India grappling with the China syndrome


LONDON — A two-week standoff between China and Japan over a boat collision has once again underlined the communist state’s penchant for bullying its neighbors, and might have done more harm than good for the emergence of China as the leader in the region over the long term.

As tensions mount in East Asia and Beijing makes it clear that it intends to defy international opinion to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan, something seems to be changing in New Delhi too. India’s prime minister, who has previously described China as India’s greatest neighbor, is now suggesting that Beijing could be tempted to use India’s “soft underbelly,” Kashmir, and Pakistan “to keep India in low-level equilibrium.”

Its ultra-cautious defense minister is now admitting that “there has been an increasing assertiveness on the part of China.” After trying to push significant divergences with China under the carpet for years, Indian decision-makers are being forced to grudgingly acknowledge that the relationship with China is becoming increasingly contentious. The challenge now is to understand China and its motivations more clearly.

Divisions within China about the future course of its foreign policy are starker than ever before. It is now being suggested that much like young Japanese officers in the 1930s, young Chinese military officers are increasingly taking charge of strategy with the result that rapid military growth is shaping the nation’s broader foreign policy objectives.

Civil-military relations in China are under stress with the People’s Liberation Army asserting its pride more forcefully than before and demanding respect from other countries. “A country needs respect, and a military also needs respect,” writes a major general recently in the PLA’s paper.

Unsurprisingly, China has been more aggressive in asserting its interests not only vis-a-vis India but also vis-a-vis the United States, the European Union, Japan and Southeast Asian states.

It is also possible that China’s aggression is a symbol of its weaknesses, a result of its sense of internal vulnerabilities. The clampdown on media and internal dissent is much stronger than ever before in China. The turbulent regions of Tibet and Xinjiang are being much more tightly controlled. In that context the very success of India posses a challenge for China. While the Chinese Communist Party can continue to self-righteously claim that the Western model of political and economic governance is not an ideal one, it is more difficult to counter the Indian model, which also offers a different pattern of development, but in a democratic framework. In that sense, it’s a battle of ideas between China and India as much as anything else.

Now the No. 2 economy, by 2020 China is expected to be the largest economic partner of every country in the Asia-Pacific region. Measured against this standard, Chinese policymakers, by and large, don’t consider Japan and India as peer competitors.

There is a general perception in China that India can be easily pushed around. The chaos of Indian democracy is often perceived as India’s vacillating approach on foreign policy. New Delhi’s own actions have cemented a perception in China that it’s easier to challenge Indian interests without incurring major costs. Moreover, as India grows powerful and gets courted by other major powers, especially the U.S., the Chinese perceive that a strong reaction to Indian foreign-policy overtures would be enough to deter India from strongly countering China’s moves.

It isn’t clear if China has well-defined external policy objectives, though its economic and military pursuit of policy is greater than at any time in the recent past. Pakistan has always been a crucial foreign policy asset for China, and with India’s rise and U.S.-India rapprochement, its role in China’s grand strategy is bound to grow.

Not surprisingly, recent revelations about the Chinese abandoning their three-decade old cautious approach on Jammu and Kashmir, its military presence in Pakistan, infrastructure plans linking Xinjiang and Gwadar, issuance of stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir, supplying nuclear reactors to Pakistan in defiance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, all confirm a new focus in China’s old strategy of using Pakistan more actively to secure its interests in the region. Meanwhile, from oil and gas to water, everything seems to be in contention between the two neighbors.

There is no need for India to counter China by matching weapon for weapon or bluster for bluster. India will have to look inward to prepare for the China challenge. After all, China has not prevented India from pursing economic reforms and decisive governance, developing its infrastructure and border areas, and from intelligently investing in military capabilities. If India could deal with the China challenge in 1987, when there was a border standoff between the two, there should be less need for alarm today when India is much stronger economically and militarily. A resurgent India of 2010 needs new reference points to manage its complex relationship with China. A start can be made by making the Henderson-Brooks Commission report public so that an honest debate can commence on China and the challenge it poses.

India will also have to work more purposefully with other powers, most notably the U.S., in countering China. After the initial hoopla about a Group of Two, China’s relationship with the U.S. has also soured. The recent Chinese bluster on the issue of the South China Sea also provides an opening to New Delhi to cultivate security ties with countries in East Asia. Naval cooperation should be at the forefront of these partnerships to ensure that maritime routes remain open and do not fall under the control of a single power. Given the legitimate interests that all regional states have in such an undertaking, cooperation in this realm will be easier to achieve.

China’s Global Times warned last year that “India needs to consider whether it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.”

India should raise the stakes high enough so that it’s Beijing who is forced to consider seriously the consequences of a potential confrontation with India.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.