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A file photo of Xi Jinping. Photo: AP
A file photo of Xi Jinping. Photo: AP

Opinion | Power is the only currency that will work in dealing with China

We must adopt a hard-nosed realist approach to avoid being contained by a Middle Kingdom that accepts no sovereign equal

In January 2016, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China—a position that outranks his commonly used job title of president—made an important speech assessing the global situation. China, in his view, was faced with “three unprecedented situations" and “three dangers". On the opportunity side of the ledger, it was “closer than ever before to being the centre of the world stage", he said; “It is closer to achieving its goals; and it now has the ability and the self-confidence to achieve its objectives." The dangers he spoke of were external aggression and internal division, an economic slowdown and political challenges to the party’s supremacy.

The full import of his words can only be understood in the light of China’s 200-year-long quest for acquiring enough wealth and power, or “fuqiang", to regain the Middle Kingdom. Now, China is not alone in desiring to become a global power, but the difference is in its mindset. It sees itself as a peerless global hegemon and refuses to even acknowledge the possibility of any other sovereign state. Other countries can either be tributaries if they accept Chinese domination, or barbarians if they don’t. It was only in 1861, after the defeat at the hands of European colonial powers that the Chinese emperor reluctantly conceded that “England is an independent sovereign state, let it have equal status with China". A number of scholars hold that this world-view forms the genetic code of Chinese foreign policy to this day. As the Canadian scholar Stephen N. Smith points out, “Xi Jinping’s neighbourhood strategy rests on an asymmetric bargain: respect China’s core interests in exchange for benevolence." Kowtow to the emperor and receive lavish gifts in return.

Xi’s China sees itself as having sufficient wealth and power to conduct itself as the Middle Kingdom, albeit with 21st century trappings. Only the United States stands in its way. That is why it is engaged in a singular contest with America, aiming to push it out of its neighbourhood and limit its global influence. The world is dealing with an uber-realist party-state and a highly pragmatic society, both of which are committed to fuqiang and have deep-rooted ideas on what to do with it.

One problem for China is that India does not see itself as anyone’s tributary. But there’s a deeper problem. India’s own civilizational world-view recognizes multiple sovereigns in co-existence and contest in a raja-mandala, and is comfortable recognizing China as another sovereign state in a plural international system. The Middle Kingdom, as we saw, does not reciprocate this. There is thus a fundamental underlying tension between the two states arising from mutually irreconcilable differences in their civilizational world-views.

This should have meant frequent conflicts between the two over history, but there were in fact very few. The first recorded military conflict between the two, in 648 CE, occurred in part for this reason, when the Tang Chinese allied with Tibetan and Nepalese forces to conduct a punitive expedition against one of Harsha’s successors. War was rare because the Himalayas were an insurmountable physical barrier that separated armies. Only in the 20th century, when technology made it easier to traverse the mountains, did military conflict become more frequent.

Just as the old Himalayas were receding, nuclear weapons emerged as the new strategic barriers to discourage war. We need these new Himalayas to be high, which—contrary to recurring anxieties—can be managed with credible minimum deterrence and a ‘no first use’ doctrine. However, as we have seen, nuclear deterrence neither rules out limited military conflict nor ameliorates the structural tensions between the two states. It just shifts the latter to other domains.

Few Indian thinkers and political leaders envisage supremacy over China for continental or global dominance. On the other hand, most Chinese intellectuals and leaders see their country as a regional hegemon. Periodic attempts to create a cooperative framework—“Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai", “Chindia", and more recently, the Wuhan Spirit—are doomed to fail because the Chinese believe that “one mountain cannot contain two tigers" and Indians refuse to accept a less-than-tiger status.

India must recognise that power is the only currency of engagement with China. Beijing has had no qualms in reneging on friendship (with Nehru), ideology (with the Soviet Union), law (with the UK), norms (with South East Asia) or on economic interdependence (with the US) in order to pursue its interests, when the balance of power offered it an opportunity to do so. Even a pandemic of Chinese origin is not an exception.

On the border dispute, Indian leaders from Nehru to Modi have prudently preferred not to confront China militarily until we have adequate economic power for such an enterprise. But Beijing knows this and wrecks it: by waging war, as in 1962 when it was relatively stronger, using Pakistan as a proxy, supporting insurgent groups, keeping India unsettled by sustaining the border dispute, and generally by seeking to limit India’s rise. No other power, except Pakistan, has a structural interest in containing India. Unlike Pakistan, though, China may have the ability to do it.

Yes, this is a bleak reading, but realism is necessary. The current moment is an opportunity for us to inject a generational clarity in our thinking and approach. In the subsequent parts of this series of three essays, we will look at how the world order is shaping up and what India must do to promote its national interest.

This is the first of a three-part series on how India could deal with China.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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