After more than ten weeks of posturing and charged rhetoric during the face-off at Doklam plateau in Bhutan, India and China have signaled their intention to start afresh and improve their relationship. This was reflected in the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the BRICS summit in Xiamen on September 5, when they decided to take a forward looking approach to the bilateral relationship.
In an interview with Soumya Nair for India Writes Network, former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar talks about India’s options in dealing with a rising China and the course of India-China relationship, post-Doklam.
(Excerpts from the interview)
Q) Do you think post-Doklam, China is sincere about rebooting ties with India?
A) The Chinese have consistently held the line that they are interested in taking the relationship forward despite the standoff at Doklam, and I don’t think there is any change in that. The relationship has been degraded to an extent, but it has not been derailed. The BRICS cannot be seen as a turning point as such because there are several running themes in the relationship. The factors that have brought about a certain downhill in the relationship have taken place over a period of time.
Q) How do you see China’s post-BRICS balancing act with Pakistan?
A) There is nothing much to read into it. Pakistan is an extremely important country for China. We have to understand that it is not an India-centric relationship any more. With China-Pakistan Economic Corridor coming into the picture, the relationship has acquired a global significance. China has been actively seeking alternate energy routes to alleviate what (former Chinese president) Hu Jintao once called the Malacca Dilemma and Gwadar provides a perfect gateway for China to access the world market. For a trading nation that imports most of its oil from abroad, routes that pass through territories which are not under American influence are strategically very important to China. So it would be naïve to think that there could be any kind of change in its policy of dealing with Pakistan. China’s expression of support matters a lot to Pakistan, especially at a time when it has been under a lot of pressure from Trump.
Q) What should be India’s engagement with China, given the changed dynamics in the last few years, and at a time when China appears to be looking at taking up a leadership role in a globalized world?
A) I don’t think China is interested in that sort of a global hegemony. Multipolarity is something that suits them admirably at this time. India’s influence is ultimately circumscribed by the fact that it is not a great globalizer. India is not a serious driver of growth of the world economy, not even of the regional economy.
This is not a situation where the rise of China is going to be contested or if anyone is going to try to contain it. Even the United States, the only country which probably has the capability to pretend that it can sustain a containment strategy, is switching to a mode of engagement as the US-China interdependence is such that any kind of confrontation will lead to a high degree of turbulence in the world economy. China is the driver of growth for most of the Southeast Asian economies, so they are not interested in the business of confronting China.
I think it is important for India to go back to a mindset of competitive cooperation instead of having a sense of rivalry vis-à-vis China which has permeated the current discourse in India. A “muscular diplomacy,” buoyed by nationalistic posturing, will only end up hurting us. The sense of rivalry is completely unrealistic because China does not see India as a rival. And it is smart enough not to get embroiled in a war with India. China has a GDP which is five times that of ours and it has Comprehensive National Power that has, by and large, completely outstripped India. A notion that we are going to catch up with China is a false one. It cannot happen because in every two years or so China is adding one Indian economy to its own.
Today our top priority should really be development. It does not make sense to talk of rivalry when 400 to 500 million people are still below poverty line. We need to create jobs and unless you can go at a rate of creating something like 2-2.5 million jobs in a year, you are going to be in a serious trouble in a matter of five to ten years. You have only two sectors to address that — the manufacturing sector and the infrastructure sector — which can create big jobs and this where engagement with China is of great importance.
Vietnam is an ideal case in point. It has fought a war with China, has a serious border issue with China and it is also a very nationalistic country in the region. But there is a very intense strategic communication between the two Communist Party leadership and they have an economic partnership which is flourishing. The Vietnamese will not shut down on any opportunity where they can speed up their growth rate with help from Chinese engagement. If India chips in to do something for them, they will not refuse that too.
Even in the case of OBOR, instead of blindly boycotting it, we should have become a part of it and influenced it in directions which suited our interests. Now all South Asian countries are in it. Nepal is currently signing up new agreements as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. I don’t know how long you can prevent Bhutan from doing it too. The sense of rivalry is becoming a sense of liability for us.
Q) In his latest book, How India Sees the World, Shyam Saran argues that we are neither in a China-centric Asia, nor in a world destined to become China-centric. In another chapter, he evokes Kautilyan principles saying how “it is necessary to first build India’s comprehensive national power” and then to “seek to align with other powerful states to counter the main adversary”.
A) There are things which will come our way only if we really have the economic resilience and Comprehensive National Power. Without that happening, what Shyam Saran has said is very pedantic. We neither have the capacity to implement what we are saying, nor the capacity to influence others.
Deng Xiaoping once advised his people to keep their head under the parapet till their internal issues are sorted out. We are far from that situation today. That question is actually for day after tomorrow, not for today. By the time we are capable of making people listen to us, China would have galloped away. That is where I actually differ from Shyam Saran. Then it’ll be a different ball game. I don’t want to prophesy where the world is heading, but it will be a different paradigm anyway. What is of utmost priority for India today is to focus on our development agenda. If we do not prioritize development, then we are not going to get anywhere. All this will just become a day dream.
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