Even as India targets China in its alignment with the other democracies in the Quad, it is worth reflecting on how closely the temper and, to an extent the practice, of Indian foreign policy appears to be aligned with those of Chinese foreign policy. China’s assertiveness beyond its boundaries derives in large measure from the nature of the Communist Party of China (CPC) as a political party that does not believe in sharing power at home, from its conflation of regime interest with the national interest.
For Indians, this should not be so hard to understand. The BJP’s calls for a Congress-mukt Bharat or attempts to undermine even allied parties in states where they are strong is of a piece with the CPC’s belief that it is the only political party that can make China strong again. If anything, the BJP’s plans – while harder to execute – are all the more audacious for this reason. But the point here is that such ambitions often escape domestic bounds.
The CPC, despite its beginnings and its rhetoric, is now pretty much a modern political party with a view of history and of the future that is more in tune with imperial China, than the people’s republic it claims to be. This is the same sin that it has consistently accused the Indians of with respect to the boundary dispute where it claims New Delhi has inherited the attitudes and mentality of the British Raj. While this latter claim might be debated, there should be no doubt that the BJP like the CPC, seeks to draw present-day legitimacy by harking back to an imagined past of cultural glory and territorial expanse followed by victimisation at the hands of foreigners, promising restoration of the former and restitution for the latter.
While India does not yet have the economic and military means to turn abrasive with this attitude beyond its borders – though the Nepalese might argue otherwise, the Chinese have the means to do so both within their borders and outside. Thus, the unalloyed destruction of the culture and identities of the Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols among other ethnic minorities as well as their attempts to control all religions at home.
This is also why when Yang Jiechi, CPC Politburo member and head of the Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission Office, tells the US at Anchorage, Alaska, “We thought too well of the United States, we thought the US side will follow the necessary diplomatic protocols”, this has nothing to do with what the US did or did not do but is about highlighting China as the “great civilisation” that follows diplomatic niceties even when it has to deal with the “barbarians”. It is then natural for Yang to continue, “in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
India is getting there
But India is getting there. In a broadside against foreign organisations and governments commenting about the state of democracy and civil rights in India, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar declared:
“Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want to be played…so they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgments and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise…”
Compare this to Yang’s statement or to what Xi Jinping, then Chinese Vice-President, said on a 2009 visit to Mexico in remarks to overseas Chinese:
“There are some foreigners who had eaten their fill and had nothing better to do, pointing their fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; or third, cause unnecessary trouble for you. What else is there to say?”
But it is part of the nature of political parties that claim omnipotence, as the CPC and BJP do, that insecurity and braggadocio are never far from the surface. Thus, both Chinese and Indian leaders have made strident claims about not giving up an inch of their territory, if at different times and in different contexts. Meeting with the then US secretary of defence James Mattis in Beijing in June 2018, Xi said, “Any inch of territory passed down from ancestors cannot be lost while we want nothing from others.” No direct reference has been made officially to India, but his frequent references in recent years to “preparing for and fighting wars” (beizhan dazhang) and the “strong enemy” (qiangdi) can be interpreted as being aimed at India, too.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi would also claim in a statement immediately after the Galwan incident to leaders of Indian political parties that “neither had anyone entered Indian territory nor captured any Indian posts”, which was inaccurate at least from the point of view of the fact that the Chinese were actually sitting in Aksai Chin, territory India claims. It would also be hard to take seriously from any objective assessment of accounts of what has been going on at the LAC since April/May 2020, including the attempts at disengagement.
Lack of concern for positive international norms
Meanwhile, the statement in February 2021 by a minister of state and former Army chief, General V.K. Singh that “if China has transgressed 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times” was perhaps another example, of grandstanding. But there’s a deeper implication. Even if this was a statement of fact, it was completely unnecessary to proclaim it and undercut India’s image as an upholder of international law. This lack of concern for positive international norms or indeed, for the national image abroad is actually of a piece with what the Chinese are doing. Indeed, Jaishankar’s response to India’s falling rank on various international democracy indices could well be compared to China’s wolf warrior diplomacy, where domestic interests and image-building outweigh concerns about international opprobrium.
This might be considered as a case of “look[ing] beyond dogma” but the increasing alignment of Chinese and Indian methods and approaches in their external policies appears also to be a natural corollary to the alignment of their methods and approaches domestically. And that, despite the cheering from the rafters at home, will likely complicate and undermine India’s larger foreign policy goals including those vis-à-vis China. There is much that India can learn from China but there are lessons also about what not to do. For India to copy without discernment would be a victory for the “Chinese model” pushed by the CPC.
Jabin T. Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.