The Dragon Blinks
By Dr. D.K. Giri
The Chinese President Xi Jinping, expectedly, emerged stronger after the quinquennial Communist Party Congress last week. The 19thCongress since the Party was founded in 1921 Xi has the prerogative of nominating 70% of the Party’s Central Committee, its e most powerful apex organ, and would stay in office for a third or even fourth term beyond 2022. This is contrary to Party tradition whereby a successor to the incumbent President is chosen five years before he or she takes office. At this Congress, no such thing happened.
Obviously, India and the world would have to deal with Xi for another decade as he is popular and occupies the exalted position by successfully fighting corruption and consolidating the development plank. In his marathon speech lasting over three and a half hours he adumbrated Chinese agenda in all its dimensions. He talked of the ‘Chinese dream’ which is interpreted as an ambition of being a world power and building Chinese military as the world’s largest one.
Should India be wary of the Chinese ‘dream’? True, New Delhi is in an adversarial position with its neighbour as it shares 4000 kms of borders. Further, China’s geo-political approach in the region coupled with its expansionist tendency should bother India.
But let us understand Chinese ideology shaped afresh by Xi who is now mentioned in the Chinese Constitution amended by Congress. This rare honour was given only to two other leaders: Mao Zedong and Den Xiaoping. Xi’s ideology consists of two major objectives: nationalism and capitalism.
How do both affect India? As China’s current standing in the world rests on its economic might, capitalism carefully crafted and built by the Communist Party, in its quest for continued growth based on exports, Beijing would look for markets. As European markets are saturated and experiencing slump, India becomes the ultimate market for it.
Having realized this, Xi while visiting India in 2014, had suggested closer relationship with New Delhi. Asserting, “we should aim for expansion of strategic communication among leaders, maintaining border stability, enhancing economic cooperation and people-to-people contact”.
No wonder, China has decided to invest US $85 billion in India and despite popular angst against Beijing’s aggressive posturing against its neighbour Chinese goods continue to flood Indian markets. Will China stake its huge economic benefit from India by engaging in a military confrontation?
The other pillar of ideology is ‘nationalism’ or ‘Chinese Core’. A nationalistic agenda generates anti-India rhetoric in the Chinese Establishment whereby its nationalism has led Chinese forces and border guards to nibble away undefined borders, claiming vast swathes of territory in South China Sea and Japan-claimed Senkaku islands.
In the same vein, Beijing rivals New Delhi’s status on Asia’s stage. China has made several incursions on the Indo-China borders, Depsang plains in April-May 2013, Chumar in the Western sector in 2014-15, Barahoti area of the middle sector in mid-2016, Doklam face-off in 2017 that lasted for 73 days.
In addition, China has consistently blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which controls global atomic commerce, vetoed the UN declaring Jaishe-e-Mohammad Chief Masood Azar a terrorist and runs its China-Pakistan economic corridor projects through Gilgit-Baltistan which affects India’s sovereignty.
More serious, China has encircled India with its ‘string of pearls’ whereby Beijing will endevour to expand its naval presence by building civilian maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery. Simplistically, it implies access to ports and air-fields, expansion and modernization of military forces and fostering diplomatic relations with trading partners.
Importantly, ‘string of pearls’ in geo-strategic terms refers to the Malacca Strait, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Strait of Hormuz and Somalia. It also includes Bangladesh and Myanmar. Pertinently, the Malacca Strait, not far from Nicobar Islands, connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, Malaysia, and Singapore on one side and Indonesia on the other.
Besides, about 80%t of Chinese fuel from the Middle East passes through this. From Myanmar, 2,400 kms of gas pipeline has been built by China which also has a military base in Myanmar’s Coco Island. Beijing has invested US $46 billion in Pakistan’s Gwadar port as a part of their joint economic corridor. The Gwadar port is 240 miles away from the Strait of Hormuz which gives an opening to Central Asia.
This port also connects to the Karakoram highway linking it with the Arabian Sea, which is of concern to India. Moreover, China has invested in building Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port on its South-East part. Similarly, it has built a container shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh. It has a military base in Maldives’s Masao Atoll.
Undeniably, China’s capitalist economy depends on foreign sources for its energy security. It is the largest importer of oil. The sea lines of communication that link the Chinese mainland with ports throughout the Middle East and Africa coasts have become a major source of conflict for China with other countries. True, the ‘string of pearls’ might be economic in nature but, admittedly, it creates a security dilemma for China and India in the Indian Ocean.
How should India respond to this? Going by historical experience, New Delhi cannot be complacent and ignore Beijing’s moves. In fact, it should play the Chinese game: Deepen trade and economic links which will deter Beijing from any military adventurism.
Two, India should encircle China with allies that are affected by Beijing and are opposed to its aggressive actions. New Delhi has already invested heavily in diplomacy with countries around China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. It should consolidate its relations with traditional friends like Japan, South Korea and Russia. In South-East Asia new potential allies are Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam who are wary of China.
Undoubtedly, Chinese nationalism and capitalism would lead to neo-imperialism through domination in trade, military bullying and wherever it can territorial expansion. Beijing would not want to jeopardize its economic interest, but the military angle might be used precisely for protecting its economic gains.
Notably, India has moved closer to China’s arch rival Japan and US. Beijing will be wary of New Delhi’s increasing nearness to these countries. It might seek to disengage India from Japan and US and allies of America. India, on its part, is unlikely to do so, given Chinese proximity with Pakistan which aids and abets terrorism against India.
Will China follow the proverbial strategy, “if you cannot beat them, join them”? That is a probable, given Chinese proclivity for guarding its self-interest in lieu of principles and trust. But New Delhi cannot count on this. It has to engage with China pragmatically. We should learn from past mistakes vis-à-vis China. Hence, New Delhi should deeply study Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ to deal with China. This calls for a combination of economic might, diplomatic skill and military strategy. Is New Delhi up to it? It better be. —– INFA
(The author is Prof, International Politics, JMI)