- May 15 2017
China increasingly confronts an emerging global order that is actually new to it and India faces an extraordinary challenge as this evolution takes place. One might argue how and why that is the case? For almost 2,000 years, China had no peer competitor that could balance its power. It was an imperial state, albeit on occasion it stumbled. Wars occurred in China as frequently as they did in 19th and 20th century Europe.
The contest for power, however, was between warring factions striving to capture imperial power, which were commonly civil wars, rather than inter-state conflicts that enabled the onset of a new imperial authority. Prior to the 19th century, China had known no neighbour capable of contesting its hegemony and never conceived of such a state ever emerging.
Therefore, the critical organising principle that governs inter-state relations – sovereign equality of states never existed in China’s conception of world or Asian order. When it collaborated with barbarians afar, as all non-Chinese were treated, it was done to suppress barbarians closer home. Yet external alignments were a transient practice in Chinese statecraft and not common to China’s long history. China has only known pre-eminence for most of its history. It is approaching that quest to regain supremacy.
Given this context, the only state capable of contesting the Chinese hegemony in Asia is India. To be sure, in concert with other Asian states, principally Japan to construct an intra-Asian balance. Following the 1962 war between India and China, New Delhi built up its military to defend its borders. Yet this build-up was sufficient in so far as it constrained and limited Beijing’s capacity to seize territory as it successfully managed to do with its defeat of India in 1962.
Today, some of the defensive advantages that New Delhi enjoyed along its contentious frontier is eroding. The state of Arunachal Pradesh is in the cross hairs of this Chinese drive for hegemony. The Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the state and the Tawang Monastery inflamed Beijing. This is a serious and enduring fissure and a source of conflict between India and China that cannot be subsumed by increased Sino-Indian economic relations. Chinese intrusions into Indian territory in recent years, while not outrightly menacing, are still a cause for concern.
A crucial cog in distorting Indian military priorities along India’s contested boundary with China is Beijing’s long-standing military partnership with Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) only reinforces it.
It is notable that even at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, when Mao Tse-Tung had locked the Middle Kingdom from contact with the rest of the world, Beijing retained diplomatic and official ties only with Pakistan. The CPEC somewhat represents an anomaly from a historical standpoint. China, as we already noted, treats every outsider to be a barbarian, yet aligns with a near barbarian in Pakistan to counter another near barbarian in India.
The Pakistanis have served a crucial and durable function for the Chinese to the extent that Pakistan’s actions, the recent spate of attacks, vividly demonstrate, particularly in Kashmir. Pakistan’s intensely antagonistic relations with India has left the latter distracted. This has enabled Beijing to kill two birds with one stone – pursue low cost balancing through Rawalpindi without having to bear the higher direct cost of militarily balancing India on its own. In this context, one misconception within sections of the Indian establishment and foreign policy elite is that India could get China to circumvent CPEC corridor which traverses Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This, it is argued would address India’s concerns about sovereignty.
The proposed alternative route connects Afghanistan as Kabul has seen economic linkages with Central Asia grow, allowing the Chinese to pursue an enlarged Belt and Road Initiative that extends and runs through India’s eastern frontiers. If Beijing consents, it could exploit and build a bigger economic corridor.
This seemingly attractive proposition overlooks the fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked country with a raging Taliban insurgency that shows no signs of abating because of Pakistan’s active sponsorship. Why would Beijing privilege India in rerouting CPEC through Afghanistan when its principal partner Pakistan has an antagonistic relationship with both Kabul and New Delhi? Pakistan may be an economic pygmy, but it is not a militarily inconsequential state.
Further, India, while maintaining its claims over PoK, has done little to seriously contest Pakistan’s control of PoK territory, which consists of Gilgit and Baltistan.
Tying closely into Sino-Pakistan entente is India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Despite conceding, as a senior Chinese Communist Party official did, that India had a “cleaner record compared to Pakistan” on nuclear non-proliferation, Beijing’s official position was insistent that both Islamabad and New Delhi be extended an equal or the same opportunity to be part of the elite cartel. Since the NSG operates on consensus, a single member can effectively veto the entry of new members.
This commentary originally appeared in Deccan Herald.