The combination of an excess of nationalism, belief in exceptionalism, and of the inevitability of a Sino-centric world is an aspect India cannot overlook during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China. He must focus clearly on the strategic aspects of the relationship, and less on trade and economic ties.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to China, beginning May 14, is of considerable interest not only to peoples inhabiting the two countries, but also to leaders and strategic analysts globally.
In China, Mr. Modi will be visiting Xian, Beijing and Shanghai over three days, before leaving for Mongolia and South Korea. Mr. Modi’s visit follows Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to India in September 2014. There is a great deal hinging on its outcome with China being viewed today as a pivot-state, and India the only nation in the region capable of maintaining the balance in the region.
For his part, Mr. Modi has, no doubt, indicated that trade and economic tieswith China would be his main priority. However, there is much more to an Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China than economic relations — unstated though this may be. This visit is again taking place at a time when China has unveiled a new strategic vision, and elements of the strategy conform to Sun Tzu’s principle of “winning without fighting”. It implicitly includes rewarding nations that it perceives as “friends” and, by implication, excluding nations that stand in its way.
New security paradigm
China is also currently affording an opportunity to nations in the region to become a part of a Beijing-contrived “security alliance”, holding out the promise of a new Asian security paradigm, previously embedded in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Code of Conduct for Asia” (2014). The latter contained a veiled “warning” to countries forging military alliances to counter China. Perhaps, having waded too far out by its references to the issue of maritime disputes in the South China Sea at various regional fora, and more explicitly in the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region following the U.S. President Barack Obama-Modi meeting in New Delhi in January this year, the Prime Minister may, hence, need to indulge in some intricate balancing acts to win the confidence of his hosts.
Many Western analysts believe that China is presently demonstrating a degree of “strategic autism”, resulting from its growing power. The Indian side needs to factor this in its calculations. Under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, China had, by and large, displayed a benign face. It was during this period, in 2008, that India and China unveiled a “Joint Strategic Vision for the 21st Century”. This was considered unusual even then for China generally finds it difficult to endorse a common vision.
Under Mr. Xi, China has moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s injunction “to hide our capabilities and bide our time and never claim leadership”. It now countenances the employment of diplomacy as an instrument for the effective application of Chinese power in support of China’s ambitious and long-term foreign policy agenda.
Effectively, therefore, the 2008 “Shared Vision Concept” is all but buried, and it would be useful to see what happens next. The Indian side must avoid falling into any kind of trap of arriving at decisions on strategic issues, made seemingly easy by the Chinese employing very simplified, schematic representations of highly complex realities.
Meanwhile, current realities in the region are becoming more complex having entered a period fraught with change.
The emergence of new dangers in West Asia, the uncertainty in Afghanistan, with the Islamic State (IS) now siding with the Taliban, tensions among different nations in South-East Asia and East Asia, and evidence of increasing Chinese assertiveness, have produced an unstable equilibrium.
Impact of developments
Consequently, while there are many issues that would be uppermost in Mr. Modi’s mind, the visit provides an excellent opportunity for him to assess, at first hand, where China is headed. It will give him a chance to estimate the potential impact of recent developments on Sino-Indian relations.
“ The ‘Maritime Silk Road’ concept is possibly an even more audacious move, with plans to connect more than 50 countries via the sea and build a network of port cities along the Silk Road.”
The Prime Minister could begin by making a realistic appraisal of China’s “Defence Posture” and the kind of threat this poses to India. Rising defence budgets (the 2015 defence Budget is estimated at $141.5 billion — the 26th year of normal double digit increases since 1989), unveiling of a host of new state-of-the-art weapons such as the DF-21D “Carrier Killer” anti-ship ballistic missile (the Assassin’s Mace according to the United States) and the J-20 stealth fighter aircraft, employment of asymmetric tactics which conform to Sun Tzu’s precepts, all send out a clear message that China is no longer willing to watch from the sidelines where its immediate and long-term security interests are concerned.
Mr. Modi would also have the opportunity to understand, first hand, the implications of China’s “Outreach Programme”. The launch of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has already demonstrated Beijing’s determination to build an alternative financial architecture. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative (inclusive of a Silk Road Development Fund) aims to boost connectivity with China’s Central Asian neighbours, and establish a Eurasian land corridor from the Pacific Coast to the Baltic Sea, which possibly signals China’s determination to undermine the U.S. Pivot to Asia.
The ‘Maritime Silk Road’ concept is possibly an even more audacious move, with plans to connect more than 50 countries via the sea and build a network of port cities along the Silk Road. This could well result in circumventing and circumscribing India’s own outreach diplomacy.
The ambit of China’s “Public Diplomacy” including the rapid expansion of Confucius Institutes (there are over 415 such institutes around the globe including around 15 in India at present) also merits the Prime Minister’s attention. The interconnecting links between these Institutes and the authorities in China are matters which require to be better understood in the context of China’s current “soft power” offensive. As in the case of China’s “Peaceful Rise”, there is room for worry and concern.
China has already notched up several diplomatic successes — some of these will have an adverse impact on India’s external relations. The transformation in China-Russia relations is clearly one. This has been facilitated by the $400 billion gas deal, but it should not be overlooked that Russia was possibly the first overseas destination for Mr. Xi. What should specially concern India and Mr. Modi, is that China and Russia are now determined to deepen their “comprehensive strategic partnership” and “contribute to lasting world peace”. Likewise, China has gained a strategic beachhead in West Asia with its Iran connection. China is reaping the reward of standing by Iran. This will clearly put India on the back foot in a region which it has carefully nursed for a long time.
However, it is the further deepening of the China-Pakistan connection that should be cause for graver concern, and Mr. Modi could seek from his Chinese host what exactly China’s intentions are. The $46 billion promised by China for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which would link western China with the Gwadar port in Pakistan through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), by itself is worthy of India’s attention, but it is also apparent that the quid pro quo includes China gaining strategic access to the Gwadar port. The “pivot” to Pakistan in recent months, reflects Mr. Xi’s personal preferences after the equivocation of the Hu-Wen period.
All in all, it might be useful for the Prime Minister to tread with caution lest unexpected consequences follow improbable causes. This is specially true when matters relate to the rules of engagement between neighbouring states that have witnessed troubled relations in the past.
The underlying reason for concern is that China seems to be maximising power without purpose. The “logic of strategy” of such situations is that it inevitably provokes a confrontational atmosphere.
In China’s evaluation, it is already the predominant power in the region. It now seeks to translate its power into influence. Sharing power is farthest from its mind, and “strategic altruism” is not a quality that China — or for that matter most countries — possesses. India must remain alert to these eventualities when matters concerning strategic realities are discussed.
The combination of an excess of nationalism, belief in exceptionalism, and of the inevitability of a Sino-centric world that is being fostered under President Xi Jinping, does have inevitable consequences which countries like India cannot overlook. This requires Mr. Modi to focus clearly on the strategic aspects of the relationship, and less on trade and economic ties. It is the strategic content that heightens the importance of a meeting of minds when the leaders of India and China meet.
(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)