Breaking the Chinese whispers

Shivshankar Menon says India should take China’s rise as a given and work its strategy against that backdrop

Updated - February 18, 2018 09:36 pm IST

Published - February 18, 2018 09:34 pm IST

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S., writer Andrew Small, and Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser, in conversation with Narayan Lakshman, Associate Editor, The Hindu, at The Huddle on Sunday.

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S., writer Andrew Small, and Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser, in conversation with Narayan Lakshman, Associate Editor, The Hindu, at The Huddle on Sunday.

India should take China’s rise as a given and work its strategy against that backdrop, instead of looking at the relationship in binaries, Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser and old China hand, said.

“The problem is that we treat India-China relations as a Twenty20 match,” he added.

In a discussion on “Asian century: does it have to be India versus China?” moderated by Narayan Lakshman, Associate Editor, The Hindu , Mr. Menon was joined by Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S., who is now with a think tank in Washington, and Andrew Small, an expert on China’s foreign policy with the German Marshall Fund in the U.S.

Shunning the zero-sum game approach to the rise of India and China, Mr. Menon instead highlighted the need for the two countries to work out a new modus vivendi , to address the vacuum left by the breakdown in the modus vivendi worked out with Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to China in 1988. That understanding was: keep peace on the border, discuss all “our differences”, but don’t let the border issue stop the two countries from cooperating where they could. Since then, the definition given by the two countries to their interests had grown, and “the effort is worth making” to attempt an upgrade, he said.

Change in pattern

One lens to see the change that had come, while appreciating a mutual understanding to keep tensions under control, was the recent Doklam standoff and its resolution. “Both [India and China] showed they did not want the crisis to escalate,” Mr. Menon said. It was little acknowledged, he said, that the China stretch was India’s most peaceful border. But for the first time, there was heightened rhetoric on the Chinese side. “This is a change in the Chinese pattern of behaviour,” he said.

“Bluster did not work,” agreed Mr. Small. “The Chinese were embarrassed by what happened.”

There was a sense, he added, in China that they were politically, as opposed to militarily, unprepared for India’s response. The standoff also played out during a delicate time for China, in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress.

Huge shift

In fact, Mr. Menon said, the Party Congress marked a huge shift in China’s overseas approach. President Xi Jinping started talking about other countries following the Chinese model, indicating a future policy of exporting a way of life.

Mr. Haqqani contrasted the timelines of the two countries. “If China has a 100-year plan, India needs a 50- or 30-year plan.” India has problems of human capital and military modernisation, but between the rivals any confrontation won’t be India’s decision, he said. “It is always the totalitarian state that decides who is the adversary.”

In the region, China is looking to encircle others, he said, and make it difficult for them to encircle it. Pakistan has completely cast its lot with China, he said. “The U.S. is doing with India what the British did with the U.S. after the Second World War.” That is, encourage the other country to take more of a lead in certain theatres where it had been dominant.

The panel discussed the dynamics of this complicated India-China relationship playing out in the Indo-Pacific, and the implications and possibilities of a debt trap for various stakeholders in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

But the resounding call was for pragmatism as the economic and political interests of both countries become increasingly, and variously, more global.

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