Argumentative Chinese step forward
By Sreeram Chaulia
BEIJING - This year marks the 60th
anniversary of diplomatic relations between the People's
Republic of China and India, a momentous occasion that
invites reflection on where the two Asian giants are heading
in the much-touted "Asian century".
Awareness that this bilateral relationship is critical to
the current world order is rising in both countries as they
try to position themselves as drivers and pivots of global
economic and security structures.
As an Indian traveling in China and meeting Chinese
intellectuals and policymakers in this key anniversary year,
I perceived more strategic attention being paid to India's
foreign policy and economic direction. There is a sea-change
China's level of alertness to what India
is doing or saying in domestic and international spheres.
A State Council official of the Chinese government who
researches South Asian affairs told the author that
India's actions and approaches are now
intensely followed, compared to a decade ago, when India was
seen in Beijing as a bogged-down state with healthy but not
spectacular economic growth.
The efforts being taken by Chinese governmental and
quasi-governmental cultural diplomacy organizations to
engage Indian thinkers and institutions in dialogue stand
testimony to the fact that India is now nearly as important
an actor for China as the United States,
Japan and the Koreas.
I heard from a number of prescient Chinese academics and
strategic consultants that there was a creeping apprehension
in Beijing's corridors of power that the economic growth gap
between two countries "is closing" and that India "might one
day overtake China".
Overconfidence is not a Chinese trait and they are in many
ways wary of being outdone. One fascinating historical
parallel made by a scholar went like this: "Will China
become the next Japan, and will India become the next
China?" In other words, will China enter a period of
stagnating growth with demographic decline and will India
enter a zone of double-digit economic growth with a
favorably low population dependency ratio?
That this kind of crystal ball gazing is occurring among
Chinese cognoscenti at a time when their country's economic
engine is speeding ahead like its high speed train shows how
much India weighs on elite Chinese consciousness. Yet,
worrying about India attaining parity does not mean that
Chinese overtures to Indians lack the big brotherly and
condescending tones that are legacies of the Mao Zedong era.
On numerous occasions, I was literally hectored by civil
society members close to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
about the wrongs India was committing and also reminded
about core weaknesses that held India back.
For instance, one assertion that I heard from highly placed
Chinese was that the Indian value system was still primarily
spiritual while China was solidly materialistic. Citing Max
Weber's theory of socio-religious values causing economic
progress, my Chinese interlocutors would go on to deduce
that "China's economy will keep growing permanently due to
conducive underlying social attitudes, while India's mental
makeup is still other worldly and hence not a sufficient
condition to guarantee continuous rise".
There was more than a hint of arrogance when specialists on
Chinese politics I spoke to tried to turn the tables on the
virtues of India like democracy and liberal freedom. While
the CCP's standard riposte to the West in defense of its one
party dictatorship is that each country has the right to
determine its own political system, its ideologues sing a
different and more aggressive tune to Indians. One party
member claimed at a public meeting I attended that China's
democracy is of a "higher quality" than India's because the
former is a "people's democracy" while the latter is an
elite-dominated system (a euphemism for the Mao-era disdain
for India as a "bourgeois democracy").
A Chinese information technology entrepreneur who was
involved in setting up some of China's most successful
Internet companies with state blessing, addressed a
gathering of Indian politicians and scholars, saying that
India must learn from its larger neighbor the techniques of
strongly policing the worldwide web. In his hyper
patriotically charged view, India has a "weak government"
that cannot have "security" enjoyed by the Chinese
government unless it employs stricter Internet censorship.
A tightly regimented society being peddled as a model to a
much freer country like India speaks of the defensiveness of
Chinese stung by Western media accusations that they live in
an abusive polity with no political rights.
One recurring theme during my China visit was a decidedly
anti-Western tendency and appeals to India to not fall for
the "trap" of the "new yellow peril" or "China threat
theory". Chinese foreign policy observers kept reminding me
that Western portrayals of China as a belligerent power or
an obstacle to multilateral institutional consensus was a
ruse to pit India against it. A peculiar view in Beijing,
often shared by Indian leftists, is that Western powers have
are planning a devious game to "divide China and India" and
that war between the two Asian powerhouses will "play into
the hands of Western interests".
While there is a case to be made on specific issue areas for
India to avoid being used by the United States or the
European Union as a card against China, the generic Chinese
assumption that India could be turned into a Western
instrument to embroil China in a regional conflict is naive.
The implication of such theories, which are popular in
China, is that India lacks a mind of its own and can be
easily suborned. This misreading of India is all the more
acute because it brushes under the carpet India's own
strategic problems and disputes with China, and assumes that
Delhi is merely being provoked by
Washington to adopt certain anti-China
The refrain that India is not a subject but a mere object is
escapist, as it hides the underlying causes of tension
between the two countries that are rooted in past and
current Chinese behavior.
I noted two contrasting tendencies among China's India hands
trip. One side was wedded to aspirational
sentiments about fellow Asian solidarity, brotherhood, peace
and "Chindia" as a "commonwealth". This set of Chinese is
attuned to believing that external powers with ulterior
motives (read the US) are driving wedges between the two.
Adherents of this line hope that the millennia-old cultural
and economic exchanges between India and China could be the
basis for a renewed friendship.
The other, more realistic and policy savvy strain is to
acknowledge the objective bases on which China and India
differ and compete with each other. One Chinese professor
was point blank in accepting that there was a fundamental
disconnect due to non-complementarity of the two economies
as well as mutual competition for markets and energy
Another Chinese strategist admitted that naval rivalry
between the militaries of the two countries was "well
underway" because of the attempt of both to stake out
greater influence in Asia and beyond.
I also heard from Indian diplomats in China that a number of
Indian businesses are frustrated with the restricted access
rules they confront while seeking entry into the world's
largest consumer market. China's strategic and predatory
trade policies worry India in spite of bilateral trade
volumes being on schedule to touch $60 billion this year.
Old demons have also not been exorcised in Sino-Indian
relations. I was asked by several exasperated Chinese as to
why India still shelters the "splittist" Dalai Lama, the
exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. A Chinese Indophile who
toes the CCP stance went to the extent of asserting that
"the fact that the Dalai Lama still exists in India as a
guest is a bigger threat to China than the US supplying
weapons to Taiwan".
While a lot of the narrow nationalistic outrage in China is
directed at the West (epitomized in the 2009 best-selling
book by Chinese foreign policy hawks, China is Not Happy),
I noticed plenty of bitterness towards India over Tibet.
Fear that India may whip out the ''Tibet card'' as it did by
training the Tibetan Special Frontier Force between 1962 and
the early 1970s is an unspoken but relationship-hardening
Apart from the hopeful and the realistic schools, there is
also a generational change camp in China that anticipates
"blue skies" in bilateral ties due to passage of time and
lapsing of old antagonistic mindsets. The affability and
hospitality of Chinese youth towards Indian visitors seemed
to give credence to the notion that fellow Asians of the two
most populous countries can coexist in harmony because they
share so many common personal traits and dreams.
But here too, the vast differences in political culture are
bound to complicate matters. Many Chinese university
students I interacted with were surprised that I could be so
critical of some Indian government policies. One of them
exclaimed in shock when I said that 30% or so of Indians
lived in absolute poverty. She thought I was being unnatural
and traitorous by conceding flaws of my country.
Can stronger people-to-people links be built between a
society like India that is accustomed to critical
self-reflection and a society like China that has
internalized self-censorship, orderliness and regimentation?
A Chinese moderator of a bilateral forum I participated
summed up this huge attitudinal gap by urging Chinese
attendees to read Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's The
Argumentative Indian to understand why Indians are such
loose cannons. The bridge that divides may never be
genuinely crossed as long as the argumentative Indian lacks
a counterpart in the form of an argumentative Chinese.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat,
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