To handle China, be a bit Chinese

Beat them at their own game


Brahma Chellaney

Hindustan Times, July 30, 2008


As an extension of the truisms of politics, like sunny beats gloomy, Beijing has devised its own positive slogans that its diplomats love to recite, such as a “win-win situation” and “common goals”. Such sloganeering provides diplomatic cover for the assertive promotion of Chinese interests. India needs to similarly strike an upbeat note and emphasize positives like “constructive engagement” and “shared benefits”. And through such catchphrases, New Delhi ought to publicly encourage Beijing to have a more “forward-looking approach” and shed the current negatives in its approach. 


For example, China’s harking back to the past — to the unfinished business of 1962 — by laying claim to additional Indian territories runs counter to the constructive spirit essential to a win-win situation. Its pressing of increasingly assertive territorial claims on the basis of Tibet’s putative historical ties to those areas shows a mindset anchored in the past. That is a loss-loss situation, not a win-win situation. Similarly, China’s reluctance, while stepping up cross-border intrusions, to define the frontline with India by hiding behind shibboleths like, “It’s a problem left over from history” and “We need time and patience”, needs to be openly challenged as unconstructive, uncooperative and downright negative, with the intent to keep India under pressure.


            India’s use of positives to bring out China’s negatives has become imperative in view of the rising Chinese belligerence, manifest from the proliferation of incursions and other border-related incidents since 2006 along a once-tranquil line of actual control (LAC). Even Defence Minister A. K. Antony was constrained to admit on July 23 that India is “concerned” over the increasing frequency of Chinese incursions. “We don’t take these things lightly”, he said. Such military incidents are proof that China’s negatives do not sit well with its claims.


Beijing, not content that Han territorial power is at its pinnacle, still seeks a Greater China. With 60 per cent of its present landmass comprising homelands of ethnic minorities, modern China has come a long way in history since the time the Great Wall represented the Han empire’s outer security perimeter. Yet, driven by self-cultivated myths, the state fuels territorial nationalism, centred on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, and its claims in the East and South China Seas and on Arunachal Pradesh — a state nearly thrice the size of Taiwan. China’s insistence on further expanding its national frontiers stymies a forward-thinking approach essential to building peace and stability in Asia.


The challenge China poses emanates principally from the character of its regime, not of its people. After all, weapons don’t kill until those holding the reins of power employ them. The military machine has been repeatedly unleashed against China’s own residents. The Chinese regime fans ultra-nationalism because the central tenet of its philosophy is uniformity, with Hu Jintao’s slogan of a “harmonious society” designed to undergird the theme of conformity with the state. While India celebrates diversity, China honours homogeneity. This quality of being uniform is implanted not just in institutions but also in popular thought.

Building consensus in democratic states entails reaching out to political opponents. In China, consensus is contrived simply through censorship, which snuffs out dissent. To stay healthy and to improve, a society needs an open, vigorous debate of its failings. But when a regime blocks such discussion, it can mean trouble for its inhabitants (as the latest repression in Tibet shows) and for its neighbours (as underlined by Beijing’s increasingly muscular foreign policy). The greatest genocide in modern history was not the Holocaust but Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward.

That record, coupled with the counterproductive approach toward Tibet and India, belies the myth that Chinese rulers are pragmatic and farsighted. Indeed, the record shows them as proverbial extremists, lurching from one end of the pendulum (hardcore communists) to the other extreme (unabashed capitalists). Whom they denounced as China’s enemies in the past are the very nations they zealously befriend today. They pursued policies previously that had no regard for human costs. Today, they pursue policies with little respect for the environment.

The secretive, suspicious and paternalistic culture in which Chinese leaders have been reared is reflected in their shadowy and shifty policy toward India. To tackle a regime wedded to nationalism as state religion and opacity as strategy, New Delhi needs greater clarity and resolve on the ends and means of its China policy. In fact, to outwit this regime at its own game, New Delhi should be willing to employ some of the Chinese tactics and tools. In order words, to handle China, emulate the Chinese.

While publicly speaking the language of conciliation, New Delhi has to brace up to the prospect that once the Olympics are over, Beijing may be tempted to provoke more military incidents, especially if India’s domestic politics remain murky and policy in disarray. A full-scale war will militate against the regime’s portrayal of China as a peaceful rising power. But can anyone discount the possibility that it may seek to achieve limited strategic objectives through short, swift, localized forays across a couple of points along the LAC that give India a bloody nose?  A lightening Chinese military expedition may be designed to cut a peer rival down to size in the eyes of the world and help end the now-fashionable China-India pairing the regime viscerally detests.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2008

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