One of India’s leading Sinologists, Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, passed away in December 2009. Mira (1930-2009), as those who dared call her, was a fine diplomat, an erudite scholar and a polished China-hand, who spent a lifetime knowing and understanding China, through experience and sustained scholarship. The Hindu paid homage, “(Mira) … was capable of being objective even in the most trying of circumstances.” Decades ago, with respect to the Sino-Indian border, she wrote the Chinese strategy begins with an ‘affirmation and statement of the problem’ backed by political and diplomatic drive, and ground measures. Though critical about India’s approach to China, she noted that the Chinese strategy did not include taking the ‘territorial interest or territorial sensitivities of the other.’ That has, clearly, not changed.
Today, as India and China stand in the middle of weeks of a prolonged face-off at the borderlands, a trijunction where China, Bhutan and India meet, there are other trijunctions such as the India-Nepal-China at Kalapani in waiting. There is, thus, a need to rise above the whiplash of patriotism and take an objective view of the situation.
Part of the problem has been that India has not been able to predict and pre-empt China because India’s own hands have been tied: from political myopia, pressing domestic economic issues to half-full coffers. A decade ago, China was building the railway line to Tibet and now plans to extend it to Nepal. This has been public knowledge; China’s listening posts in the South Asian neighbourhood are known; China’s deep interest of late, in Bhutan, is no state-secret. India’s increasing physical and military infrastructure build-up in the Northeast has been the answer, but is this good enough? The economic asymmetry between India, the proverbial ‘caged tiger,’ and China is fundamental and runs deep. Only India’s rise as an economic power can change the equation—unfortunately or fortunately, the Chinese are right about ‘development (being) the fundamental principle.’ But till that happens, what?
India is lately taking steps in the right direction, as it goes about adapting non-alignment, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Mongolia (the first visit by an Indian PM), inking a civilian nuclear deal with Australia and concluding the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with America in August 2016.
As India adapts, China is too adapting to its changed destiny. China, a grand ‘civilisational state’ with a formidable history, has economically ‘risen’ and so has Chinese militarily prowess, commensurate with its economic rise. In the past, China, with her own preoccupations, almost overlooked India. Unlike the challenges of North Korea and South Korea/America/Japan at the doorstep and the Russian giant in the north and the Central Asian backyard, India with its own beasts was a lesser problem. That may change—if India chooses to ‘join the bandwagon’ or ‘balance’ China with America.
While Chinese goods have made their presence felt in the alleys of Karol Bagh, hoardings of Haier appliances and Lenovo laptops greet us at airports and highways, and middle-class Indians brandish Xiaomi phones, weighty Chinese soft power initiatives and goodwill gestures have been pithy. India’s Khans have fans in China—Han Chinese to Turkic Muslims—but just who are China’s ‘king of hearts’ in India, nobody knows.
While one cannot predict the outcome of a military clash between India and China, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand the larger regional mood in East Asia, or the global pulse on China. Chinese economy may no longer be hard-landing, China’s political stability ‘may last a hundred years,’ but is China frittering away its hard-earned goodwill, is the question. While the Chinese strategy is old, what is new is China’s changing discourse, a departure from the previously upheld policy of China, ‘biding its time.’ China’s foreign policy has lately been characterised by small but hefty shifts seeking a reversal of its ‘hundred years of humiliation.’
What veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger called Chinese ‘salami’ technique in diplomatic parleys is being tested on the ground—beginning with small territorial claims, here and there. China’s claims in the South China Sea alluding to a historic nine-dash line is a case in point. There are other claimants as well (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei). China’s construction activities in the South China Sea, building airports to upgrading an island (Woody Island) to municipal status has caused much heartburn in the region. In fact, the Philippines took the unprecedented step of taking China to court (in 2016), which went in favour of the former.
Sino-Vietnam relations have been rocky, disturbing because of the visible asymmetry of power. China offering nine blocks within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to global bidders (in June 2012), placing Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Vietnam’s EEZ in 2014 have caused an uproar—in Vietnam and in the region.
The mood in the region is such that the reticent and diplomatically suave Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, in a reply to Ian Bremmer’s question “What are the consequences of no TPP?” (Time, 2016), said, “It has to be deeper economic and broad relationships. You do not do things which the Chinese do. The Chinese go around with lollipops in their pockets. They have aid, they have friendship deals, they build you a Prime Minister’s office or President’s office, or Parliament House or Foreign Ministry. For them, trade is an extension of their foreign policy.”
There are ample suggestions from scholars and journalists that China is playing trade using ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ in an obtuse manner. The Chinese chose to bail beleaguered Malaysian state development fund 1 MDB (1 Malaysia Development Bhd), invested Sing $17.5 billion in an electrified railway linking east to west coast of Malaysia, and are building a deep-water port in Kuantan (west coast of Malaysia). Malaysia is a claimant in South China Sea.
At the ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Manila (in August), Filipino foreign secretary Alan Cayetano candidly admitted that it was the Philippines that pushed for dropping ‘land reclamations’ and ‘militarisation’ in the ASEAN joint communiqué (perceived to be against Beijing). Earlier in June, the Philippines received Chinese backing for reconstruction efforts in war-torn Marawi, including a pricey weapons shipment.
In that sense, neither the Chinese nor Indians (or others) miss the larger picture. What lies at stake is greater than ownership or construction of roads or slivers of territory, be it in the high seas or wild frontiers. Nor is it about cartography, demarcated borders, watershed lines or incursions. More than that, it is about an abstract philosophy, difficult to define, that underlies at the core of the global community.
A united ASEAN, Sino-Japanese ‘hot economics’ despite frigid political relations, and India-China diplomatic thaw that has put Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo devices in the hands of millions of Indians have been decades in the making. The Chinese and the Indians would be foolish to upset the applecart. For the average Indian living in China—be it in Beijing or Shanghai or Yiwu—life is still very safe, and still happily routine, despite what a section of the media says. Chinese business travellers are still arriving in India, despite the travel advisory—and so is the other way round.
But there are worrying signals—not just emanating from the Indian border. Ripples have rocked Singapore as recently as early August when a senior academic Huang Jing (an American citizen of Chinese ethnicity) in a reputed Singapore institution had his PR (permanent residency) revoked and was asked to leave Singapore for “trying to influence the city-state’s foreign policy on behalf of an unnamed foreign government.” According to The Straits Times, this is the “first publicly known case of its kind in nearly two decades.” The ministry of home affairs statement said, “Huang used his senior position in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to deliberately and covertly advance the agenda of a foreign country at Singapore’s expense. He did this in collaboration with foreign intelligence agents.” Though not named, people say they know.
In another development, which is again no accident, US President Donald Trump authorised an inquiry into China’s theft of intellectual property. Perhaps it is as the Chinese themselves may explain, a case of ‘killing the chicken, to scare the monkey.’ While life goes on and business is as usual, the takeaway for a ‘China rising’ is that the spread of discontent and backlash against China may lead to a dent if not derailment. This would not lend prestige, credence, credibility or shine to what has been an extraordinary ‘China story’ where people now dream the ‘China dream’. The wise Chinese know to read the signals, and when to employ their legendary ‘Mao’s smile’.
Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi