By Dr. Anirban Ganguly
Many an Indian apologist for Chinese expansionism have, over the last few months, prolifically written on how the Narendra Modi government’s handling of the current Doklam issue will only aggravate the situation and will not serve the cause of India’s stability and the larger cause of “peace” in the region. In short, these apologists want India to back off or back down in the face of the current phase of Chinese belligerence. They too like the CPIM politbureau, want India to submit to the Chinese reading of the situation and to their false claims and propaganda. Over the years if these types who have been cultivated and feted by certain countries so that they could conveniently serve as their mouthpieces back home and on crucial occasions take a line which is different from the one that serves India’s national interest.
There are many specimens of these “proxies,” some of them call for India’s dismemberment, some others, under the garb of the “Idea of India” debate, baulk at anything that is civilisational India, yet others develop severe intellectual rashes the moment they are confronted with cries of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” yet others have silently, under the garb of academic freedom, associated themselves with separatists and terrorists. These elements, though severely challenged in the last three years, have become most vocal against India’s position on Doklam. It is best that one keeps exposing these elements; it is through a continuous counter that they stand to gradually dissolve or be intellectually battered into silence.
The latest phase of Chinese expansionism, follows a phase in which Prime Minister Modi, genuinely reached out to the Chinese and spoke of China and India as being two ancient civilisations that can “reinforce each other’s progress” amid the “global uncertainties of our times.” In a profoundly statesman like address to the Tsinghua University in May 2015, Prime Minister Modi had, in fact, laid a roadmap for India-China partnership for the next two decades. The address was studded with hard truths, genuine appeal, practical suggestions and a civilizational perspective. Modi had said, for example, that “Today, after difficult and sometimes dark passages of history, India and China stand at a rare moment of vast and multiple transitions in the world. Perhaps, the most significant change of this era is the re-emergence of China and India.” He saw the rise of India and China as the sine qua non for the rise of Asia and for bringing to fruition the vision of the Asian century.
Some of the candid and yet profound statements that Prime Minister Modi made in that address, clearly spoke of a concrete civilisational partnership between our two countries. Some of those points that Modi made are worth recalling today: “Asia’s re-emergence is leading to a multi-polar world that we both welcome. But, it is also an unpredictable and complex environment of shifting equations. We can be more certain of a peaceful and stable future for Asia if India and China cooperate closely. Asia’s voice will be stronger and our nation’s role more influential, if India and China speak in one voice – for all of us and for each other. Simply put, the prospects of the 21st century becoming the Asian century will depend in large measure on what India and China achieve individually and what we do together…First, we must try to settle the boundary question quickly. We both recognise that this is history’s legacy. Resolving it is our shared responsibility to the future. We must move ahead with new purpose and determination…The solution we choose should do more than settle the boundary question. It should do so in a manner that transforms our relationship and not cause new disruptions. If the last century was the age of alliances, this is an era of inter-dependence. So, talks of alliances against one another have no foundation. In any case, we are both ancient civilizations, large and independent nations. Neither of us can be contained or become part of anyone’s plans.” That both India and China are independent and proud civilizations and will only gain by striking a multi-layered partnership clearly emerged in this historic address of his. The CPC media and think tanks must have or to ought to have analysed this speech if they had actually wished to map Modi’s vision for the region.
The CPC and its actions on Doklam clearly showed that they have chosen to ignore the trust of friendship that Prime Minister Modi’s words conveyed in the summer of 2015. It was a clear case of betraying the spirit of friendship and partnership that Prime Minister Modi displayed during that visit of his. But there was an obvious difference, the Chinese had not anticipated the sturdy determination the Indian side displayed, the Chinese miscalculated one crucial aspect and that is that Modi is not Nehru, his trust and hand of friendship is backed by a firm resolve to protect India’s national interest, a resolve which is not a merely ideational but which is further backed by a clear roadmap and strategy.
While Nehru philosophised his trust of the Chinese, Modi’s trust is propped up by pragmatism, dynamism, alertness and the will to take positions and withstand all sorts of pressures. It is thus true that Modi is not Nehru and India of today is not stuck or awed by the phantom of 1962.
Doklam has for the moment fallen silent, the CPC party Congress has also come and passed and President Xi’s position has only been further strengthened with some arguing that Xi’s stature has now attained or will eventually attain that of Mao. Xi’s staunch and unequivocal advocacy of the Chinese dream has gained greater credence and acceptability within China it seems. Doklam for us has displayed a shift vis-a-vis our approach and relations with China. India has demonstrated her quiet determination to work for her own rise as a responsible power and to legitimately protect her national interest and continue with her quest for strategic depth in the region.
For the Chinese, Doklam seems to have given a clear indication that the present Indian leadership is not going to resort to false sentimentalism, to public rhetoric while ceding space all the while. There was no indication during the entire episode that India was a soft and undecided state, prone to backsliding and compromising. Neither did she resort to rhetoric nor did she cede space and buckle.
The narrative that must now be taken forward is whether China’s rise will be a peaceful and responsible rise, whether that rise recognises the right of other powers to equally rise and prosper, whether it accepts the right of other powers to equal access to international lanes of communication and trade, whether the region as a whole can aspire to a future of peace, interconnectivity and prosperity? Can China deny India her civilizational approach and space? While ancient times, the times of the mighty Cholas to be precise, India had a clearly marked out civilizational space in the region, had amalgamated, fused and subsumed her cultural and religious expressions among people and civilizations of the area abounding southeast Asia right up to Japan and Korea, the Chinese were mostly always in a state of flux.
Author and thinker Howard French in his latest study of China: “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps China’s Push for Global Power” (2017) notes that as “empire built upon succession of dynasties, China had never had a fixed name as a country, nor anything like a universally shared national language, nor for that matter anything remotely resembling a national history.”
This was in sharp contrast to India, where despite many political differences and diversities, the term Bharatvarsha evoked a clear geographical and spiritual entity, where Sanskrit was widely spoken and recognised, where a larger cultural and religious unity was reinforced and reiterated through institutions like the Tirthas (pilgrimages), where the narrative of Itihasa displayed a clear historical sense. Howard cites Chinese, scholar, philosopher and reformer of the late Quing and early republican period, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), arguing that Qichao played a crucial role, through his writings beginning in 1901, in formulating “an idea of the nation for the first time.” Qichao observed thus, “what I feel most shameful of is that our country does not have a name. The name of the Han or people of Tang are only names of Dynasties, and the name ‘China’ that foreign countries use is not a name that we call ourselves.” In fact Qichao argued that the Chinese people had no concept or vision of a “national people” [guomin]. “The Chinese people do not even know there is such a thing as a national people [guomin]. After several thousand years, there have been the two words guo jia [state, family] but I have never heard the two words guomin [state, people] ever uttered…”
The Chinese approach, the formulation of its policies towards the region and its players has been conditioned with a mindset of the past. Their approach to present day policy formulation is always infused with a sense of their past, whether that past existed in reality or not, is another matter. China’s approach to her neighbourhood, where she attempts to expand and dominate, is influenced by her past mindset. This past mindset sees the entire surrounding region right up to Japan in the north and Philippines in the south and India’s northeast as a subsidiary region which, China feels, ought to pay tribute to it.
As French observes, “for the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under the heaven, a concept known in the Chinese language as tian xia (everything under the heavens).” The Chinese saw everything as their dominion, especially that part of the world which they daily saw and with which they interacted. But this is a calcified mindset that sees no takers in the present times, even though, as the American thinker John Mearsheimer has argued in his “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” powerful states have the habit of “pursuing regional hegemony” and China is seeking to do the same in the region.
As strategic thinker Robert Kaplan in his fascinating account, “Asia’s Cauldron: the south China Sea and the end of a stable pacific” notes “China will pursue regional hegemony as a matter of course, regardless of whether or not its political system becomes open.” The Chinese thinking on statecraft argues, therefore, based on a created historical narrative that since the surrounding region stretching up to the Indian Ocean and the South China sea was a tributary region, China has to rise to status of a dominant power and once again command the allegiance of the countries around. This is what makes its international conduct untenable in the long-run, disturbance, coercion, hegemony
and hectoring are its expressions.
It is here that India, an equally long-running civilization, more cohesive, and with a deep sense of international commitment and responsibility, emerges as a crucial player. The manner in which India addresses the Chinese challenge, the way in which she handles herself in the face of challenges from China, the commitment that she displays towards international institutions and multilateralism will define and decide the way forward. Prime Minister Modi has referred to the need to reject expansionism – Vistaarvad and to embrace development, growth and progress – Vikaasvad in the region and beyond. His words express the collective aspiration of people of the area. Under his leadership and international vision, India has emerged as a proactive, dynamic and mature power with a narrative of co-existence, growth, interconnectedness; it is a narrative that attracts and will eventually dominate and prove and anchor for transforming the Indo-Pacific region. China will have to realize that sooner rather than later, as will have to those within India who have emerged as apologists for Chinese expansionism.