China’s Bid to Redefine World Order Part - I
Watan Ki Fikar Kar Nadan ! Museebat Aane Wali Hai
Teri Barbadiyoon ke Mashware Hien Aasmanoo Mien
(Spare a thought for your country. Troubles are brewing
There are Plans are being hatched for you destruction)
− Poet Mohammed Iqbal
The rise, decline and fall of empires is a leitmotif of history. Big and small, they emerged, dominated, declined and disintegrated, leaving behind their imprint on the chronicles of time for historians (like Edward Gibbon and Jadunath Sarkar) to record.
Who was the world’s first empire-builder? It is difficult to decide. Probably, it all started with Alexander, the Great and Julius Caesar. Between 1206 and his death in 1227, the Mongol titan, Genghis Khan conquered nearly 12 million square miles of territory − far exceeding the territorial size of present-day China or the United States. Along the way, he cut a ruthless swathe through Asia and Europe that left untold millions dead. But he did also modernize Mongolian culture, embracing religious freedom, and also help open contact between the East and the West. What’s, today, the place of Mongolia in the comity of nations, is an altogether different issue.
The same is true of all succeeding empires, including the once-mighty Mughal Empire in our country and the long-lasting British Empire. Their rise inevitably was followed by stagnation and then, decline and disintegration.
In recent times, the end of the First World War led to the slow but inexorable shift of the center of power from London to Moscow in the east, and Washington D C in the West. At the end of the twentieth century, the power axis once again shifted. Beijing and Washington emerged as the two new epicenters of power after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Pursuit of Power
Whichever the empire and whoever the empire builder(s), relentless pursuit of power till a more powerful competitor emerges, is another theme of history. As a matter of fact, stripped of the deceptive veneer of sophistication, the world of realpolitik is frighteningly akin to the Hobbesian state of Homo homini lupus (“man is a wolf to [his fellow] man.”) All said, powerful nation states behave with weaker states, especially their neighbors, “just as beasts in the jungle do.”
It is a clichéd truism that nation states cannot choose their neighbors. They are there, on account of their geographical location on the global map. Poland, for instance, cannot wish away Russia on its east and Germany on its west. We have Pakistan on our north-west and China on our north and north-east.
Pakistan is an ideological state in a permanent mental frame of war against “Hindu” India. China is a hegemon on rise to beat all hegemons of the past. And between the egregiously ambitious China and Army-ruled Pakistan, they constitute a formidably grim threat to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. How to deal with this ominous threat is a challenge before our polity − a challenge that’s not going to go away in the foreseeable future.
Rise of China
The nineteenth century belonged to England and it used it to build an empire over which a distrusting sun never set to keep a watch on John Bull and his sordid deeds.
United States ruled the roost over the twentieth century, particularly after the First World War. Similarly, the twenty-first century is being, and will be, dominated by China. Hence the importance for us to understand the dimensions of the threatening rise and rise of the People’s Republic of China.
Today, most China watchers agree that China’s present President, Xi Jinping has established himself as an undisputed supremo so much so that no one is sure how far he would go if the pro-democracy forces keep standing their ground. He has shown no leniency whatever against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang, and he has made sure that government censors tightened controls on Instagram and other Internet programs in Hong Kong. A possible repeat of the bloody crackdown 25 years ago against protesters in Tiananmen Square is not at all ruled out anywhere else in China.
Given this background, Narendra Modi’s bold bid to bring up the Ladakh border incursions with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter’s recent visit to India, is unlikely to make much of a difference to what the Chinese have been doing so far. They are very likely to continue undeterred with their plans. When Modi emphasized the need to maintain peace and tranquility on the borders, Jinping merely noted that “there may be some incidents as the area is not clearly demarcated”, which, plainly, means these incursions will merrily continue.
It is abundantly clear that China is not at all keen on peace with status quo. India and China have different ideas of a possible settlement. The power equation is also heavily tilted in favor of the Chinese, even though, if it ever comes to war, we are unlikely to be as unprepared as we were in 1962. Indeed, we’re today free from the Nehruvian woolly-headedness. But do we have a long-term strategic understanding of how to deter the Chinese for quite some time to come?
To deal with the Chinese − or for that matter any super-power − we need to comprehend what the country in question is aiming at, and what’s it that we expect from it. In other words we must visualize what its geopolitical worldview is and where do we fit therein. Similarly, it is a question of how others fit in our world view. How they see India-China power equations evolving over the next few decades, and what levers we have to counter them, and they to manipulate us. Above all, we need to understand Chinese history and what drives them to do what they’re doing and are likely to do in the future.
Expectation from China
So far as we are concerned, there is no mystery about our expectations from China. Everybody knows the answer. We want status quo, and an assurance that China will respect current borders and areas under our control. Nationalist bravado apart, we don’t expect return of the areas they grabbed from us in 1962.
China, on the other hand, is not a status quo power in the Indian sub-continent. This is the first thing we need to understand about their intentions. They want to change the status quo, while we want to preserve it.
The Chinese want several things. Above all, they want to be the hegemons of Asia. They want a Pax Sina where they are the Asiacops and all other powers are subservient to them. Anyone who is willing to accept Chinese supremacy will be showered with their largesse. They want control of the South China Sea and all the sea routes and undersea resources around the Chinese coast.
And this, frankly, brings them in conflict with almost the whole of Asia. And surprisingly, having the whole world for your enemy does not deter them. They believe they have the power to enforce their writ. This is why they will do almost anything to prevent a Japan-India-Australia-Vietnam-Philippine power axis materializing.
This is the broad outline of their general geopolitical goal in Asia. In the Indian subcontinent, they want at least three things from us: more areas in Ladakh so that their roads to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan-occupied Jammu & Kashmir and to Tibet have greater defensible depth. This is why they want India out of Siachen, and they are using their proxy Pakistan to propel this idea of demilitarizing Siachen.
Most of all, China wants Tawang − which houses the second most important Tibetan monastery − and some more strategically important parts of Arunachal Pradesh, if not the whole. Overall, they want India to play by Chinese rules. It is to put pressure on India to settle the border on Chinese terms that they are doing big infrastructure deals with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Myanmar and Maldives.
Pakistan in India-China Equation
Apart from the above string-of-pearls alliances with countries in the Indian sub-continent, the Chinese clearly use Pakistan as their attack dog. Whatever China wants achieved coercively from India, it will do so through Pakistan. We need to understand that the China-Pakistan relationship is merely a patron-client one. When China says bark, Pakistan will bark. When it says bite, Pakistan will not hesitate to obey the command.
This does not mean the Chinese have any respect for Pakistan. Absolutely not! In fact, it’s just the reverse. The Chinese have only contempt for Pakistan because they know it is a basket case and a future danger to their north-western borders, where the Uighur Muslim minority is emerging as a more potent threat than restive Tibetans. The Chinese regard Pakistanis as very useful instrument in their strategy to keep India tied down and under unrelenting pressure to settle with them. If we ever agree to Chinese terms of settling the border and accept their supremacy, they will almost immediately change their tune on Pakistan. The Pakistanis know this, but can’t do much because they are pariahs in the eyes of the rest of the world. The world knows Pakistan is the snake-pit of global jihad. Pakistanis are holding on to China for dear life. It suits China to use Pakistan against us.
It is thus in India’s interest to let Pakistan break up and deal with the remnant states. West Asian and Indian history teaches us that Islam has never been able to bind countries and people on the basis of religion. The scholar in Maulana Azad could, for instance, visualize how partition of India would harm the Indian Muslims.
As long as Pakistan remains a vassal state of China, it will be inimical to India and ever willing to be used as a pawn against us. Already it has ceded territory close to Siachen to the Chinese in order to strengthen the Karakorum route.
Play the aggressive neighbor is a historical legacy of the Chinese history. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to be a unified state, and they have fought brutal wars among themselves to achieve this end. Long before the world had heard of nation states, the Chinese created one as early as 221 BC, with the advent of the Qin dynasty. The Chinese political developments have followed only one pattern – from thousands of small tribes to One China. According to Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order, around 2000 BC, the Chinese had around 3,000 groups of peoples or polities. In 1500 BC, this was down to 1,800, by 1200 BC to 170, dropping down to 23, seven and finally One China by 221 BC.
In contrast, India achieved real political unity only under the British in various stages after Battle of Plassey in 1757 – and more formally, in 1947. We should ever be grateful to Sardar Patel for our place on the map of the world.
Unification and state-building is always achieved through war. As Fukuyama says: “In both China and Europe, state formation was driven primarily by the need to wage war….War was without question the single most important driver of state formation during China’s Eastern Zhou dynasty. Between the beginning of the Eastern Zhou in 770 BC and the consolidation of the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, China experienced an unremitting series of wars that increased in scale, costliness and human lives.”
This shows what the Chinese went through many brutal wars to achieve unity and this means they are always willing to go to war to achieve a political purpose. They see unification and homogenization as an end in itself. Hence, their belligerence on Tibet and Taiwan. They consider Arunachal Pradesh as southern Tibet.
Does all this boil down to saying we will ultimately have to go to war with China?
No, what this means is that they will do so if they perceive us as weak. They only respect power, and India has to steadily build its economic and military muscle in order to deter the Chinese.
As a lonely power − both the United States and China are friendless superpowers – China sees red whenever other powers get together. This is why when Modi planned a Japan visit, the Chinese president quickly came a-calling.
The only other thing China respects apart from hard power is India’s soft power. India and China are two of the world’s oldest civilizations. As such, India’s soft power in the world can rival China’s. Moreover, given our completely different power trajectories, the world fears China but sees no harm –in fact, even welcomes − the rise of a more powerful India. How do we capitalize on this orientation, is the foremost task before our policy-makers.
Continued to “Dark Thundering Clouds on Horizons”