Author: Manogna Sastry.
The year 2020, while entering the annals of humanity marked by the COVID-19 pandemic with origins in the Wuhan province of China, coincides with the 70th year of India-China diplomatic relations. The long advertisements across newspapers and the video message of the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, (who significantly mentioned Panchsheel, the policy associated in Indian minds with the loss of 1962 war) and muted response from the Indian side indeed point to current realities. With its deep and wide network of journalists, ambassadors and bots online going into overdrive across the globe highlighting China’s ‘success’ in containing COVID-19 and trying to reign the narrative back to its advantage, India-China relations stand against a backdrop unprecedented in recent times, with China on a slight back-foot and India with the potential to recalibrate its internals for a stronger global voice.
India and China have been compared and studied as two nations rising out of colonisation and revolutions respectively, in the 20th century. These analyses have included those by the West from various angles – economic, political, social. India’s democracy has been pitted against China’s CCP rule, along with a range of other points of comparison, such as the rate of industrialisation and global footprint. While China took giant strides since the 1980’s, India has taken its own time and long, sometimes meandering routes, to open itself up to economic transformation and growth. While both countries have unique challenges to face, what remains important for India is to ensure she develops her own pūrva pakṣa of China in a framework of analysis that is native to her, as against becoming a proxy in the West’s engagement with China. It must never be forgotten that in a matter of decades, the two Asian nations lifted hundreds of millions of the world’s population out of poverty and destitution, no thanks to any western intervention. China’s rise, as seen through the Indian lens, need not be made less sanguine only on account of the West’s tunes. India and China have a long history of engagement as two neighbouring and ancient civilizations, but a renewed Indian pūrva pakṣa of China must study the transformation of our immediate neighbour over the course of this century, its interaction in the South Asian and Asian neighbourhoods, along with the manner in which it expanded its global footprint across Europe, North America and Africa. This pūrva pakṣa is important, now more than ever, for it provides insights and lessons in reading the winds for India’s own future.
The post COVID-19 world decidedly marks a milestone in the timeline of globalisation. On the one hand, calls across some countries for more localised and protectionist measures for core sectors of national interest, less dependent on foreign nations for essential items, ring louder than before. On the other, China has declared its commitment to a more globalised world as being stronger than ever and is increasingly occupying the place ceded by the United States of America. These unforeseen circumstances due to the pandemic mark a unique opportunity for India to align its national goals with global forces of change. Given its significant tilt where it has moved away from non-alignment to issue based alignment, as demonstrated in India aligning with China on matters of climate change and focussing on the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and the USA) in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China, the post COVID-19 world has potential for India across domains. China has increasingly co-opted many countries from the Indo-Pacific as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and COVID-19’s impact on it remains to be seen. The prerequisite to leverage these unique circumstances is for India to demonstrate vision, articulate its goals, advance its narrative and stop punching below its weight. India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, in January 2020 made the crucial observation “You don’t get to be a big league power by evolution and accident. It takes leadership, preparation and diligence.”
India in 2020 is one riding on its milestone year of 2019 – a powerful and strong mandate to the Prime Minister across the country, a decisive intent and resolve to tackle legacy issues such as the abrogation of Article 370, and demonstration of its role in the Indian subcontinent by the amendment of CAA. Each of these is important, for it marks a moment of departure from the default Indian mindset of letting problems fester for decades. Each of these is also an assertion of national interest and narrative. The abrogation of Article 370 has significant impact on India’s assertion of territorial integrity being a core issue and conveys it unequivocally to the global community. This is important especially in India’s relationship with China, for the loss of territory in 1962 and the lessons in the moment’s misadventure for India must always remain sharp. The handling of Doklam on one hand, by letting diplomacy chart out a solution and the clear strength demonstrated on matters concerning India’s territorial and national unity shown in the abrogation of Article 370 on the other, signal a firmness and maturity of India of the past couple of years. India’s response to BRI has also demonstrated that territorial integrity remains paramount and will not be bartered for economic benefits.
India’s handling of issues with Pakistan since 2014 also marks a shift in its approach of not leveraging wartime victories with the rogue state. The victories in 1971 were squandered away in the 1972 Simla Agreement, aiding an already revanchist mindset of Pakistan. The responses post Uri and the Balakot air strikes are markedly different from those offered post the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The firm handling of national issues such as these send out a clear global message of a country that is unhesitant to push the envelope and act decisively to protect its core interests, a lesson taught by China the hard way in 1962 – misadventures must always come with a price extracted manifestly. The 1962 war has been compounded with several instances in the two countries’ exchange that has sharply influenced India’s perspective of China. As Samir Saran writes,
“Beijing is not being petty when it refuses to allow Masood Azhar’s listing as a global terrorist, or when it objects to the Dalai Lama’s travels in India or refuses to accept India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). With these actions, China is being unrelentingly strategic in undermining India’s capacity to influence global and regional political developments. On the economic and trade front, the numbers tell an obvious story about how China views the relationship with India: as a mere market for its manufactured industrial and consumer goods. Beijing has been completely disregarding India’s sovereign concerns in Kashmir by investing in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. It has also attempted to undermine India’s economic influence around the neighbourhood, most dramatically in the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka even as it sustains its overtures to Bangladesh (See Figure 4).39 The Middle Kingdom has also been unrelenting with its pressure around Doklam, with satellite imagery suggesting that it maintains a growing security presence in the region.”
While the above instances and the sheer magnitude of economic disparity between the two nations point to current realities, India needs a more comprehensive understanding of China along the lines of seeing it as the contender to western universalism. In Being Different, Rajiv Malhotra reverses the analytical gaze on the West and outlines several perspectives and parameters to understand how India offers a profoundly unique and different model that holds its own against the West’s framework. The onus now lies with us Indians to understand and consider a similar response to China, which has challenged western universalism in its own dialect and carved a unique path to becoming a super power.
China’s economic model has transformed in contemporaneity – the days of it being the place of cheap labour have been but a phase. The increasing costs of operations in its mainland have translated into effects for smaller economies in Southeast Asia, and the current lockdown’s impact on this crucial bloc must be studied quantitatively by India to understand where it can scale its role and influence. The Asian giant is reaping the benefits of systematic and massive investments in research and innovation of the previous decade through the incubation hubs and technology clusters within its country that are focussed on cutting edge technology and innovation than the mere creation of manufacturing jobs in large numbers. The latter now find themselves outsourced across the Southeast Asian nations by China, in a partnership which boosts the economies of these smaller nations while weaving them closer through Chinese dependence and increasing the Asian giant’s influence across the geo-political region. The Chinese technology industry too now stands in direct competition with the western technology giants, and is set on a trajectory to surpass the latter in many key sectors.
The calls across the world on reviewing China’s role in the global supply chain are perhaps too few and too late. China’s investment over the past decades in high technology areas including precision electronics and semiconductors, industrial internet, aerospace, and artificial intelligence show how deeply it sees itself embedded into global technology supply chains. These investments have ensured China’s decoupling from other nations cannot take place in today’s technological age. The calls to downsize China from global supply chains do not hold much water considering the extent to which China has embedded itself at several levels – the technological supply chains and more strategically, its investments in companies across the world in different technology sectors including aerospace. China’s unbridled use of mass surveillance and the industrial internet, which shares and co-ordinates data at industrial scales, is playing a significant role in helping the nation open its industry and recover from economic consequences of the pandemic even in the midst of the storm.
Technologies further mark important current and future arenas of polarisation and global choices. 5G and AI wars are creating assets for some nations and making markets out of others. US and China once again square off against each other in this new arms race of technological dominance and India’s choice will be demonstrative of and influenced by political choices as well. Choosing a path where India can open its markets to such technologies, while simultaneously and systematically building such strategic capabilities and capacity domestically is a tightrope to walk but needed more than ever. Remaining a market without creating assets has been one of the reasons for India’s increasing trade deficit with China (50% of its trade deficit globally is just with China alone). It also points to the huge leaps India needs to make, for, decades of lack of investment in R&D in key strategic sectors, along with the lack of national vision at the central level in recognising emerging technologies and challenges have been symptomatic of disempowering aspects of the Indian mindset, which is only too keen to embrace foreign technologies without due diligence to important long term consequences. The emergence of China as a superpower against this background is indeed an interesting case study for India to consider in contrast to the US model. But, where does this leave India? India now more than ever, needs to study both and understand the template it would want to design for its own growth.
The ramifications of COVID-19 in the geo-political sphere hold strategic interests for India. India has refused to be a part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), again demonstrating its commitment to protection of core interests, especially in the agricultural sector, with S. Jaishankar remarking that “no agreement at this time was better than a bad agreement.” While the impact of COVID-19 on the global stage is being evaluated, its consequences for RCEP, touted as one of ASEAN’s great accomplishments, are of direct relevance to India. The lockdown and its impact on movement of trade, goods and services is an aide-memoire close on the heels of the signing of the agreement. China has been instrumental in driving much of the agreement and the over-reliance on it is a wake-up call for other regional players such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The time for India to manoeuvre its way around regional geopolitics and leave a stronger footprint, even in the absence of being a member of RCEP, is the current. The further institutionalisation of Indo-US ties, as the duel between China and the US takes new forms, holds ramifications for the Indo-Pacific region. Through all of this, China has moved with rapidity in trying to contain the damage the COVID-19 situation has created for its trade; has India moved with equal pliability to seize the opportunities in the neighbourhood and beyond it, such as with Australia? Has India actively explored alternatives to China for imports related to the manufacturing industry in the current situation? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and the onus lies on each player – ministerial, industrial, and entrepreneurial – to push the envelope and leverage something beneficial for the long haul even as we weather the hit in the short term.
The voices within the domestic front for India to call out China’s bullying tactics and control over WHO and other international organisations are well meaning and indeed well placed. China has been made a member of the UNHRC panel with the platform to select human rights investigators and further its own narrative even as this article is being written, a seeming reward for a nation with its history of human rights violations in Tibet and with the Uyghur Muslims. Countries like India continue to be at the receiving end, with one wondering where irony died between having to choose either the West or China as the custodians of human rights practices. But, the pushback coming from a market such as India, where the average middle class customer is sensitive more to price points than issues of economic nationalism carries little prospects of feasibility. A greater push for home grown products and service and independence in many sectors of the supply chain is a more necessary response from the citizens of the country.
The realignment of the global order, if it indeed does take place, will take the next couple of months and years to become visible, accusations and barbs on public platforms notwithstanding, even as we remember that observations from the midst of the storm seldom hold once the storm passes. The West sees China through the filters of its own identity and it is important for India to reject such lenses in favour of its own history, vision, and goals. Europe has had an especially difficult time in responding to COVID-19, with Italy, one of the nations that had significantly increased economic interaction with China over the past couple of years, paying a very heavy price. At the same time, the fissures in Europe between the southern and northern parts are more visible than ever. As some nations such as Italy, Spain and Serbia sing peans about Chinese help, others including the European Union High Representative/Vice President have clearly called out the “global battle of narratives” that are operating across the world. China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ has highlighted how it plays in the world by its own rules – the country requested discretion when Europe sent masks to help the Chinese when the outbreak was initially focussed on the Chinese mainland, while it now announces and uses its ‘aid’ as a propaganda tool loudly to further its narrative. European solidarity, or the lack thereof, is itself perhaps going to be an important consequence of COVID-19, even as China embeds its voice into the EU through a few of the member states. The changes in geo-political situation for India would be important to observe and study.
S. Jaishankar in 2015, then as the Foreign Secretary, remarked in his Fullerton lecture on India, the United States and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, that India’s “..foreign policy dimension is to aspire to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power. Consequently, there is also a willingness to shoulder greater global responsibilities.” The post COVID-19 situation is an incredible moment to follow through on this aspiration. PM Modi’s reaching out to several countries, especially with India’s release of hydroxychloroquine to selected countries is a firm instance of the willingness to share responsibilities. China’s credibility issues in its reach across the world, especially demonstrated during the current COVID-19 crisis, stands in contrast with India, which has an admittedly smaller global footprint but has put in more reliable efforts, demonstrated by PM Modi’s push for global solutions for the crisis across SAARC and G-20 nations. Among India’s biggest assets right now, is the political leadership at the helm of the COVID-19 crisis. The decisive leadership of PM Modi during these times reinforces the strong trust and faith placed in him by the political mandate of 2019. The leadership of S. Jaishankar at MEA is another very important asset India currently has – his clear articulation of India’s core interests, acknowledgement of the slow pace of its growth and more importantly, the recognition that India’s story needs its own voice, without the need to emulate the model of its neighbour while developing strategic and tactical responses in aid of its own goals are indicators of the right man at the right time in the right post. His statements at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in 2018, before he was the Minister of External Affairs, is one of clarity and insight on India-China relations against the backdrop of China’s meteoric rise to being a global power. His words, “The good news is that we have woken up. The bad news is that we woke up late,” are more apt than ever. But, much remains to be seen if India is awake enough to hit the gas pedal hard on many fronts at this crucial moment. The response by most Indians to the call of the PM during this crisis has been one of incredible unity, trust and even innovation. The same spirit has untapped potential to be used for the cause of focussed nation building at both macro and micro levels. Whether each ministry seizes the opportunity to transform and future-proof its sectors with vision and agility remains to be seen.
The former Singaporean Prime Minister and statesman Lee Kuan Yew remarked that “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance in 30 to 40 years. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.” This is the reality that has become so clear through the COVID-19 situation – be it through global dependence on the country or its hold on international organisations. As China marches ahead in realising its dreams under President Xi Jinping, India stands witness to a new phase of its transformation from the closest quarters. The cultural revolution, the overhaul under Deng in the 1980s and now a new China under Xi Jinping – India finds itself in a most unique position to form its pūrva pakṣa of this recent acceleration. We have long passed the stage of comparison between India and China; the comparison holds no weight as one is already a superpower and other recalibrating itself and aiming for reforms long due. We now find ourselves in an Asia with a significantly developed ASEAN and Japan willing to play by international rules and a giant determined to make its own rules of engaging with the world as well as conflicting forces dictating our own engagement with the giant. China is the second largest economy in the world currently; India the fifth. In two decades, India may rise to the third. Including Japan, Asia now has three out of five of the world’s largest economies. In this century which belongs to Asia, an Indian’s hope must be not only for economic prosperity, but to champion the identity of the Indian state backed by the unbroken thread of the Bhāratīya civilization. What a strong India rooted in its civilizational identity brings to the world table is unmatched in mankind’s history of resilience and pursuit of the highest goals of human life, deeply embedded in sustainability. It is this identity that is the Indian’s strongest asset and differentiating factor from all who sit across her on the world stage, be it from the West or her neighbours.
Manogna Sastry is a Swadeshi Indology research scholar and published author. she is a Master of Science from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, with a strong background in theoretical physics and mathematics. Her research interests encompass, (View More)
 See Samir Saran’s article on China in, Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Indian Foreign Policy in Transition Under Modi, Harsh V Pant and Kabir Taneja, Editors, ORF Special Report No. 93, July 2019, Observer Research Foundation. pp 21.
 See Sigurdson, Jon. (2004). Regional Innovation Systems (Ris) In China. The European Institute of Japanese Studies, EIJS Working Paper Series.
 See Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Rise of China,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 5 (November/December 1993), p. 74. The material in Lee Kuan Yew -The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World – Interviews and Selections by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill with Ali Wyne, published by Belfer Center Studies in International Security, The MIT Press in 2013, makes for an interesting read, especially the chapter on India.
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