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National Strategy Lecture - Psychological Science, Strategy and China’s Periphery

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  • November 03, 2011
    Speeches and Lectures

    There is a strong case for strategists to be psychologists too, as at a certain level they are involved in analysing the thought process of others and attempting to capture the behavioural framework in which those for whom the strategy is being formulated operate. This prescription to leaven strategic planning with insights from psychological science applies to strategists in general. For a member of the strategic community responsible for designing a roadmap for India’s international relations, this interaction between strategy and psychology involves gaining a comprehensive, in-depth and multi-spectral understanding of the various countries India engages with.

    An agenda for applying a psychological science perspective to India’s strategic planning was the key thought of Mr. Ravi Bhoothalingam’s presentation at IDSA on November, 3 2011. Mr. Bhoothalingam is the Founder and Chairman of Manas Advisory, a consultancy practice focusing on leadership coaching and India-China business development. He is academically trained in Experimental Psychology and spent significant portions of his career at senior levels in the area of Human Resource Development and with hotels. Mr. Bhoothalingam is a regular speaker and writer on China and an advocate of ‘win-win’ India-China business partnerships based on complementarities in Indian and Chinese capabilities and ways of thinking.

    His lecture did more than just explore a proposal for multidisciplinarity in the arena of strategic thinking; he embarked on putting some thoughts together in the area of strategy and psychology – an exercise which he describes as bringing together a ‘rather odd combination of subjects’ - and extended this concept to analyse India’s perception of China from a psychological science angle.

    In his presentation, Mr. Bhoothalingam attempted to capture the unique and profound relationship between psychological insights and India’s perception of China by breaking the complex research model into simple steps and employing an investigative logic. He initially focused on explaining the importance of establishing linkages between psychology and strategy; he then moved on to tease out the aspects of psychological science pertinent to the study at hand; lastly, taking key insights from psychological science as a background, he jointly explored three particular themes: How assertive is China?, Chinese muscle flexing in the South China Sea and Tibet. He concluded with some thoughts and inferences on India.

    The speaker observed that as China’s global presence increases, it is important for India and the world at large to develop a greater understanding of China. The project of ‘getting China right’ bears heavily on India because of the historical experience of the 1962 Sino-Indian war and specific assertions describing the run up to 1962 as ‘a chain of misperceptions and misunderstandings’. There is a possibility that an alternative perspective would throw some fresh light on the causes of going to war and more broadly on how India and China then perceived each other. Mr. Bhoothalingam looked at the two words – ‘perception’ and ‘understanding’ – closely and commented on the inability of the current state of theories of International Relations to adequately and satisfactorily explain and predict state behaviour.

    He suggested a new multidisciplinary model in which psychology and psychological science play a ‘primary’ role. ‘Primary’ since strategy and state behaviour are, to some extent, a function of human behaviour. Moreover, failure to understand the psychology behind human behaviour will handicap our understanding of state behaviour. This proposal to concede some - if not a predominant - space to psychology in the strategic sphere is not a novel conception. The speaker here acknowledged the emphasis laid by the ‘grandfathers of strategy’ – Sun Tzu, Kautilya and Plato - on how generals, princes, and guardians of state think.

    The speaker brought out a number of key insights from several dimensions of psychological science by engaging with multiple factors that affect perception. Some of these central thoughts which were succinctly expressed by the speaker by using interesting illustrations during the course of the presentation include:

    1. There is a difference between ‘what we see’, ‘what we perceive’, and ‘what is really there’.
    2. During uncertainties, the brain tends to piece together bits and pieces of information. Sometimes this piecing together doesn’t always result in an exact portrayal of what the object is.
    3. An important area in psychology is the concept of projection. This involves projecting on to somebody else the reason for your own behaviour.
    4. The concept of ‘pattern completion’ wherein the brain can mislead by completing a pattern the wrong way.
    5. Language affects perception and thinking. Language and thoughts dynamically interact with each other. Two very different languages like Mandarin and Sanskrit, because of their different structures, can give rise to two radically different ways of thinking.
    6. Focusing illusion: Focusing very hard on something tends to an upward resetting of mental targets. As a result, whoever’s behaviour is being evaluated usually falls short of the target.

    With this background of psychology in mind, Mr. Bhoothalingam delved into some of the most crucial questions facing India and the world vis-à-vis China’s growth and rise in the last 4-5 years. In exploring the theme of China’s assertiveness he used an innovative zoom-based approach. The effectiveness of this research method is best appreciated by dividing the various stages of analysis into steps.

    Step 1: India and the South Asian Region
    The study zooms-in in its first stage and concentrates on China as an actor in the South Asian region with special focus on India. At this point, the speaker presented a fairly exhaustive and gloomy list of India’s popular areas of disagreement with China: the ‘Airavat’ affair, Arunachal Pradesh, Tibet, border issues, river water diversions, China’s String of Pearls strategy, the Pakistan nexus, and so on. The list does a good job in corroborating the proposition that a massive Chinese threat is operational in the purview of Sino-Indian relations.

    Step 2: The Global picture
    The picture now zooms-out and the study looks at China’s role in global issues. On the issue of climate change, China has generally backed India in the international platform. China has behaved in a reasonably responsible manner in the world financial system, standing by the Asian region during the 1997 crisis; joining the WTO and agreeing to some very hard conditions; being a good keeper of conventions not only of the WTO but of most of the international systems, agreements and commitments; China is a member of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and of Kyoto Protocol, both of which USA is not.

    Coming to East Asia, China has played a very positive role in the Korean Peninsula, though there is some unease vis-à-vis Japan and ASEAN. Overall, this list certainly doesn’t look anywhere as scary as the earlier one. So zooming-out and looking at the picture from a different perspective certainly reveals a different scenario.

    Step 3: Temporal series over a period of time
    The analysis now shifts from an area-based study to a temporal format. The speaker here looks at global perceptions of China as portrayed in some of the most notable books published corresponding to the following time brackets:
    1989- September 11, 2001: What emerges is the picture of a unipolar world dominated by a triumphant US and a China so vulnerable that it was predicted it would topple over and collapse.
    9/11 – 2008: Landscape changed over the next 8 years with the US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two sets of question marks pervaded perceptions on China: firstly, how permanent and sustainable is China’s rise?; and secondly, what does it mean for India?
    2008 – 2011: Global moods changed drastically after the 2008 financial crisis and we see a reversal of trends wherein China’s profile is rising whereas US is under extreme stress.

    The speaker goes on to say that while the US has usually chosen routes of either ‘attack’ or ‘isolation’ vis-à-vis its relations with countries like, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, etc., China has generally kept its options open and opted for engagement. Putting all these insights together, Mr. Bhoothalingam suggests a methodology of looking at the Chinese threat through lenses tempered by psychological insights. This would enable India to view a massive threat situation as fairly manageable.

    The South China Sea exemplifies the highly contradictory nature of Chinese behaviour. While on one hand China is moving aggressively and claiming sovereignty, on the other, senior Chinese leaders are talking about peaceful coexistence and peaceful resolution of issues. The speaker here suggests not to be led by instinctive gut reactions and label China as indulging in deception by displaying contradictory behaviour.

    He turns to psychology for testing out another hypothesis to explain China’s contradictory behaviour: the Approach Avoidance behaviour. This approach explains the attractiveness of what is being approached – the South China Sea- as the whole question of what is described by China as sovereignty. However, what is detracting them is their general unpopularity and their reputation of getting into muscle bound situations with their neighbours. Mr. Bhoothalingam played with the possibility that ‘sovereignty’ here could be an overall code word for certain changes in the regime in the laws of the sea. He suggested that the South China Sea is not a critical issue, rather a much more classical diplomatic issue with opportunities for India to negotiate. The speaker in this context invoked Mao’s saying of ‘the correct handling of contradictions’.

    Mr. Bhoothalingam explained his decision to use the word ‘crisis’ in connection with Tibet by citing the interesting meaning of the word in the Mandarin language. The two characters that make up the word ‘crisis’ are present in two other words: ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Thus, for the Chinese, crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity.

    The speaker observes the crux of this situation as the oddity that Tibet should be a problem at all. He elaborates on his opinion by putting forward two strong arguments: firstly, there is no governmental problem as far as Tibet is concerned as no government in the world has recognised Tibet as anything other than a part of China; secondly, in terms of its geopolitical standing, Tibet does not feature as an oil or gold provider. He therefore observes that, to this extent, the possibility of people getting in and controlling it physically are rather remote. But why is this ‘rather low key international priority’ being talked about then?

    The speaker notes that this is because there is a widespread understanding that the people of Tibet are not being handled justly and the reasonable demands of the Dalai Lama are being brusquely brushed aside by the Chinese. Similarly, on the Chinese side, the main issue is one of complete incomprehension about what the so called religious freedom means. Moreover, there is a great intertwining confusion between religious freedom and China’s nightmare associated with an alternate pole of power as represented by the Dalai Lama. An inability to disintertwine these areas has led to completely inauthentic positions both on the Tibetan and the Chinese side.

    Mr. Bhoothalingam stresses that India, with its strength of somewhat easy acceptance and merging of religious, philosophical and governance traditions, has important insights to offer here. In such a situation where both the Chinese and the Tibetans seem to be at a loss to reconcile civil power with some of the diffused areas of Buddhist religion and culture where hard nosed folks of the IR cohort do not want to tread, India has an opportunity to discreetly but positively contribute for resolution of the Tibetan problem through the application of its knowledge. The speaker observes that once the Tibetan problem is resolved, the sting of the border issue is taken away.

    Mr. Bhoothalingam concluded his extremely insightful and thought provoking talk by offering three guiding pointers for India’s engagement with China:

    • Firstly, India’s China strategy has to take into account the existence of opposites, complementaries and contradictions living together like yin and yang;
    • Secondly, India should focus on its ability to look at these contradictions in the correct perspective. Although there are short term contradictions, there are long term patterns underlying this and India must be able to unravel these.
    • Thirdly, India should not be paralyzed by the border issue and make Sino-Indian relations hostage to resolving the border issue. Multi-modal tracks of engagement should be applied to foster people-to-people ties and manage the border issue at the same time. Moreover, real engagement requires moving beyond economic relations and trade, it requires innovative ideas for a Sino-Indian grand project; there must be some drama in India-China relations.

    Report prepared by Bhavna Tripathy, Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.