Sino-Indian relations: What they portend?

New Delhi: When Narendra Modi took over power on 26th May this year, it was widely expected that the Modi government will give a new direction to the economy and the polity. Most of the analysts had expected foreign policy to take a back seat in the priorities of the new government.

The reality has been just the opposite. While the government has been circumspect in the economic sphere, it has hit the ground running as far as foreign policy is concerned. The new thrust started even before Modi had taken over when, for the first time in history, all SAARC heads were invited to join in the Modi swearing in.

Modi’s visit to Nepal and Japan were stupendous successes. The relations with the U.S. has improved with two sides putting the Modi visa issue as well as Devyani Khobragade issue on the side, as should have been done.

With Pakistan, the Modi government has made it clear that whereas it is keen to improve relations, it cannot be business as usual and support to terrorists and better relations with India are incompatible with each other.

It is, however, the relationship with China that is most complicated and requires deft handling. The visit of President Xi Jin Ping to India last week gave some hope to people in India that Sino-Indian relations can also be brought back on track. But what is the reality?

Both India and China are growing Asian powers. Although India’s economic growth during last twenty years has been impressive, it is not as spectacular as China’s. The reform process initiated by Deng Xiao Ping has brought China to a position where it has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and while one may differ with the extent of China’s economic strength given the opaque nature of economy, it is safe to assume that China is the rising economic super power of the world.

The growing economic might of China has given rise to a new militant outlook within China and Modi government will do well to realize this aspect while formulating policies vis-à-vis China.

The basic thrust of the Chinese security and foreign policy post the Communist takeover is deeply influenced by the humiliations China had to undergo from mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

The Chinese empire which considered itself as the centre of the world since time immemorial came face to face with reality in mid-nineteenth century and whether it was by Japan or by the Western powers, it was treated very harshly. This “never again” feeling has shaped Chinese policies, particularly the foreign and security policies since then.

Post the 1949 takeover by the Communists, Mao became the undisputed leader of China and he was deeply influenced by doctrinaire Communist philosophy.

The failure of Communists in other parts of world to take over their countries as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) had taken over in China was ascribed to the revisionist and weak policies of the then Soviet Union rather than to any fundamental shortcoming in the Marxist philosophy which Mao felt had applicability across the world.

The Chinese, therefore, tried to export revolutions to different parts of world. Since India was their next door neighbour the brunt was felt by it with the Chinese trying to weaken India’s perceived “capitalist” system by trying to hit at its  weakest spot, the North East insurgents of NSCN, PLA of Manipur and other myriad groups as well as mainstream Naxalite groups.

This policy failed as apart from the fundamental flaws in this line of thinking, the Chinese were facing major internal problems of their own.  With the disastrous consequences of the “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” becoming apparent, it was apparent that the Chinese  were in no position to export revolution.

This was well realized  by the second generation of the Communist Chinese leadership led by Deng Xiao Ping. When Deng took over power the Chinese economy as well as society was completely shattered as a result of excesses of the Mao era. Deng decided to forsake the conventional Communist theory of exporting the revolution and concentrated on reforming the Chinese economy.

The results were spectacular with Chinese economy growing exponentially. This policy was continued by the third generation of CCP leaders led by Ziang Zemin. It was with the fourth generation of leaders that a change could be discerned in the Chinese policy.

By the time the fourth generation of Chinese leaders led by Hu Jintao took over, Chinese economy had reached a comfortable position and people were taking note of the Chinese strength. With Russia not the force it used to be, the Japanese economy stagnating and Europe being moribund, only challenge to US supremacy seemed to emanate from China.

It meant more attention from everyone towards China including from the sole surviving superpower USA. This attention and the resultant activities has made Chinese leadership more suspicious of the US policies and as a response the Chinese policy has become more assertive.

This assertive stance has been visible in many areas including China’s handling of its relations with Japan, in it’s South China seas and East China seas policy as well as in the “stapled visa” issue with India as well as in the increased Chinese activities in the disputed border region with India. This assertive policy has also been reflected in China’s forays in Africa as well as in its successful but highly costly staging of Beijing Olympics in 2008.

It is obvious by now that the fourth generation of leadership of Hu Jin Tao was not as successful in the execution of domestic reforms and to sustain the growth of the Chinese economy as much as the Second and Third generations were. The effort to assertively emphasise the Chinese strength thus seems to be a means to cover up their failures at the domestic level. Whatever may be the reasons for the assertiveness, it is apparent that since 2005 or so the Chinese foreign policy has become much more strident and assertive. But what about the fifth generation of leadership led by Xi Jin Ping?

When he took power in March 2013, not much was known about Xi Jin Ping. By now there is some clarity on his views both regarding domestic as well as foreign policy. So far it appears that Xi is a firm advocate of Chinese interests in the international stage.

He has taken personal charge of China’s territorial disputes over East China Seas and  has said that China would never “waive its legitimate rights”. Recently China has taken a more hawkish approach in its dispute both with Vietnam as well as with Phillipines.

Xi’s recent statement asking PLA to be prepared for a regional war again seems to suggest that he is no dove as far as relations with the neighbours are concerned. Overall while domestically Xi’s policies seem to be geared towards economic reforms and fight against corruption which has become widespread in China in recent past, externally he is pursuing a muscular foreign policy with substantial military build up.

As mentioned earlier the psychological response of the Chinese people against the real and perceived mistreatment of the Chinese nation when it was weak is an important aspect of the national psyche today. The result is that nationalism directed against foreign powers has now become an important undercurrent in the Chinese society. Xi seems to be taking advantage of this undercurrent by being on the right side of this.

Given this scenario, there is little likelihood of the border issue with India being resolved any time soon. China perceives India as one more “pearl” in the “string of pearls” which USA is weaving around China to undercut its influence in the world.

Given these geo political realities, it is unlikely that there would be substantial improvements in the relations between India and China in near future. Having said this, we also need to realize that India and China need to coexist – possibly as competitors in many areas, but all the same as neighbours and as two of the biggest nations who are face to face geographically.

India’s policies vis-à-vis China therefore has to be based on hard realism. We have to realize that unless the international geo-political situation changes drastically, the current Chinese leadership is likely to take a strong and muscular foreign policy approach . India needs to tailor its foreign policy accordingly and plan for a competitive nature of relationship with China.

Attn: The article represents the views of Shri Rajiv Kumar, who retired as Additional Secretary in Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Shri Kumar has experience of dealing with security and intelligence related matters for nearly thirty years.

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