Wuhan, a city on the banks of the Yangtze river in hinterland China, far from the country’s prosperous ‘golden coastline’ of Shanghai and political capital Beijing, is a city pregnant with metaphor. In 1966, it was in Wuhan that Chairman Mao—then at the lowest ebb of personal popularity—swam across the Yangtze to signal that he was, contrary to rumours, in good health and ready to take on his critics; an act described as one of Mao’s greatest in political theatre. That Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian PM Narendra Modi met in Wuhan is a strong political message which underscored the significance of Sino-Indian relations: “Flow as the Yangtze and the Ganges,” as Xi said in the course of six meetings spread over 24 hours.
The biggest takeaway from the summit, which had no set agenda, was ‘strategic guidance’ to militaries to build trust, and ‘peace and tranquillity’ in the India-China border region. Further, the door for communication channels, via reciprocal invitation, has opened. To his credit, Modi tapped his personal chemistry with Xi to seek ‘predictability’ on border issues—general elections are not far away.
In the brouhaha, it is important to keep in mind three aspects that are very important for India in the context of managing China. First, as Modi articulated, view ‘developments in India-China relations from a strategic and long-term perspective’. Second, view China’s so-called ‘hostile acts’ from a Chinese perspective rather than a India-focused perspective. Third, a pressing need to pay attention to the widening gap between China and India, in terms of social indicators and economic growth—because economic growth is a key driver of power. China respects power.
Reset India’s China policy as long-term and strategic: Modi’s visit has come at a time when India’s China policy needs introspection. Several factors have led to a questioning whether India’s policy is adequate, beginning with the baggage of history—a post-1962 policy that focused on short-term, piecemeal, ‘play-as-you-go’ that placed the territorial dispute at the centre with trade and people-to-people contacts at the periphery. India’s China policy was tactical in intent and may have well-suited the times and climes so far. But beyond governments of the day and across the political spectrum, a long-term strategy and vision is needed to guide India’s engagement with China.
The change has to align with the shifting geopolitical landscape of Asia in the last decades. India’s China policy is no longer adequate to address China’s key power status—cemented by its dramatic rise and emergence as the world’s second most important player.
Perhaps this has reflected in India’s inability to pre-empt China. For the record, China’s ‘entente cordiale’ in South Asia is not a surprise. The Qinghai-Tibet line (2006) was slated to extend to Shigatse (the seat of the Panchen Lama, in 2014), and onwards to Kyirong (Gyirong in Chinese), Nepal, by 2020. The China-Nepal bus service along the 736-km Kodari Highway started in 2005, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), among others, has drawn attention to Nepal’s cooperation in clamping down on Tibetan refugees. Refugees from Tibet to Nepal have trickled from the average of 2,000 in 2008 to less than 200 in 2013.
With respect to Bhutan (which does not maintain diplomatic relations with China), following the 1998 agreement between the two on the border, both maintain Honorary Consul since 2004. In a decade, Bhutan’s national sentiment has quietly undergone a change.
The picture in Pakistan is no different. The upgrade of the 1,300-km Karakoram Highway (N-35), regular bus service between China and Pakistan beginning in 2006, and China’s interest in a Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) began with the construction of the Gwadar port on the Persian Gulf in 2002, following Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit in 2001. Both were a prelude to the current $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the ambit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, 2015).
Understand Chinese expansionism from Chinese perspective: India reads and interprets China’s policy and action in the neighbourhood, particularly South Asia, as directed against itself, or as ‘anti-Indian’. The context of China’s approach—the larger picture emerging in East Asia, Northeast Asia and the Pacific—is often lost in din. What is obscured is why China is staking claims and what underlies the rationale of territorial ‘salami slicing’, ‘historic rights’ and ‘One China’ policy.
The answer is writ in post-1978 China, which had been following moderniser Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character principle of ‘biding its time’ as it ‘got rich’. But that did not stop China from stoking a familiar theme of humiliation—‘One Hundred Years of Humiliation’, as China calls it (following the Opium Wars of the 19th century).
Though never colonised in the manner of India, China’s ‘middle-kingdom’ complex (where it imagined itself as the centre of the world) has raised its head, that of China wronged by the Western powers. For example, Hong Kong’s reversal to China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) in 1997 was framed as a redressal of the wrong.
China’s policy in the 1990s and 2000s to ‘keep a low profile and bide your time’ (taoguang yanghui) has metamorphosed into to ‘do something’ (yousuozuowei), with aspirations of becoming a ‘Comprehensive National Power’ (zonghe guoli) by 2050. China is claiming ambiguous ‘historic rights’—‘cow’s tongue’ or the ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea—which goes back to the 15th century. China is stirring a hornet’s nest in the East China Sea, claiming that the disputed Senkaku Islands (as known to the Japanese) or Diaoyu Islands (as known to the Chinese) belong to China.
Seen in this peculiar context, Doklam or South China Sea, CPEC or East China Sea, Tawang or Senkaku Islands, the theme is a familiar one, where ‘China rising’ is increasing hinging on South Asia, East Asia, Northeast Asia and the Pacific. As China sees it, it is not undermining India or Japan, the Philippines or Australia (rumours go there are unofficial talks between China and Vanuatu for a military base in Vanuatu, which Vanuatu denies but Australia is concerned about), but contesting on the back of history, as it chooses to interpret it.
India needs to view the totality of not just what is happening in its own neighbourhood alone. The Quad (informal Security Dialogue between America, India, Japan and Australia), America’s pivot and Japan’s ‘Asian Security Diamond’ and even Australia’s eagerness to be part of Malabar naval exercise, are important responses—and India will need to pick and choose as well as keep a strategic balance, as it buys time.
Economic strength as key driver of power: “It’s the economy, stupid,” is key to India’s long-term engagement. China is proof that economic strength is the key driver of power. Beijing’s power status emanates from its forex surplus and its double-digit growth up until 2010, and growth at 6.9% (2017) is still high by international standards. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), developing Asia would need $26 trillion from 2016-30, or $1.7 trillion per year (double the $750 billion estimate by ADB in 2009). It is Beijing’s cheque book that is filling the blank.
Economics is causing unprecedented alignments. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has normalised relations with China despite the history of bad blood over the South China Sea. In 2016, the Philippines won the landmark arbitration case at the international tribunal in The Hague, but today, Duterte’s ambitious three-trillion-peso ‘build, build, build’ infrastructure plan banks on $24 billion support from China.
In Malaysia, Najib Razak, on the cusp of elections (May 2018), has shored up his popularity because of mega-infrastructure plans, including the $13 billion East Coast Rail Link (2017) connecting the east coast to Port Klang on the west coast—backed by China. In the ASEAN, Cambodia’s long-time strongman Hun Sen has emerged as the poster-child of ascendant China, casino to real estate to infrastructure, including the recent $57 million bridge, backed by China.
In the medium and long term, it is economic strength that will give India economic and military muscle (with a few good partnerships with allies along the way). In that sense, in the grand equation of Sino-Indian relations, in a role-reversal of sorts, India buys time to ‘bide its time’.
The author is Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal.