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IDSA COMMENT

To deal with China, India needs to return to strategic fundamentals

March 21, 2017

India’s ties with China are seemingly becoming more complicated by the day. Despite the dialogue held recently at the strategic level, the continuing stalemate over both the proposal at the UN to designate JeM Chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and India’s entry into the NSG are visibly deepening suspicions that may snowball into other areas where the two countries entertain misgivings about each other. In the coming months, other critical issues like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC, and possible changes in the BRICS format could cause more diplomatic frictions.

Clearly, the mechanisms in existence for the last two and half decades to deal with bilateral issues have outlived their usefulness. The iterative approach and improved economic ties are not helping to build trust. Instead, the step-by-step dispute-handling model generates more ‘friction-points’ fuelling domestic outrage and suspicion. Consequently, the first-ever “strategic dialogue” ended nettling each other.

To counter Indian tactical moves, the Chinese were quick to employ tactical ploys by raising legally tenable points of seeking “solid-evidence” to prove Azhar’s direct links with al Qaeda, which are required to proscribe him under the UN 1267 regime. The Foreign Secretary’s fairly ambiguous answer, that “the burden of proof is not on India”, explained the elusive nature of the Azhar issue that the Chinese had carefully worked on. Similarly, by citing a lack of “consensus”, required under the 1267 rule-procedure, China tried to put India on the spot. India’s qualified response – a “body of world opinion” is in favour of censuring Masood Azhar and that Beijing’s is a “minority voice” – explained the tenuousness of the case from a legal perspective. Terming the NSG case as a “multilateral” issue and asserting that “Beijing alone” isn’t blocking India’s bid are again a typical Chinese way of fudging the issue.

The Chinese are known for their mastery in the art of denial and deception. They have merely used the Beijing meeting to convey a bigger message that Washington is no longer important in settling the global agenda, a fact that New Delhi should acknowledge. Recall Beijing’s dig at Washington’s "outlier" comment – “NSG membership cannot be a farewell gift for countries to give to each other.” Worse, Beijing hasn’t closed the matter. The hint that it retains an “open approach” on India’s application should be read as a message – China is willing to strike a deal. But, China can deny even these messages if the trajectory of India’s future policy shifts further towards aligning with America.

Both New Delhi and Beijing are deeply aware about the need to reset the terms of engagement. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar repeatedly reminded about the need for moving away from the current “disjointed approach” to pursuing a deeper strategic model of engagement in order to start the process of building trust. But the attempts of both countries to do so has faltered over differing perceptions and political signals on what ‘strategic dialogue’ actually implies.

Apparently, Indians comprehend the term “strategic” as enlarging the scope of consultation on the state of the global affairs, Afghanistan being the recent case. This is a faulty assumption tried earlier in 2008, when Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao called for common approaches to deal with global challenges such as climate change. But the experiment failed to remove the adversarial image that each held of the other.

The Chinese, on their part, take a philosophical approach to the word ‘strategic’; that is, to create conditions for sprouting shared values and trust; to achieve something of value rather than confining it to matters of contemporary convenience or as a means to find instant solutions to problems. Strategic trust for them is de rigueur for relationship-building. Beijing was seen conveying emphatically: do not always use strategic forums for achieving tactical goals, because their great master Sun Tzu suggested “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.

One fears that the Chinese may have a point here. Most nations normally devise clear strategic objectives for achieving certain specified goals – only then do they think about specific tools to be employed for tactical execution. But Indian diplomacy seems unable to step away from the totally wacky habit of adopting a narrow tactical pursuit devoid of strategic thinking. In fact, the habitually employed surfeit of political tactics without their strategic positioning leads to abject confusion and inappropriate actions – efforts then draw a blank.

Clearly, a return to the strategic fundamentals then becomes a necessity. The fact that India and China never tried to evolve a framework to guide their relationship ever since the 1954 Treaty of Panchsheel became redundant after 1962 remains a deficiency. A good example to emulate is the top-down waterfall approach, espoused by Russia and China to lower tensions between them which led to the desired windfall results in the last two decades. In fact, the old Indo-Soviet model was not a bad sustainable strategic tie, though the context in which it was framed was different.

The problem is that India lacks Sinologists to read the Chinese mind. It hasn’t invested enough in developing a hard understanding of Chinese historical, political and economic system, as compared to the kind of efforts made to learn about the Western world. This leads us to understand China the way we want to understand it. We always want our signals to be perceived by the Chinese in the manner in which we want them to be perceived. In contrast, the Chinese claim their 2,000 year long experience of understanding the Indian mind, style of thinking and their moves. As a result, signals sent by the Chinese do not often come out clearly to us. Seemingly, the disparity in understanding each other can’t be bridged by our mastery in using English phrases only.

A framework is certainly needed and the dialogue process is definitely a good way for trust building. An honest attempt to build a new paradigm of India-China trust should be grounded on shared historical and cultural awareness of each other, as also on the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens on both sides. This may prove to be an effective evolutionary way.

Surely, India should be careful not to fall into Beijing’s habitually applied Sino-centric rule of courtship – considered as the cornerstone of building a strategic relationship – a leverage they are now using for penetrating new markets in Africa and elsewhere.

For now, India’s mode of diplomacy requires a change. It should avoid giving ambiguous and conflicting signals to China which result in causing collateral damage to relations. For example, the play of shadowy games, especially the use of superfluous Cold-War era cards of Tibet and Taiwan, do not squarely match with China’s ability to pin down India either directly or indirectly. A serious cost-benefit analysis is needed of a policy that is seemingly easy to exercise but deleterious and self-defeating in reality. For, every empty posturing by India is being countered by China by bleeding India through Pakistani terrorists. In contrast, India’s reciprocal ability to inflict damage even in nearby Tibet, leave aside several thousand miles away in East Asia, remains untested. The ground reality is that the wide power asymmetry, especially the widening imbalance in trade totalling USD 50 billion is creating an asymmetrical interdependence which is fraught with high risk.

Our over enthusiasm to embrace the US and a propensity to see everything through an anti-China lens may be compelling Beijing to work against India in the regional and global arena.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are behaving with much savoir-faire to win over countries in our neighbourhood by displaying respect combined with easy familiarity through soft-power.

India need not see China as an object of disdain in perpetuity – a narrative often sold by the West. India and China have their own historical points of connections. They needn’t look for new symbolisms. In fact, minus the superficial rift, the ground is extremely fertile for a strong understanding to grow. Take the case of Yoga practices, spreading like wildfire in China. It is perhaps not the incongruity factor of any sort but the unvarying narrative sustained by the West, further reinforced by our false sense of ego, that prevents India from forging a pragmatic equation with China.

Instead, India should seek to reconcile with China, though, of course, without compromising on its core interests. It is time to engage in a dialogue process not just for enhancing strategic trust but also to think more cunningly about how to benefit from China’s riches, by gaining access to Chinese credit and technology, and securing markets for Indian products. Of course, the Chinese also need to reformulate their thinking on the nature of India’s rise in the system.

Realistically speaking, we should not find too ominous China’s rise and its assertion. Its rise is no different from the rise of other major powers like the US, USSR and even Great Britain in the past. It is possible that future rising powers, including India, might have to assert in a similar manner for achieving their strategic objectives. But for India to emerge as a global power of any reckoning, it has to start realizing that a narrow tactical pursuit devoid of strategic thinking will lead to nowhere.

We need to reframe our terms of relationship with China; rethink our own posture; rescue ourselves from experiencing a delusion of grandeur and instead persevere to emerge as a confident and aspiring regional power.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.