'When it Comes to China, it is Important for India to Pick its Fights Carefully'

Andrew Small, an expert on China and its relations with Pakistan and the US discusses the wider context to the ongoing standoff at Doklam.

File photo of Indian and Chinese soldiers at the border in Arunachal Pradesh. Credit: PTI

Andrew Small, a prominent expert on China and its relations with Pakistan, the US and the European Union, has a nuanced and deliberate take on developments inside the Middle Kingdom and its compulsions outside. A senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, Small wrote what is arguably the first real account of the friendship described as taller than the mountains and deeper than the oceans. His book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics was devoured by senior officials in the subcontinent as soon as it came out. He argued that the all-weather bond between India’s two hostile neighbours grew out of the ashes of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Small shared his thoughts on the current Doklam standoff at the Bhutan, India, China tri-junction with Seema Sirohi in Washington.

How do you think the Trump administration would react in case hostilities were to break out on the India-China border?

There is an element of unpredictability about how the Trump administration would handle any crisis but in most scenarios around the current situation, I would expect them to keep well out of things beyond quietly encouraging both sides to settle the issue. It would depend, of course, on the specifics of what transpired – if the situation really escalated, we’d be in very different territory.

Do you think China is using the disarray in Washington to its advantage? If so, how?

As we’ve seen from Davos to the Belt and Road Forum, China has sought to take advantage of the situation in Washington to position itself as the predictable, reliable and adult power during a period of high global uncertainty about the US. Its implicit position is that, while one may not like everything that Beijing is doing, it is at least committed to certain basic principles of an interconnected global order, whether the global trade system, combatting climate change, or the UN. On the economic front, it also has a message to the developing world – that with populism roiling the West, there is a real risk that they’ll pull up the ladder behind them; China is ready to step in as a driver of growth, trade and connectivity.

Handled in the right way, this is a situation that Beijing could really play to its advantage and the messages themselves are smart. The fundamental problem, however, is that China is not willing to make any sacrifices to establish a leadership position for itself – open its markets, take a magnanimous approach to its territorial disputes, take real risks with North Korea or any other area one could identify. If it pursued a charm offensive backed up with substance, this could really be a pivot moment for the global order; instead, none of the prior security and economic concerns about China have abated, and everyone is simply having to navigate them without a coherent direction in US policy.

How do you see the larger game between India and China playing out in the medium and long term given the gap between the two countries in terms of military strength, nuclear warheads, income levels, even life expectancy?

It’s not clear that India is militarily in a weaker position at the border – if anything, its relative position has been strengthening over time. India is also increasingly embedded in a network of relationships with other powers that can expect to maintain significant military, economic and technological advantages over China if they are able to operate in concert. That is precisely Beijing’s concern.

The difficulty India faces, however, is that there are some spheres where the ground is shifting in China’s favour and where there isn’t really any form of collective response. The Belt and Road initiative is probably the most striking case, where India doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to compete in a like-for-like fashion and where other partners who share India’s concerns are at best operating at a more modest scale than China – such as Japan – and at worst, not at all.

This is all the more striking in South Asia, where India typically doesn’t expect to operate in close alignment with other outside powers and where China’s growing economic and, to a lesser extent, military presence is coupled with a broader transition in its foreign policy, which sees it less hung up about questions of non-interference or overseas facilities for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

It makes it all the more important for India to pick its fights carefully rather than attempting to resist on all fronts – for instance, I think India is better placed in moulding and complementing Chinese economic efforts in South Asia to ensure that they’re maximally conducive to its own economic interests rather than taking a more sweeping position against the scheme.

China was adept at using Japanese and Western investments in East Asia and in China itself to advance its own position and there is no intrinsic reason why Beijing need be the chief beneficiary of connectivity investments in India’s periphery. There are very different questions in play if we’re talking about, say, dual-use ports or sovereignty disputes, and it’s certainly worth working with other like-minded countries to ensure that various states don’t become problematically dependent on China.

The tendency among some analysts, though, to subsume virtually all economic questions relating to China into zero-sum geopolitics isn’t a very helpful way of being able to address the issues effectively or manoeuvre some of these developments to India’s advantage.

Over time, China does face the nagging question that India is one of its few potential peer competitors and well before that, it will most likely face the problem of how to deal with relative decline vis-à-vis India and growing Indian capacity to influence China’s strategic environment. Even now, Indian GDP growth has been outpacing China’s. Evidently, as long as China continues to add an economy the size of India’s every few years, that’s not going to cause any sleepless nights in Zhongnanhai but it does change the long game: in most relationships, China believes that over time, the balance of power will continue to shift inexorably to its advantage; with India, it can’t be so confident. And China knows very well how much leverage a rising competitor can gain, even in a highly asymmetric overall power balance – all the more so when operating with other major power partners.

Have the Chinese become more nationalist under Xi Jinping?

Xi himself is more willing to take on the nationalist mantle than his more cautious predecessor but the broader dynamics predate him, whether one is talking about the general population or the shifts in views among Chinese foreign and security policy elites that have been such a contributing factor in China’s growing assertiveness. Xi embraces the notion of China acting as a great power, where Hu Jintao was in the transition between Deng’s strategy – keep a low profile, build your capabilities, never show leadership – and what we see today.

Andrew Small

Andrew Small. Credit: Twitter/@ajwsmall

How do you view Xi’s attempt to rewrite the rules of the game in Asia-Pacific? He has been threatening and pushing the envelope with just about every country on China’s periphery. 

This also predates Xi – even if he has pushed the strategy forward with gusto and taken some bolder steps, it’s recognisably consistent with the trajectory on which China has been heading since at least 2008. He has certainly owned and directed it – previously, there were lively debates among Sinologists about whether different foreign policy actors were forcing China towards steps that its leadership wasn’t always comfortable taking. That’s not a serious discussion any more. China’s approach is still carefully calibrated though – Beijing generally has a sense of what it can get away with and you haven’t seen risk taking comparable to, say, Moscow. The discussions in the region, and globally, would look very different if we were talking about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan rather than the militarisation of the South China Sea. Neither is it all stick – there are pay-offs for countries that are willing to be accommodating.

Why do you think the standoff happened? Was it India taking a step it wasn’t expected to or was China trying to test India’s commitment to Bhutan. Or any other reason?

There are several factors at play. China often has longer-term negotiating positions in mind with steps of this sort, which include the Sino-Bhutanese border – a frustrating lacuna among Chinese land border settlements – and the wider question of infrastructure development in these areas. There are also elements of miscalculation – India undoubtedly acted more forcefully than China had expected and Beijing likely thought this was far enough into the grey zone that it wouldn’t elicit such a response.

Meanwhile, the political environment in China leaves it more boxed-in than usual: the PLA’s 90th anniversary celebrations and the run-up to party Congress are not an ideal context in which to show flexibility. That combination – China’s underestimation of India’s response and a domestic context that limits its room for manoeuvre – can partly explain the unusually escalated tensions.

It’s hard to get away from the timing issue, though. While it’s always possible to lay out an overall guiding logic for China’s behaviour, that doesn’t answer the question: Why now? In that respect, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US has to be seen as providing immediate context while the general deterioration in Sino-Indian relations is the wider one.

China is looking to determine how various states’ dealings with the new US administration may condition their behaviour on strategic issues – is this an emboldening or an inhibiting backdrop for Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and others? That’s increasingly the prism through which Beijing looks at relations with India too – inaccurately, I think, in this instance, but China’s proclivity is still to believe that, in the absence of US backing, its neighbours would take a more accommodating stance. With the present turmoil in Washington, China is putting this to the test by means of both inducements and pressure. In that sense, the lessons that Beijing will take from Doklam extend well beyond the border issues.

What is your view of how the three countries have dealt with the situation? 

Evidently this incident has a very different flavour from previous border altercations, from the involvement of a third country to the strength of Chinese language at both official and unofficial levels. If there is ultimately a de-escalation, I think it will be seen as an adroit response on India and Bhutan’s part. But this can’t be assessed on a one-off basis – the concern is that if we are heading into a more difficult phase of Sino-Indian relations, there will be more such occurrences at the border, dealt in an atmosphere of deepening mutual hostility. That would be costly to both sides.

There are dynamics underway at the moment – not just in the bilateral relationship but in dealings with other parties too – that are tending to reinforce conflictual factors, with the consequent danger of a slide into something that starts to resemble outright rivalry. This is an important juncture at which to try to place the relationship on a footing that ensures that the inevitable elements of strategic competition between the two sides are managed within some predictable parameters and that there is a shared understanding of the rules. That has generally been true in recent decades – this has been an essentially well-managed relationship – but it is facing a different set of pressures now.

How seriously should one take the rhetoric coming from various Chinese outlets? 

The rhetoric can be seen partly to reflect the domestic political context in China – these really are a delicate few months. But it also reflects the fact that China genuinely believes that India’s actions are of a qualitatively different nature to prior border incidents and necessitate a stronger pushback. This is the reason that so many analysts have been concerned that there is a real risk of escalation this time, even if I tend to side with those who think the parties will come up with a mutually acceptable way out.

The willingness on Beijing’s part to elevate disputes with India in the broader political discourse at home is worrying in a different way. Typically, there is an asymmetry in these Sino-Indian altercations, with the Chinese media and blogosphere paying very little attention to them, in clear contrast to the Indian side. In this case, Beijing has clearly opened the space for more strident voices and given far more prominence to the issue. We’ll see whether this is a one-off – essentially a product of the other factors – or if it turns into a standing feature of the relationship.

Do you think they are to varying degrees doing what the Chinese government wants them to do? Or do you think Global Times should not be taken seriously compared to say, Xinhua?

There’s certainly a spectrum in terms of how authoritative various outlets and voices are on the Chinese side – Global Times evidently isn’t Xinhua, but it has been a platform for arguments that also reflect elements of the Chinese debate. One has to look at the commentators in question and the specifics of what they’re saying.

How do you read the current domestic situation in China – the impending party Congress, the elimination of at least potential rival and Xi’s attempt to project power? Does it have anything to do with the border situation? 

It provides a context for the border situation: there is always less room for compromise or manoeuvre during this phase. I’m not inclined to see it as a driver of China’s behavior in the first place though – I don’t think you get to Doklam via Sun Zhengcai.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.

Note: The file photograph in the article was incorrectly described as having been taken in Doklam in an earlier version. In fact, it is from Arunachal Pradesh.