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Obama’s Visit and the Paradox of Countering Chinese Expansionism and Western Messianism

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • February 04, 2015

    India's outlook towards global politics is at a turning point and it could mark the beginning of a new role for India on the global stage. Underlying this is the seeming desire of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to recover the lost dignity and pride (swabhimaan) of India or at least regain its primacy in Asia.

    Among his many steps, the invitation to President Obama for a historic second visit was clearly meant to serve the twin goals of bolstering bilateral ties and finding a clear strategic congruent to contain China’s rise. To be sure, Modi stood firm in terms of not compromising upon India’s independent foreign policy, not buckling under US pressure to ink a climate deal, and his disagreement about Russia’s bad behaviour.

    President Obama’s visit was a huge success. Western policy thinkers particularly hailed the China-centric “Joint-Strategic Vision” document on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region as a triumph for the United States. They see it as a major success in terms of weaning India away from its long-pursued posture of neutralism to finally join the global line-up drawn by the US. Henry Kissinger, in his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, interpreted it as India entering the “Asia equation” and a system of US-China relationship. Zbigniew Brzezinski, however, cautioned that this could antagonise China and make it uncooperative on key global issues. Not surprisingly, the Chinese media quickly cautioned India not to fall into the US “trap” and wrote off Obama's visit as a “superficial rapprochement", reflecting more “symbolism than pragmatism”.

    India had earlier remained sceptical of the US rebalancing strategy, but the realists now find good reasons for joining the balance of power game especially as the best way to boost immunity against threats, the best recipe to advance economic and military strength, and the shortest way for regaining India’s supremacy. However, many still hope that Modi’s diplomacy is not about joining the American bandwagon and putting a common front against China, but about leveraging the relationship with the United States to get the best deals out of US-China rivalry. From the latter perspective, the shift is, therefore, not ideological but only indicative of the transformation and refinement in the conduct of Indian diplomacy, which is becoming more robust and crafty for achieving national goals.

    The strategic vision statement, however, carries the most definitive intent in terms of curtailing the spread of the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, which India considers to be within its sphere of influence. It is reflective of India’s seriousness in standing stand up against repeated incursions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, the growing presence of Chinese construction troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and continued arms supplies to a Pakistan that sponsors and propels terrorists across into India. Clearly, India wants to create compelling pressures on China to stop nibbling away on issues that concerns its core security interests. Many would argue that China respects balance of power and refer to how Beijing started taking India seriously only after the 1998 Pokhran tests and the 2008 nuclear deal with the US–compelling it to sign a Guiding Principle agreement to solve the boundary problem with India.

    However, Obama’s real strategic message came in his parting shot when he tried to nudge India to ensure freedom of religion as enshrined in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. His assertion on religion strongly conveyed the point that a close strategic partnership will come only if India is able to shed its growing sentiment for cultural exclusivity. The subtle meaning was that the West still considers India potentially a virgin and fertile ground for harvesting souls and that India will succeed only so long as it ensures freedom to practice and propagate religion.

    This puts the current politico-ideological discourse, endorsed by the ruling party, in a paradoxical situation of whether to counter the Chinese expansionist threat or the Western messianic idea. After all, the idea of the revival of India’s supremacy embeds into it the need to see a new era of Hindu resurgence along with its territorial, demographic and materialistic vitality. The rising discourse in the country resents the increasing ideological infiltration, separatism and terrorism posing an enduring existential threat to the Indian (Hindu) culture. They are up against the missionaries resorting to conversion through allurement and exploitation, while also facilitating Ghar Wapasi movement for converts to return to Hinduism.

    Many would argue that the Church considers Asia as a vital continent having the greatest potential for the expansion of Catholicism. The same goes for Islam and its growth. It is hard to argue and link Obama’s subtle message with those prospects of Catholic missions, but one cannot scoff at the notion that the Western world always sought its political and trade interests in Asia in a certain amorphous way.

    In fact, the underlying contestation between the West and China is surely not about trade, military and power equations but a manifestation of Beijing’s firmness to eschew external ideological infiltrations, i.e., neoliberal, jihadi, evangelical, etc., which it thinks tends to subvert the core of the Chinese nation. China has long identified itself as being one of the targets and as such has adopted tougher ‘ideological security’ measures against the increasing influence of messianic orders that comes in the garb of soft power. In fact, Beijing finds itself locked in a zero-sum soft conflict with the West on this front.

    India’s problem is the same as the one confronted by China. India’s seemingly conscious aligning with the US requires analysis in terms of how it confronts an admittedly difficult conundrum. How will the government reconcile the US advocacy of religious diversity with its own ideology and vision of containing the forays of external forces and expanding its own? Will Modi seek a deep ideological compromise and push the Hindutva agenda on the back burner of the political discourse or keep it in abeyance simply in the interest of containing China’s rise? The US Congressmen are already forcefully seeking the inclusion of religious freedom and human rights in the India-US strategic dialogue. These issues will be important aspects of the Indian discourse in the coming years.

    For now, Modi will do well to find a balance between the American relevance in the economic arena and the need to collaborate with China on both economic and cultural revival theory. This is necessary because, as the Russians say, “markets alone cannot substitute for ethics, religion, and civilization.”

    ***
    This debate apart, India needs to figure out its key problem with China and the need to contain its rise. China’s encirclement, not a new idea though, but understanding what it would mean, let alone actualising it, is difficult. Despite favourable projections about India’s growth prospects, it will take us more than three decades to catch up with China.

    While dealing with China, India needs to work on two basic premises. Firstly, the idea of selling the illusion of China as a villain in Asia may not work beyond a point. For years, China has sought integration with almost all regional systems of Asia and one should not deny China’s role as the moderator of Asian economic and security affairs. Americans may grudgingly deny it but India’s friend Russia is accepting it. Consequently, China’s profile and role will continue to grow. What may happen in the distant future is something that one cannot say of it at present. India should not waste time thinking about outstripping China’s rise and influence now. To that extent, the West would like to play on the Indian sentiment against China to sustain the nature of their strategic competition.

    Secondly, India needs to understand how others nations outside the US camp perceive China to be. Curiously, they do not see the Chinese carrying any messianic idea, just like Indians and Japanese do not profess such ideas. The threat of power is a Western narrative sold to create rifts in Asia so that evangelists implement their projects smoothly. For example, none of India’s spiritual and trade missions beyond its frontiers was messianic in nature. The rationale behind the Chinese and Indian historical campaigns including the fabled Silk Road or Spice Route reaching up to Arab lands and Europe was economic in nature. They provided incentives for economic integration across Asia and beyond.

    If we take the long historical view, the spread of Indian ideology and its interface with Chinese philosophies never threatened Chinese nationhood. In fact, the Indian and Chinese thoughts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism helped forge the early social, political and commercial systems in Asia that became an attractive reward for European colonizers.

    Unfortunately, in the case of India, it had to experience repeated violent ideological onslaughts, and a long colonial intervention along with ideological reasoning that not only resulted in the Indian nation dividing into three parts but also continues to obscure its political and economic patterns to align with West.
    China consistently worked to acquire the image for itself as a trading power backed by military power that helps it to counterpoise the messianic forces. Even the Islamic world began to respect the Chinese power, albeit grudgingly, for the Arab Jihadis were wiped out by the Mongols in the 13th century whereas India remained a killing field for the zealots for centuries.

    Yet the vitality of Asian civilizations survives. In countries such as Japan and India, the consistent democratic practices are deeply rooted in the non-conflicting and inclusive philosophic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. They have defined Asia as a unique space, and in their highly flexible and responsive stances over long historical time their relative ability to catalyse economic prosperity, technological skills and others tools of meeting modern demands is growing. Therefore, any China-India congruity and trend of warming up could still spring surprises in Asia, though this is a difficult scenario given the diverse and complex array of interests. However, any such prospects could pose a direct challenge to American supremacy and thus bad news for the rest of Asia. Therefore, India’s economic resurgence and to play on the Indian sentiment against China may be a good idea to sustain the nature of strategic competition in Asia.

    To be sure, the US will continue to do what it can for blocking any meaningful rapprochement between India and China or Japan and China for it knows the danger of its loss of a dominant role in Asia. However, despite all the distortions of time and space, the hard geographic reality of Asia will triumph just as it happened in Europe.

    However, it is also a fact that both India and China are unable to produce any new political initiatives beyond the idea of securing their individual economic interests and narrow parameters of nationalism. Clearly, India-China problems are borne not out of any ideological conflict or territorial sovereignty but on the narrow view of nationalism built on the burden of the recent history of 1962 war. The legacy of mistrust persists less due to India's sense of defeat than betrayal by China. Although it is yet to decipher what went wrong in the minds of China’s Maoist national strategic thinkers then, this element lingers in the Western and Indian discourse as a paranoia that weighs on any future prospect of a thaw.

    To be sure, neither China nor India is going to do anything to remove the mutual mistrust, fearing that it would go against their respective views of nationalism. For India to recover its primacy in Asia, a comprehensive civilizational dialogue with China is necessary. It should transcend the boundary issue and cover aspects essential to assuage any ill feeling about the past and concentrate on the future together. Clearly, there is nothing wrong in Modi’s dream of reviving the notion of Bharatvarsh (Indian World) just as Putin’s notion of protecting "Russky Mir" (Russian World) in its Near Abroad or China’s attempt at securing its ‘glacis’ in its offshore islands. India’s interest demands consolidation of its own geopolitical ‘near abroad’ stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Indian Ocean.

    Surely, both India and China will have to confront immutable pressures on the core of their nationhood. However, the Chinese need to drop their Leninist-style excessive aggressiveness and start to value and work within the Asian culture, for it should realize that its economic hand-outs in Xinjiang and Tibet alone cannot quell the cultural sentiments among the local population. Beijing must find a new intellectual common ground with India that would enable the two to collaborate to stop the division of Asia further. A frank dialogue can build bridges necessary for resolving local conflicts. This should offer India the prospect of considering less confrontation and more cooperation with Beijing. This will also instil confidence among those who are fearful of China's aggressive ambition and its long-term objective.

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

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