Why is PM in China? Modi needs a gameplan to neutralise Chinese power

Modi's ongoing visit to China may not serve any purpose unless he has his strategy clear why he is going there. China is not your average benign power; its power needs to be contested with real strength

Rajeev Srinivasan May 14, 2015 19:31:51 IST
Why is PM in China? Modi needs a gameplan to neutralise Chinese power

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now in China. Some scholars, including the trenchant China critic Brahma Chellaney wonder: “Why is Modi going to China?” It is a fair question, for it is increasingly clear, if it wasn't already, that China views India as a nuisance which has to be curtailed, contained, and kept confined to a 'South Asia' sandbox, and generally used as a colonial subject, from which raw materials can be extracted, and on which manufactured junk can be dumped.

There has been a pattern to Chinese interactions in the Communist era with India: mouth platitudes and pretend fraternity as sister civilisations; humiliate India in public and cause 'loss of face'; relentlessly advance its interests by creating “facts” on the ground. The old Samuel Huntington cliché of the clash of civilisations has substantial application in the Sino-Indian faceoff: here are two civilisations with radically different world-views, in inevitable conflict with each other.

It's just that India doesn't seem to know, or its mandarins pretend not to know, that it is in China's gunsights.

Why is PM in China Modi needs a gameplan to neutralise Chinese power

Modi after landing in China. PIB image

Things were not so bad when there was a large buffer state, Tibet, separating the two. Those who talk of how India and China never went to war for 3,000 years should realise that the two were always separated by the Himalayas and the forbidding high-altitude Tibetan plateau. It is only after India stood by and allowed China to swallow Tibet that there are problems between the two.

As a pessimist, I do not believe it is possible for there to ever be peace between the two, given their divergent world views. While India has always believed in a vague sort of live-and-let-live (well, except rarely when someone like Rajendra Chola set out circa 1017 CE with a large fleet) with its neighbors, China has almost always been an imperial nation looking for lebensraum. When empire collapsed, China was chaotic.

Someone once made a telling comparison in nautical terms: China is like a sleek racing boat; India like a flat-bottomed, ungainly boat. In good times, that is to say in imperial times, China speeds ahead and India limps along. But when there are squalls, India may take on a lot of water, but it won't sink; China is likely to capsize.

Today, the Chinese empire is at its historic peak: it has never had so much territory. With its Pakistan plans, the Han Chinese empire will, for the first time, extend into the sub-continent, all the way to Balochistan's Gwadar port. On the other side, it is claiming, on very dubious grounds, the entire South China Sea. Given the increasing power of its gunboats and submarines, China is likely to be able to project its power far away, again pretty much for the first time in history.

There is, in fact, a Chinese challenge, much like Le defi Americain, the seminal work by Jacques Servan-Schreiber that identified for blasé Europeans the rise of America. Being so close to China, India will be one of the biggest recipients of the fallout from this rise, which is as much military as it is commercial and trade oriented.

The Americans have unwittingly set in motion through the Nixon outreach a chain reaction that almost certainly will, at some point, lead to their ceding hegemony in Asia to China (if they have not already done so in private). Indeed, it is beginning to appear as though, despite the much-ballyhooed 'pivot to Asia', and the supposed Security Quadrilateral involving Australia, Japan and India to contain China, the US has quietly begun to pack up and move on. It has reached, in 2014, the equivalent of what happened to the British in 1914: the realisation that they couldn't afford imperial overstretch.

I expect the American security and nuclear umbrella that has protected some of its allies in South-east Asia and East Asia will be slowly withdrawn. That would leave these countries helpless in the face of Chinese aggression; which is why, for instance, the Japanese have begun to unwind their American-imposed, pacifist Constitution. In a short while, I expect Japan to re-militarise openly. They have to, or else the Chinese may threaten Japan militarily (or, more likely, get their nuclear friend, the North Koreans, to drop a bomb on them), which would fry every bit of electronics with an electro-magnetic pulse, bringing the country absolutely to its knees. The threat of this happening is good enough to extract all sorts of concessions from the Japanese, starting with the Senkakus.

Besides, there is a crying demographic need: there are 90 million 'excess men' in China (and some 60 million in India) due to infant female infanticide. It is quite likely that both countries (and Pakistan with a slightly smaller number) will have to go war to just kill them off. Given bellicose, nuclear armed China and Pakistan, India has to prepare for war: mealy-mouthed pacifism will mean a quick surrender.

PM Modi, despite his earlier, cordial dealings with the Chinese, has to keep these unpleasant possibilities in mind. They gave him a taste of this during Xi's visit to India: there was an unprovoked and fairly massive invasion by Chinese troops, intended to put Modi off-balance. This is par for the course: we remember how Atal Behari Vajpayee was humiliated by them invading Vietnam when he was visiting as foreign minister.

The big China-Pakistan corridor plan was announced in April, and that itself is a fait accompli for Modi to deal with. I fully expect other forms of pressure to be applied: for instance, the latest Chinese proposal that India should collaborate with them in Indian Ocean drilling for oil. On the other hand, China protested vociferously when India and Vietnam agreed to drill in Vietnam's territorial waters, which China claims as its own.

To begin with, PM Modi showed that he was different from his submissive predecessor, Manmohan Singh. He invited the Tibetan government in exile to his inauguration. In Japan, he spoke about Chinese expansionism. With Obama, he made a joint statement with a surprisingly pointed reference to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Since then, however, the PM seems to have gone the Manmohan way, which, he is no doubt aware, merely emboldens adventurism on the part of the Chinese. There is also a significant element of theatre in China's interactions: I was struck by this when I went to the SEA Aquarium in Singapore. There is a full-scale model of the ships allegedly sailed by Zheng He into the Indian Ocean – which I imagine will be the basis of dubious Chinese claims all over the Indian Ocean soon, despite the fact that it was probably a fairly small group of limp ships. In their telling, this was the imperial Chinese Navy in action. It is sad to note that India has not at all emphasised the real example of Rajendra Chola's fleet, which sailed clear across the ocean and defeated the maritme Srivijaya Empire in distant Sumatra: it may have been the biggest fleet in history till the time of steam ships.

Another example: despite all their sabre-rattling, the Chinese army has not been battle-tested in the recent past, except in 1979 when they invaded Vietnam. They were humiliated, and beat a hasty retreat. Chinese military might may be a paper tiger, although it is premature for India to provoke them, until it has built up its own sadly-neglected strength on the ground and on the high seas.

Sun-Tzu has provided inspiration to Chinese diplomacy; similarly Chankaya should to India's. In addition to the traditional chatur-upayas of sama, dana, bheda, danda, I learned recently that there are three more: maya, upeksha, indrajala, ie deceit, equanimity, and sleight-of-hand. The Chinese are particularly good at maya and indrajala, and it is necessary to respond in kind. They will appreciate it.

There are several things Modi might do to indicate that he is no pushover. One is to bring up the Tibet issue. Tibet is the problem, not Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese have a very tenuous historical claim to Tibet, because that was an independent state throughout most of its history. The Chinese have a revanchist claim which is not really valid, and there is no reason India should sing that tune. In the light of the fact that a new Dalai Lama will need to be selected when the current one passes away, and the arcane rules about oracles and the signs of succession that need to be followed, India can make it clear that we do not intend to acquiesce to their cultural genocide.

A second approach would be to emphasise cultural and religious issues, specifically Buddhism and Hindu practices such as yoga and meditation. There is a spiritual vacuum in China, and India has been respected by many average Chinese as the Holy Land of Buddhism. In fact, among all foreign countries, India is the only one that the Chinese ever respected (although today's Chinese are astonishingly racist about brown skins). There should be a way of taking advantage of this, perhaps by setting up a few Nagarjuna Centres (named after the renowned Buddhist monk) where the study of Indic ideas and Sanskrit can be encouraged, and pilgrim circuits encouraged.

A third approach would be to lecture China about the human rights of its minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs. While this is not going to endear Modi to the Chinese establishment, it is also a veiled threat that India could do covert things that would not be pleasant for China. In any case, I anticipate some fallout from China's ambitious plans in Pakistan: significant incursions of Islamic fundamentalism into Xinjiang, and clashes over the pork-guzzling habits of Chinese workers who will be domiciled in Pakistan. Indian can do some subtle propaganda about the violation of Islamic rights. This story, about Uighur imams being forced to literally dance to the Chinese tune, may not sit well with Muslims anywhere: and this is in addition to restrictions on beards and on religious fasting.

Fourth, the PM should make it clear that India will continue to build up its strength on the Tibetan frontier. Nitin Gokhale, a defense analyst, has a piece that analyses how, even though India has neglected to build up infrastructure for a long time, things are beginning to pick up.

Finally, the PM should make it clear that tampering with the Brahmaputra's flow, as the Chinese are considering in Tibet, would be viewed as the moral equivalent of an act of war. I once heard a previous National Security Advisor speak on the topic, and he pooh-poohed the idea that this was a major concern. However, I believe it is. The downstream riparian states on the Mekong have been severely affected by Chinese dam-building activities, and so would India if the Brahmaputra were dammed.

There are other irritants too. A recent massacre of Indian policemen by a Naga separatist group was quite likely orchestrated by Chinese intelligence, which has been active in these insurgencies. At least in private, Modi should make it clear that there will be consequences to such bad behaviour, though admittedly, I am not sure what we can do to impose pain on the Chinese in return, other than instigate the Uighurs and Tibetans. There must be ways that India's spooks are aware of.

There is a certain asymmetry between the two countries, both economically and militarily, but let us remember that it was not so long ago that they were even worse off than us. In fact, in 1962, their army was starving, and had it not been for an ill-considered decision to not use the Indian Air Force, and other strategic idiocies as outlined in the Henderson-Brooks/Bhagat report, India may well have won the war. I wrote about this scenario some years ago in “What If India Had Won The 1962 War Against China?” . It was a failure in leadership.

PM Modi has to ensure that there is not another failure of leadership the next time there is a Chinese threat, and he should make it clear to the Chinese that there will not be. If Indians can only be set free from the nightmare of internal red tape, India may well follow in China's path of economic growth and there will be a G3 by 2050, with India on a par with the US and China. There is no need to feel diffident. The trick is to play China's make-believe right back at them; any sign of weakness will be pounced on and exploited.

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