India and China in a multipolar world

If China rejects an imperialist view of history and believes in the creation of a multipolar world of the pre-imperial era, then it can work with India and other world powers. What path China chooses for itself will determine how other nations respond to its rise. For India, the task is cut out

May 11, 2015 12:51 am | Updated April 02, 2016 11:00 pm IST

Sanjaya Baru.

Sanjaya Baru.

A week before marking the first anniversary of his assumption of office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ends his year of hectic diplomacy with a >visit to China . For India, no other bilateral relationship is more complex and challenging than the one with its biggest neighbour. Fortunately, the mistakes that could have been made by India’s political leadership in dealing with a big neighbour were limited mostly to the very first decade of the republic. For half a century, India has been on a learning curve.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s errors of judgment in dealing with China cast a long shadow on bilateral relations. Every Prime Minister since has tread cautiously, perhaps far too cautiously, in dealing with China. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once said that he had devoted considerable time to reading carefully through the Nehru files on China so as not to repeat any of his predecessor’s mistakes. I guess every Prime Minister would have done that and Mr. Modi may well have done this too.

Chinese assertiveness in Asia But, Nehru’s errors of judgment were not inevitable. Indeed, we now know that as early as on November 7, 1950, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had cautioned Nehru about the trust deficit in the bilateral relationship and of China’s expansionist instincts in Asia. Patel’s prescient and cautionary note to Nehru, buried in government files for decades, was made public a decade ago and is now freely available on the Internet.

If China annexed Tibet in Nehru’s time, it now seeks to usurp maritime territory in South China Sea. Time was when Chairman Mao Zedong dubbed the Soviets as “social imperialists”. No one has yet so branded China. However, unlike in the 1950s when the world adopted a more benign approach to China’s land grab, there has been greater concern about China’s assertiveness in Asia which has put its leadership on notice. While the Western leadership seems to be in disarray in responding to China’s smart diplomatic forays, India has pursued a balanced and wise policy of engaging China at every possible level while remaining on full alert in dealing with Chinese assertiveness.

One of the great positives of the >India-China relationship over the past decade has been the increased business-to-business and people-to-people contacts between citizens of the two countries. A highlight of Mr. Modi’s visit will be a public meeting with the Indian community in China. While this draws attention to the increased presence of Indians in China, India can do more to facilitate the travel of Chinese to India. Millions of Chinese Buddhists would want to visit if India were to become a more attractive destination. Institutional and professional interaction must also increase. Indian-Americans in the U.S. are full of stories about how they find it easier to travel to and work with Chinese academics and businesses than with Indian counterparts. As a U.S. analyst once put it, “China is a closed society with an open mind, India is an open society with a closed mind”.

Unlike in the 1950s when the world adopted a more benign approach to China’s land grab, there has been greater concern about China’s assertiveness in Asia which has put its leadership on notice.

In a different league The problem that India’s political leadership has dealt with is the coming to terms with China’s manifest, comprehensive national power. India was lulled into complacency by the myth that the two civilisational neighbours were somehow in the same league merely because both had a population of over a billion! Today, China’s economy is five times bigger than India’s.

That China was already in a different league was made brutally clear to India even as early as in 1945 by none other than John Maynard Keynes who refused to give India the same voting share as that of China in the newly formed International Monetary Fund. Keynes’s student, J.J. Anjaria, representing the government of India, fought for parity with China but failed to convince Keynes and the Americans. Then came the membership of the United Nations Security Council and of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The ‘Asian century’ Recovering from the ignominy of the 1962 war, our political leadership went into a second bout of self-delusion when it bought into the view, best expressed by China’s Great Moderniser, Deng Xiaoping, who famously told Rajiv Gandhi “An Asian Century is only possible when India and China come together”.

Deng said that in 1988 when China had not yet demonstrated its capacity to emerge as the undisputed power of Asia. Today, few in China believe that as a necessary precondition for the 21st century to be China’s. A new post-Deng generation of smart young Chinese believe tomorrow belongs to them. In Chinese President’s Xi Jinping’s words, they believe in the “Chinese dream” of a world in which China would once again be the cynosure of all eyes.

How the India-China relationship develops in the years to come will depend on whether the Chinese still believe in Deng’s view that the 21st century cannot be Asia’s without China and India coming together, or whether they come to imagine themselves to be the masters of this century, much like the British were of the 19th and the Americans of the 20th. Many western and Asian analysts, blinded by China’s bright lights and seduced by its charms, have been holding forth how the 21st Century will indeed be China’s. Defensive American analysts have responded with arguments to claim that the U.S. will brook no challenge and will, if necessary, contain China.

Multipolarity and the world Make no mistake. The 21st century will not be China’s century alone nor will it remain America’s. The geopolitical and geoeconomic conditions that enabled Britain to become ‘Great’ in the 19th century and claim that century for itself, building a global empire, and that enabled the U.S. to emerge as the dominant world power of the 20th century do not exist for China or anyone else today. The “unipolar” world of the British and American empires was a historical aberration. European scholarship wrongly viewed all great powers in history as “global powers”. The global moment of many of them was short-lived. At best they were all continental powers. Multipolarity or polycentric dispersal of power and prosperity defines the normal state of the world.

If China succeeds in becoming both a predominant maritime power of the Indo-Pacific region and the predominant land power of the Eurasian land mass, it would of course emerge as the dominant world power of the 21st century. China’s control of Tibet and its sway over the Eurasian land mass, on the one side, and its control over South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region on the other become central to any quest for unipolar dominance. But that is not inevitable.

If China seeks to dominate the land to its west and the waters to its east and south and thereby emerge as the hegemon of the century, it will force all other major powers, including Russia at some point, to come together and resist such a build-up. On the other hand, if China rejects such an imperialist view of history, and truly believes in the creation of a multipolar world of the pre-imperial era, then it can work with India and other powers of Europe and Asia. What path China chooses for itself will determine how other nations respond to its rise.

For India, the task is cut out. At the end of a year of hectic diplomacy, Mr. Modi would have discovered that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put the Humpty-Dumpty of national power back in shape if its economy crumbles under the weight of bad policy. A country’s international stature and power is built in its fields, factories, classrooms, laboratories and neighbourhoods. Not at the high tables of diplomacy, nor on television.

(Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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