The standoff between the two largest countries in the world has been occupying the media, particularly in Asia, for the last couple of weeks. Decibel levels are high, with the Chinese state media and some of the Indian private TV channels ratcheting up the rhetoric. However, if one takes a step back, one can see the present episode in one of the three ways – as noise, as one more incident of shadow boxing the two countries have been engaged in since China drew the first blood by blocking India’s bid for membership of NSG, or as history turning page. I would go with the third one.
India and China are two ancient, proud civilisations, with a strong sense of purpose prevalent in both the countries at subconscious – and now increasingly conscious, level. China has historically seen itself as the ‘middle kingdom’ and India considers itself as ‘jagatguru – the fountainhead of spiritual knowledge world would do well to emulate’. This worldview in each civilisation is bolstered by the fact that the two were pre-eminent economic powers for most of the known human history. However, the self-image had been put on hold in the last couple of centuries in both the countries as each struggled with European (and later American) domination of international politics in general and of their respective lands in particular. But as is the case with ancient civilisations, each has viewed its fall as a temporary blip and its destiny as a great power preordained.
With the relatively recent upturn in economic status – more pronounced in case of China, the self-image that had been put on hold is rearing its head again in both the countries. What is precipitating this development is the rise of nationalism, led by muscular leaders, in both the countries. The rise of nationalism though is part of the larger trend across the world, which manifests itself in different ways in different countries. While in the USA it portends disenchantment with globalisation and concomitant suspicion of multilateral arrangements, in China it fuels the desire to create and lead more and more multilateral arrangements to project power internationally and fill the vacuum that will eventually be created by US withdrawal. Its lead role in the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Bank and the ‘belt and road’ initiative are cases in point. India would follow a similar strategy but is handicapped by lack of hard power for now. Therefore, it is following a twin strategy – participating in all initiatives that help it benefit from multilateralism and at the same time, pursuing projection of soft power until it catches up on the other elements of national power. India has had reasonable success with this strategy in recent past and it is being seen as a serious player by the powers that be in the geopolitical soup. Inevitably, while China has just about started seeing itself as the successor of US as the dominant superpower, its worldview is clashing with that of India, which believes it’s behind China only by a few years and that its eventual ascension as a great power is just a matter of time. Great powers, even the potential ones, do not play second fiddle.
China is cognizant of this reality. Thus, while so far it has taken care to project its rise as peaceful, especially to avoid falling into Thucydides’ trap, it also sees India as a potential rival in Asia, whose rise needs to be stymied in its infancy. Hence its strategy of string of pearls and propping up of Pakistan to keep India tied down while discouraging an outright military clash. However, it will be increasingly difficult for China to pursue both these goals for any length of time, as the two goals call for different and conflicting strategies. If China has to project its rise as peaceful – and it’s extremely important for China to do so as the US is still the overwhelmingly dominant military power and China’s dependence on exports to West continues, it cannot afford to go to war with a neighbour. At the same time, it cannot allow a smaller neighbour, and a potential rival to boot, to dictate terms in a visible standoff.
Similarly, India, preoccupied as it is with its agenda of economic development to catch up with China, will find it increasingly difficult to turn Nelson’s eye to China’s aggressive posturing in its neighbourhood. That would not only undermine its idea of self but would also jeopardise its credibility with the world in general and with its smaller neighbours in particular. This dilemma is now more acute as it is India that upped the ante in the present case by sending its forces into a territory which is not its own. This is in keeping with the new security paradigm India has developed under Ajit Doval, known as ‘Offensive Defence’ that has so far manifested itself in cases such as hot pursuit in Myanmar, surgical strikes in POK and now crossing the international border in a face-off with its bigger and more powerful neighbour. Be that as it may, this is unprecedented for India to stop China from constructing a road in what India believes is Bhutan’s territory. China, on the other hand, believes that it’s her territory and hence its anger at ‘presumptuous’ behaviour of an ‘upstart’ India. What makes the matters worse is that China is due for the all-important leadership transition in 2018 and President Xi cannot afford to lose face over a tug of war at the border with China’s potential rival.
This is why I believe that the present standoff is not an isolated incident but a manifestation of the conflicting worldview the two hold about their respective destinies. Therefore, even if it is resolved – and resolved it will be as neither wants to distract itself from the economic agenda for now, peace between the two will keep getting punctured for one reason or the other in the foreseeable future.
This is history turning page. We are headed for interesting times.