Overreacting to China

China seems to have a knack for generating a periodic hubbub in our public discourse. The most recent one has been triggered by reports in Western media about the presence of Chinese troops in the Gilgit-Baltistan area and by the denial of a Chinese visa to the Northern Army Commander.?Coming on the heels of the earlier controversies, these have yet again excited our imaginations over the “threat” from China. Notwithstanding interventions by a phalanx of experts, the current debate tells us more about our own discourse on China than about Beijing’s intentions or plans.
Consider, for a start, the claim that the recent moves indicate a significant hardening of China’s position on Kashmir. China’s stance on Kashmir has evolved in three distinct phases. In the 1950s, the Chinese took a largely neutral position. The evidence now available from Chinese archives shows that in their limited interaction, the Chinese were urging the Pakistanis to settle with India. Things began to change with the deterioration of the Sino-Indian relationship. For three decades, starting from 1963, the Chinese switched to a position of endorsing Pakistan’s demand for a plebiscite. From the early 1990s, the improving ties with India led the Chinese to shift their stance yet again. They now held that Kashmir was a bilateral problem to be solved by India and Pakistan. This is, of course, close to the Indian position on the matter.
However, the Chinese have never acknowledged sov­er­eignty over Kashmir. Their visa policy is a way of simu­ltaneously needling India and extending symbolic support to Pakistan. But it is nothing more than that. Indeed, given India’s ability to respond in kind — not least over matters like the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exiles — the Chinese are unlikely to escalate tensions on issues of core concern. On more practical matters, such as developmental activities in occupied Kashmir or disaster relief, the Chinese will continue to extend assistance to Pakistan. And there is little that India can realistically do here. As Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel once remarked, possession is nine-tenths of the law. It is as unrealistic of us to expect our protests to bring these activities to a halt as it was of China to expect that it could block Indian developmental activities in Arunachal Pradesh.
The ongoing debate also highlights three important strands of our narrative on China. The first is the view that China is a highly strategic and deeply malevolent power that thinks in long-time horizons. The obverse of this is the claim that India lacks any strategic vision and is numbed by short-term expediency. In consequence, our experts urge us to remember that every small move by the Chinese is an integral part of a larger plan calculated to advance their power and interests and to undercut ours. That the Chinese have shown themselves capable of long-term planning, especially in economic matters, is undeniable. But the historical record also shows that they are capable of making enormous blunders — mistakes that have usually defied any strategic logic. Think of the Great Leap Forward and the break with their most important ally, the Soviet Union. ?
Take the more recent example of China’s position in East Asia. Until about a year ago, the smaller East Asian countries were loquacious in their admiration for China’s “peaceful rise”. But China’s swagger and assertiveness over the last year has nudged many of these countries towards a more wary stance. The retention of the American military base in Okinawa, the strengthening of US-South Korea ties, the US-Vietnam naval exercises in the South China Sea: none of these work in China’s interests, but all are a consequence of China’s stance on a range of issues which have not been clearly thought through. The Middle Kingdom, then, can also be the Muddle Kingdom. It is important, therefore, not to read too much long-term strategy into every Chinese move.
The second, and related, strand is the assumption that China is out to encircle and box-in India in the subcontinent. The numerous ports that China is building in our neighbourhood are held out as evidence of this intent. That the military aspects of the Sino-Pakistan relationship are aimed at balancing against India is clear. Not so the assumption that every port built by China in our neighbourhood is a potential naval base for them. For one thing, the military implication of these commercial activities is not at all obvious. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves why we are unable to undertake similar projects. The answer is simple: India does not yet have a competitive world-class port construction industry. Instead of inveighing against the Chinese for allegedly making inroads into our neighbourhood, we might usefully turn the searchlight on our own capacities.
The third strand is the entrenched belief that China has deliberately refrained from coming to an agreement with India on the disputed boundary. This is a seriously one-sided reading of the record. For two decades after 1962, India was as uninterested as China in resuming the negotiations. Thereafter, too, India dragged its feet on a sensible framework for discussing the boundary and insisted on subsidiary negotiations to clarify the Line of Actual Control. It was only in 2003 that we agreed to a viable framework for political negotiations. True, the Chinese have adopted a tough stance over the last few years. But this is only to be expected in any such negotiation. Instead of harping that India is the only country with which China has not settled, it might do us some good to consider why India is the only country which has been unable to settle with China. The strategic thinker Basil Liddell Hart’s prescription is apt for our China experts: “Avoid self-righteousness like the devil — nothing is so blinding”.
Taken together, these three assumptions seriously distort our debates on China. This is problematic because international politics is an interactive game. Our narratives about other states invariably end up influencing their behaviour. Unless we are careful, the “China threat” might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.?

n Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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