Without drastic modifications in Chinese or American behaviour – which I consider unlikely – the rise of China means three things. First, an extended period of political and security instability in Asia and the Pacific. Second, that there will be no quick recovery for the world economy and certainly no return to the pre-2008 good times of globalisation and open markets. Third, that security competition between the US and China will remain the principal contradiction, as Mao would have said.
The assertive China that we have seen since 2008 is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Security dilemmas between China and Japan, China and India, China and Vietnam and others will intensify.
In other words, the environment in which India pursues its interests will get more complex. And the very complexity of the situation in the Asia-Pacific gives India a choice of partners and collaborators to work with in the pursuit of its interests.
The Chinese drive to power and status is very different from the inferiority complex that elements of the Indian middle class display. Some recent examples of this complex are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements abroad about being ashamed of being Indian; the neuralgic glee with which the Chinese stock market crash in September 2015 occasioned a much-publicised meeting by Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with Indian business “to see how to take China’s place”; and the Indian media’s reaction to any thing to do with the India-China border.
An assertive China is unlikely to seek an early settlement of the boundary issue no matter how reasonable India may be – even though the technical work has all been done and over 50 years of stability on the border suggests that give and take on the basis of the status quo is the logical way forward. On the other hand, China’s other priorities have made Pakistan even more crucial to China’s purposes – religious extremism and terrorism in Xinjiang, overland access to the Indian Ocean, keeping India in check, a window on western arms technology, the Chinese commitment and presence in POK, etc.
Pakistan’s game is to suck India into confrontation, thus establishing Pakistan’s utility to those who feel concern at India’s rise and acquisition of power and agency — China, the US and others. Today, Russia sells arms to Pakistan, the US is discussing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and Afghanistan’s future with her, and China has committed US$ 46 billion to Pakistan, all representing increased commitments to Pakistan which are an order of magnitude bigger than ever before. In the last year, India has equated itself with Pakistan and is asking the West to refrain from supporting Pakistan. However, the US and its allies follow their interests, not sentiment or logic. So long as Pakistani terrorism is not a threat to them (as when General Musharraf handed over Al Qaeda elements and they went after Osama bin Laden themselves) they will not expend blood or treasure eliminating Pakistan-origin terrorism for India.
Add to this China’s dependence on the Indian Ocean, and her suspicions about India-US defence cooperation and strategic coordination. Taken together, these factors make it likely that China will keep the boundary issue alive as a lever in the relationship with India. Nor is it likely that a CPC leadership that increasingly relies on nationalism for its legitimacy will find it easy to make the compromises necessary for a boundary settlement. This, incidentally, is also true of India. This is one reason why public Chinese rhetoric on the boundary has become stronger in the last few years, even though their posture on the border has not changed.
But there is more to India and China than the boundary. In fact, the overall salience of the boundary in the relationship has diminished considerably over time, now that the Boundary Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 and subsequent CBMs have stabilised the status quo, which neither side has tried to change fundamentally in the last 30 years, while improving their own capabilities and position.
Bilaterally, China is now India’s largest trading partner in goods, while we compete for global markets. Today, over 11,000 Indian students study in China, and we have mechanisms to deal with issues like trans-border rivers, the trade deficit and so on.
And on several global issues in multilateral forums we have worked together, each in pursuit of our own interests — the WTO, climate change negotiations and so on.
Fundamentally we have a relationship with elements of cooperation and competition at the same time. This duality is also true in terms of core national interests. Both countries have an interest in improving on the existing security and economic order. This is why we have been among the founders of the AIIB and NDB. But we compete in the periphery that we share, hence the Indian hesitation on OBOR and our sensitivity about the Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean littoral. And neither thinks the other has accepted its territorial integrity.
In this situation, the rest of the world can only be a limited enabler in India-China relations, since they will use India-China competition for their own purposes, as we see with our other neighbours, to a lesser or greater degree. Ultimately, this is a critical relationship which will determine our future which we will have to deal with ourselves. Foreign policy is not events, drama, visits or projection. It is hard work guided by a vision of India’s interests, and no relationship is better proof of this than our relationship with China.
As far as I can see, the pattern of competition side by side with cooperation will continue to mark the bilateral relationship in the short term. The one thing that could change this prognosis is the fact that India and China (and Japan too) have seen the rise to power since 2012 of conservative, authoritarian centralisers, conservative by the standards of their own parties and societies, with little experience at the centre, and strong ideological predispositions to nationalist or even chauvinist rhetoric. While the leaders have been careful in public, the terms in which foreign and security policy are discussed in China, India (and Japan) have become much more shrill. Anti-foreign views, jingoistic slogans, intolerant ideas, and downright bad manners are common not just on the internet. These would not matter in normal times but these are times when governments are under stress, and could seek external release from internal difficulties.
The other risk in India-China relations comes from the mutual gap between perception and reality. Quite frankly, the China that I see described in Indian commentary on China bears little relationship to the China that I have worked with, lived in and see on my visits. The same is true of Chinese perceptions of India, though to a lesser degree. The problem has become more acute recently. Narratives of inevitable conflict and clashing interests can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Before 1962, both India and China operated on the basis of an idealised construct of the other which was quite distinct from reality. Besides, throughout the 1950s, the gap between scholarship and policy in both India and China grew wider and wider. The result was conflict.
It is not my point that we are in a similar situation today. Far from it. In fact, I am convinced that we are at a moment of opportunity for India-China relations as a result of the rapid development of both countries in the last 30 years, of what we have achieved bilaterally in this period, and of the evolution of the international situation in the last few years. I would go to the extent of saying that both countries could benefit their core interests if they worked together.
But to realise their potential, it is essential that both countries understand each other and the reality and perceptions that guide their actions. Frankly if we make policy thinking of China as a dragon, a mythical beast, that policy is guaranteed to fail.
Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from January 2010 to May 2014.