quest for material success.
Another observation he makes is that while most Indians see Pakistan and China as the two key threats, the Chinese view the US and Japan as its two key threats. “It is critical, therefore, for the two neighbours to better understand and appreciate each other’s mindset and also the common culture and customs they share. In this regard, India can help by easing its restrictions on visas for the Chinese and encourage them to travel more for a meaningful people-to-people exchange that can reduce the trust deficit between the two nations, " he says.
What are the key strategic priorities for Chinese leadership vis-a-vis India in 2014?
First, China wants to ensure that under no circumstances—be it domestic or international pressure—should the relationship with India turn sour, and in fact wants to build on progress made to date to foster a stronger bilateral relationship.
Second, the new leadership recognizes that China has to address the sensitive issue of trade imbalance with India. Despite the inherent challenges, it will seek to figure out how and by what means to make progress in this regard.
Third, the new Chinese leadership is keen to work with India to maintain peace and stability in the region given the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan and to ensure that Pakistan does not de-stabilize as a result.
What role do you anticipate US to play in managing India and China relations?
The US has to slowly transform from being a dominant enforcer in the region to being more of a strategic balance keeper and especially between these two rising nations.
It is obvious that China is doing a much better job in growing its bilateral relationship with India than the US, which has lost much ground that it had made in the past.
(US President Barack) Obama has not been able to restore the kind of coziness with India that Bush had forged. I am disappointed in the Obama administration policies with respect to India. It has not paid enough attention to India, but only paid lip service and made some strategic missteps.
US did not seek India’s advice or support on how to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. It went at it unilaterally essentially due to Richard Holbrooke’s policy to use the Pakistan Taliban to contend with the Afghanistan Taliban. Bush administration on the other hand was keen to eliminate the entire Taliban and not just the one in Afghanistan and sought India’s cooperation also in this regard. Obama’s policy has clearly not worked well in this regard as the US has not been able to contain the Taliban in either country and now they simply want to withdraw.
This is in large part due to not bringing the strategic value of India into play with whom it shares a common goal of countering terrorism.
The Obama administration has also not worked closely with India on this critical issue.
China is doing better on this front as it has a more sophisticated policy of offering cooperation without offending Pakistan.
Till date seven high-level meetings and summits have been conducted between US and India between 2011-2013, whereas (there have been) 15 between India and China. That is one big indicator of who is more pro-actively forging a relationship with India.
From China’s perspective, what concrete issues does it seek to work collaboratively with India on, in the near future?
First, the two countries share a mission to find a sustainable model for achieving modernization, as the model used by the developed countries—achieving modernization via industrialization—would have brought an environmental catastrophe to the entire world should China and India follow this model in their development.
For both nations this is an issue of sustainable development, not merely a climate change issue as the West sees it.
China has started to make good progress in this regard. In 2013 alone, China installed more solar power panels than US has done till date and more than all nations combined! This shows the seriousness with which China is attempting to resolve this issue. India can perhaps learn from China in this regard.
Second area of cooperation is how to work together to restructure the global financial order in the coming decades, so that the rising powers such as China and India can have more responsibility and say in world financial affairs. It used to be that rich countries had money and the poor had debt; now globalization has turned it around: the rich have debt and poor have money and savings! So, countries that have huge debt like the US and EU (European Union), need to necessarily share power with China and India in the coming decades. How quickly and effectively this happens will depend on how much India and China work together to achieve this common goal.
Thirdly, China and India share responsibility for regional and global peace and security. So far both countries have had a free ride on the security arrangements based on the US-led alliance system. These alliances, however, were established during the Cold War for containment and not integration, and they are by nature exclusive. Hence, rising powers such as China, India and Russia are not institutionally included in the regional/global security arrangements.
However, as they share more responsibility for and play an increasing role in the regional and global order due to their expanding economies, they need to be integrated into the regional and global security system. And this is a huge opportunity as well as a formidable challenge to the two largest rising powers.
What is your view on Tibet and how and when will it be resolved?
The Tibet issue tends to be less prominent in global as well as Chinese affairs largely because the softening of the US and West’s positions on this issue because of China’s rise, and so this is for now on the back-burner.
The Dalai Lama has not given up his middle way policy, which I see as a rational approach. He continues to seek reconciliation with Beijing for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution. The essential difference is to what degree Tibet should be allowed to be autonomous or have a “meaningful autonomy". But the hardliners on both sides have indeed jointly made a genuine dialogue on this matter more difficult than before.
As far as India is concerned, China simply cannot fault it on managing this issue, as it has shown great statesmanship in this regard. The Indian government has not used the Dalai Lama as a tool for leverage and has also not allowed him to make political statements or speeches from its soil. It has simply provided a space for his exiled government to stay in a neutral territory till the issue is resolved which is very wise in my view.
What is the Chinese view of the growing relationship between India and Japan?
Surely India should, and will, use its growing relationship with Japan and US as leverage in dealing with China in key matters; indeed it will be unwise for India not to do so, just as China optimizes its relationship with Pakistan and Russia to gain leverage with India. But this does not mean that India will carry other’s water in its relationship with China, or vice versa. And I believe both sides understand the game and will handle it rationally.
So, are you optimistic about China-India relations in the coming decade?
A real danger is that China and India would both be tempted to overplay their hand or leverage in order to manoeuvre this critical bilateral relationship to their own advantage.
India needs to acknowledge that China is quite some ways ahead economically and in terms of geopolitical importance today and try and bargain accordingly on sensitive matters.
Similarly, China should also avoid behaving like an arrogant bully and respect India’s position on key matters.
What makes this relationship very challenging is the asymmetry of power between the two nations and what makes it further complicated is that both peoples are proud as well. India simply cannot stand the perception, let alone the fact that China would look down at it sometimes. Similarly, the most serious offence to China is when India does not take it seriously.
So, in my view, China has to initiate the compromise whenever necessary. It is wise for China to be humble and tolerant in order to together resolve issues that will have massive regional and global implications.
China is determined to keep India neutral even if it can’t win it over to its side. It will be a nightmare for China if India goes to the US side and China will do everything to work with India to forge deeper bonds. India should also realize that China’s rise is unstoppable so it is in India’s interest also to work with China than work against it.