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July 04, 2020

Dancing with the Dragon

By Kartik Desai


China has suddenly and understandably become a topic of hot discussion both among the public and strategic thinkers in India and in the West, with many calling for a fundamental reset in relations. A pandemic originating from that country that has killed thousands and put the global economy in a tailspin. And in the middle of which, they decide to march across the LAC and cause a military confrontation that has already caused more than twenty of our soldiers to die brutally.

Why did this happen? And what do we do to respond?

On the first question, it is impossible to get an accurate picture given the opacity of the Chinese system and relative lack of knowledge on China, especially in India. Consider how many of us have American or European friends, have travelled to their countries and know their histories in detail, versus having even a basic interaction with China and its people; our lack of awareness of how they think and inability to have an effective dialogue stems from this.

Did the country purposely release Corona? Even if they didn’t, why are they being so hostile at a time when the world expects them to be apologetic? Why are they taking on aggressive postures in multiple theatres from Hong to the South China Sea to the Himalayas? Why have they decided to amp up disputes with multiple major middle powers at the same time, not just India, but also Australia (which has announced a 40% jump in defence budget), Japan and various Southeast Asian countries?

It’s hard to get answers to these questions except from people who really understand the internal dynamics of China. Most people say China has abandoned its previous philosophy of pursing a ‘peaceful rise’ and is now openly looking to become a hegemonic power by 2049 (its 100 year anniversary as a communist republic). To put it in simple terms, China is now willing to bare its fangs openly and pursue its strategic objectives without concern for others’ complaints. What are the dynamics beween the permier, politburo members, military leadership and exact state of state-society relations and public perception towards India are all relatively unknown.

But regardless of the reasons, the second question of how we respond still needs to be addressed. And for that we have many experts, both in India and among our friends and allies, who have shared their views over the past weeks in various publications, seminars and television shows (some resources provided at the end of this article). Based upon an evaluation of these perspectives over the last few days - both liberal and conservative, and within and outside India - and my own training in international relations and foreign policy, the following is my assessment of the situation and view on what India needs to do to overcome the challenge we face.

Speak Softly but Carry a Big Stick

In one line, our approach should be characterised by a phrase coined by President Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly, but carry a big stick. President Roosevelt described  his approach to foreign policy as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis”. Or, in other words, negotiating for peace but being prepared in case things go wrong.

The application of this principle to India’s relations with China suggests that we do the following two sets of countervailing actions:

  • Don’t unecessarily insult the Chinese people ou of anger or undermine our soft power as it is our biggest strength. It helps us differentiate ourselves from China and gain valuable allies. It also help us exacerbate the main fault line of China, which is the the resentment of its people towards their government for living in an illiberal state compared with our example of an equally large, ancient society which is free and (relatively) just, even if poor.
  • At the same time, we need to build up focused capacity in three main areas: of our military and particularly mountain strike corps to deter China effectively from further incursions; of cyber warfare capabilities to catch up to their substantial lead in this critical area; and of our human intelligence (and counter-intelligence) like that which led us to get the Dalai Lama safely out of Tibet. And to use these capcacities and those of our allies to apply calibrated pressure on our adversary’s weaknesses, rather than engage in a tit for tat stalemate over barren territory. This pressure can take many forms from economic actions like the ban on Chinese apps, deepening of the Quad (Indian ocean partnership with Australia, Japan and the US), Indian integration into the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership (of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand), castigating China on its human rights record and isolating it at the UN, undermining its CPEC ambitions in various ways and adjusting our stance on the ‘One China’ policy (i.e. supporting their claims to Taiwan and perhaps even Tibet). We need a quiver of arrows to be able to apply differential pressure for different situations, for realpolitik seems to be the only language the leadership of China understands.

While the second point seems evident - and most discussion has been focused on how India can ‘punish’ China, often without regard to what the consequences might be, the specific calibration of actions and counter-actions that could follow - the first point that we should be ‘nice to the Chinese’ seems counterintuitive. But it is precisely the point of Roosevelt’s genius that a stick works better if it comes with moral credibility. And this is India’s principal currency versus China, something no amount of money can buy.

China is five times larger as an economy and has left India behind in the dust in terms of socio-economic development in the last 30 years, when we were starting from an equal per capital income level. China has moved 750 million people out of poverty in this time (versus roughly 250 million in India). The power of compounding has helped, and in a few years China will overtake the US economy in nominal GDP terms (they have already crossed ahead of the US on PPP terms). China, like the US in it’s rise to superpower-dom, has also shown strategic intent, ruthlessness and generosity as appropriate to achieve its objectives across the world.

Despite this, China’s problem is that it is not an admired country globally, as opposed to India. The reason for this is simple - and despite what political sycophants of the ruling party would argue - it is not because of the government. It is because of India’s people, history, and philosophy (set by its founding fathers and followed to this day). That is of a pluralistic, secular, democracy which is infinitely messy, contentious, bureaucratic and slow (versus China’s  notorious efficiency), but which is built on consent of the people and is thus durable and sustainable over time (unlike China’s system which is effectively a dictatorship with state control over basic freedoms).

The Power of Soft Power

Indian soft power is well represented through Bollywood or Yoga and Ayurveda, but most importantly by the influence of the diaspora across the world and especially in English speaking OECD countries like America, Australia, Canada, and the UK (where nearly every upper class Indian has visited, attended college or has relatives).

The Chinese on the other hand, despite vast investments in setting up Confucius and Chinese language centers in various countries and spending money to buy favours from all types of governments, are still seen in most parts of the world (including in Pakistan and other developing country client states) as a necessary evil, someone who gives you money and extracts their pound of flesh, not a benevolent big brother who you admire and respect. The stories of obnoxious Chinese tourists also underscore this point, not that some Indian tourists or the famous ‘Ugly American’ steriotype is much better.

To beat China, India has to use this soft power. To deepen it. And not let it get spoilt by the spread of hate and racism towards Muslims and minorities, which has already started to affect the image of our country abroad and erode India’s historical image as a land of peace. And India has to project its soft power more effectively globally (going beyond Yoga and Gandhi) and especially in China.

The Russians used to love Raj Kapoor. Even Pakistan soldiers at the LOC have joked that ‘Give us Madhuri Dixit and we will give you back POK’. The Chinese loved Dangal apparently, because their young girls could identify with struggle against patriarchy and poverty. But there is a lot more to India they would appreciate – the joys of our democracy and social dynamism, our self respect and confidence, which comes from living in a system that reflects our values, and the appreciation and accolades we get from external validation. 

India needs to be confident. And teach its people to be confident. Throughout our independent history we have tended to see China with its large population as a looming threat. The scars of the 1962 humiliation are still fresh even though most Indians weren’t born then and most Chinese are also ambivalent about or even unaware of the war. Ironically, we are in a way replicating the experience of 1962 all over again. Again, we are militarily underprepared. Again, our politicians are being accused of appeasement. Again they may nowtransition to the other extreme. Again we may face loss of lives and of limited territory. Again we return to business as usual.

The message to our people should be simple but balanced, and not jingoistic: We have no reason to be scared of China. In fact like the USSR it is conceivable that China could also one day come down like a pack of cards, crumbling under its own contradictions when the people have had enough, if enough stress is applied to contain them. And while we see their fancy military hardware and satellites, an army’s capability is also built on experience of valour, which they lack. But we need to respect them as our civilisational competitors. Just like an elite athlete respects his opponent even while he is trying to destroy him in the competition. Just like US citizens had personal respect for Soviet citizens during the Cold War, even while hating their governments, unlike say for Arabs or black people whom they treat like lesser beings versus an ethnic Slavic or Russian.

So it does not have to be ‘Hindi China bhai bhai’. Neither should it be some variation 'Block, Boycott, Ban China’. Like most truths of life, the correct path is the middle one. Speak softly. But with a big stick. This simple maxim can help us face the dragon as an equal and even engage in a conversation, a much needed one between our societies.

Our message to the Chinese people should be clear:

“We want to be equal with you. Not friends, nor enemies. India and China have shared 2000 years of history of which only the last 60 or so has been contentious. Other than the last few hundred years, the two of us have also been the two wealthiest nations, and now we are back on that track. This is called the Asian century because we are expected to both grow and do well by our people, and thus by rest of the developing world.

If we choose to undermine each other instead, we fall into the hands of those in the West who want to preserve the status quo and prevent the rise of Asia as a whole. India has tried hard to work together with China on the economic domain, giving you access to our markets, and been sensitive to Chinese concerns even where we disagree (for example on Tibet) because we are practical and seeking a multi-polar world which has a role for a strong India and China.

Your government has displayed extreme hostility by pushing a border dispute at a time we are facing a crisis (one that happened to originate in your country). As the larger party, China should be magnanimous, instead it is behaving at best in a petty manner. We have been more than patient, but we are now offended by what has happened and thus are drawing a red line. Every nation has a right to defend its borders. The Chinese government is behaving like a bully in exerting its dictats and India and the rest of the world are not going to let them cause global disruption. Our response is morally justified. And it is not targeted against the people of China, but against your government, the same one that is lying to you every day.”

The battle has to be fought in the mind as much as with the military.

Dancing with the Dragon

If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and we accept that the Chinese people are oppressed by their government, it stands to reason that the Chinese people are our friends. So why are we not talking to them and sharing this message? Why are there no creative collaborations, conferences, or ordinary discussions among Indians and Chinese, not just today but generally? We have an extreme cultural and institutional bias for the West. And its natural given our recent history and the factt at we speak English. But we are also an independent, autonomous nation and people. And there is no reason why we should not be having any links with the Chinese at all, the only other civilisation which is as large and as old as ours. If we can have ten think tanks focused on the US, perhaps one on China?

Our policymakers and strategic thinkers certainly seem to be going through a major re-think to make India more willing to practice realpolitik and make the tough decisions needed to contain and even punish China. To deter it from doing things against our interest and incentivize it to behave as a responsible actor on the world stage, rather than a bully.

This needs to be complemented a domestic public communication effort that discourages citizens ‘anti-China’ rhetoric and action across the board - being racist towards Chinese people or our own citizens from the Northeast, refusing to interact with Chinese scholars, students and professionals, cutting off travel and cultural ties (even if not officially, but in practice). We need to do the opposite: to encourage our students to learn Chinese (if for nothing else than to prepare our future foreign service and military leadership), to promote track-2 dialogues and creative ways to get Indians and Chinese citizens to break the cultural/language barrier in unique ways. And most importantly, we need to find ways to break the Chinese firewall, and have their people consume real news.

If we are able to do this, we will change the dynamics and be able to play to our strengths: our people, our culture, our values. Our overall soft power. And, at the same exact time, we will strengthen our stick, and become comfortable wielding it in a targeted manner with the increasing global support we are going to have at our disposal should we choose to ask for it: deepening our naval cooperation with France on Reunion Island; a dramatic jump in defence ties with Australia after that country has effectively ended its strategic partnership with China; roping in some ASEAN nations like Indonesia; a major post Covid tilt of the European Union towards us against China; and a US under Biden that will also like tighten the belt on China significantly.

India is now going to have a lot more strategic options and the World will potentially see significant re-alignments in international relations. We should not let the situation become an obvious India plus the US versus China (and whomever else like Pakistan). We need to preserve strategic autonomy to be able to benefit from the best of America and China (even if it is more tilted towards the former).

Right now the entire developed world except Russia is turning against China (how India’s relations with its historical ally Russia evolve as a result of these new re-alignments remains to be seen). So let's be careful of the temptation of venting our anger at the Chinese, getting too cosy with the West and positioning ourselves as China’s enemy. Our leaders need to make some hard decisions on where exactly we can push back on China without hurting ourselves and hopefully they will make the right ones, calibrating punishment and inducements to get China to behave. And equally importantly, they have to keep our people’s emotions is check, especially with the sensationalist media, and avoid a turn to China bashing and jingoism which only prevents us from dealing with the problem objectively. 

We need to stop being afraid of the dragon. We need to stop worrying that there is nothing we can do. We need to stop thinking we are alone. We need to stop hating on the Chinese people. And we need to stop ignoring them. If we can wake up from our insecurities and quickly start learning more about China, we can play this game just as well as them. But for that we need to stay objective, keep our options open and be nimble footed. We need to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim (which honestly sounds like an ancient Chinese proverb), stop being so shy, and starting dancing with the dragon.



India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy

Shivshankar Menon, May 3, 2020

Brookings India



Must India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy Change?

Brookings India

Discussion with: former National Security Advisor of India, Amb. Shivshankar Menon; Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, United States; Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, former Deputy Foreign Minister, Indonesia; Dr. Justin Vaïsse, Director General, Paris Peace Forum, and former Director, Policy Planning Staff, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France; and Prof. Rory Medcalf, Professor and Head, National Security College, Australian National University, and former diplomat to India, Australia.



Will Fight With China Push India Closer to the US?

India Today, NewsTrack with Rahul Kanwal

Discussion with Kishore Mahbubani, Former President, United Nations Security Council; Prof. John J Mearsheimer, Political Scientist, University of Chicago; and Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation



China vs. India


Discussion with Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament; Martin Jacques, Journalist & Edit; moderated by Martin Soong



Taming the Dragon

Republic TV, Blitzkrieg with Major Gaurav Arya

Discussion with Lt. Gen. (Dr) D.B. Shekatkar







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