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    Greater China
 
     May 18, 2010

COMMENT
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 in 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 New Delhi is merely being provoked by Washington to adopt certain anti-China postures.

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 on this 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 supplies.

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 factor.

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, India.

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