A photo gallery of the Chinese leadership is one of look-alikes, with their dark hair, white shirts, dark suits and burgundy/maroon as the preferred colour of the ties. A photo gallery of the Indian leadership is in complete contrast.
So also is the uniformity of policy pronouncements that emanate from Beijing unlike the ones that emerge from New Delhi. China watchers have spent years trying to discern from where and to what extent such contradiction exists. This opaqueness makes China much harder to understand than our cacophony which is also described as our free democratic spirit.
Added to this is long-term continuity in its international relations. For us, Chinese actions in our neighbourhood and at international fora have a special significance. China now looms large on the horizon, not just across an undemarcated border or in the region but globally as well.
China sees itself to be a returning power as a normal state of affairs, according to Henry Kissinger, while Lee Kuan Yew says China intends to be the greatest power in the world. Professor David Shambaugh’s title for his latest book China Goes Global — The Partial Power is descriptive enough. Describe it whichever way one wants, China remains the big story as it begins to impact globally.
China has not come into our neighbourhood with its guns blazing and sackfuls of dollars intending to build its own clones in the region. Instead, it has been more patient but single-minded in building influences around our periphery. Everybody knows that but the notion that China will give us space internationally is flawed.
The India-China equation does not start at our borders. Nor does it merely extend to competition at a future date on the high seas of the Indian Ocean Region. China has been truly active in its neighbourhood with its deep pockets only after it became economically strong enough to do so.
This is apart from Pakistan which was always a low-cost high priority item for China’s leaders as it was one of the factors that ensured the continued ability of Pakistan to be hostile to India. Thus, China’s single-most inimical and unfriendly act towards India has been the nuclear weaponising and arming of Pakistan and allowing the exchange of centrifuge plans for missiles between Pakistan and North Korea.
China’s presence at Gwadar, in the copper mines of turbulent Balochistan and in the Gilgit and Baltistan region widening and strengthening the Karakoram Highway have been carefully thought-out strategic moves. China, thus, strengthens its infrastructure connections between remote Xinjiang and the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, unlike the US which spends billions of dollars annually to sustain Pakistan but remains the most disliked nation on the Pakistani street. Those leaders in dark suits in Zhongnanhai must be chuckling quietly every evening at America’s predicament.
Chinese activities have increased in Nepal, especially in the Terai. The construction of the road from Kyirong in Tibet to Central Nepal and the eventual extension of the Qinghai-Lhasa-Xigatse rail link to Kathmandu in the next few years will bring China strategically closer to India.
Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean Region from Kyaukpyu in Myanmar to our east through Hambantota in the south to the Maldives and Seychelles to our west, have been watched closely by New Delhi. It would be a paranoid and insecure State that would view every Chinese action in our neighbourhood as hostile to our interests.
These moves could be a natural result of globalisation and Chinese attempts to increase trade with Nepal and Myanmar or have infrastructure projects in our neighbourhood including Afghanistan, cannot be considered as aimed against India, particularly when we are ill-equipped or disinterested in handling such projects.
India does not have any quid pro quo to the China-Pakistan equation where India can arm and equip a hostile nation on China’s borders. It would also be suicidal to enter into an arms or missile race with China but it should be necessary to have a capability to have all of China in our missile range as does China for India. These are merely prudent moves for capacity building seeking insurance for the defence of national interests and not hostile acts.
The answer to all this is not to raise a fire alarm and expect rescue missions from the rest of the world. Instead, it is necessary to continue to develop and strengthen our own military, infrastructure and economic development projects in Afghanistan and Bhutan.
If China can build highways through territory that belongs to us or have its labour present there, then surely India has absolute legitimacy to be present in Cam Ranh Bay and have joint energy exploration ties with Vietnam. Trade links with South East Asia, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Australia are equally legitimate pursuits of national interest and should not be assumed to be aimed at any other country.
The development of the Chahbahar port with Iranian help is about Afghanistan and Central Asia as much as it is about bilateral relations. Of course, all this would also need cohesiveness, consistency and sustainability of our domestic economic policies and security issues. If globalisation has worked for China, there is no reason why it should not work for us.
All this is worth aspiring to, but unless India is seen to be able to protect its vital interests, none of our peers will do that for us nor our neighbours respect us for this misplaced magnanimity. If we cannot defend our interests then there is no reason to believe that we would be able to defend others’ interests. They will seek out those who can.
Often when comparing China’s rise and India’s expected rise, we feel consoled when we are told “You have democracy.” The hard truth is that the real world respects power and wealth. As in personal life, so also in the life of nations, the good guys finish last!
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing. The views expressed by the author are personal.