India - China: A Better Understanding of China by Indian S Scholars
STORIES, ANALYSES, EXPERT VIEWS
Indian officials have been repeatedly suggesting that relations with China cannot be normal until the situation at the border is normal. Even foreign minister S. Jaishankar recently suggested that the border situation was preventing Sino-Indian cooperation to build an Asian Century. This implies that if ‘wisdom dawns’ on China regarding the border, New Delhi and Beijing could rebuild cooperation.
Analysts like Sanjaya Baru (political commentator and policy analyst) believe “even if the border problem is sorted out, the competition between Asia’s two giants will continue in a world that is in search of a new equilibrium in power equations.
India falling behind China’s ‘comprehensive national power’ (CNP)
“What may settle this competition is not a military balance between India and China, but a closing of the yawning gap in what Chinese scholars have long defined as ‘comprehensive national power’ (CNP).” In his recent book, How China Sees India (2022), former foreign secretary Shyam Saran pithily observes: ‘India is a retreating image in China’s rear-view mirror.’ For an India viewed as falling behind, catching up in terms of CNP is a necessary prerequisite for restoring stability to what is increasingly viewed as an unstable equilibrium between the two Asian neighbours.
One of the problems in India, according to Baru “for a long time, in understanding the nature of India-China differences has been an absence of easy to read books written by knowledgeable Indian analysts…..” Indian scholarship in the past, “have been found wanting in making available an informed assessment. Fortunately, we now have several good books written by knowledgeable Indians that offer a balanced view of the bilateral relationship. Some of these books are based on government records now available to scholars….”
List of well informed authors / books
Baru lists of well informed understanding of China by Indian authors include, Avtar Singh Bhasin’s diligently researched book Nehru, Tibet and China (2021), Maroof Raza’s Contested Lands: India, China and the Border Dispute (2021), Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulat Singh’s India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond, Nirupama Rao’s Fractured Himalayas: India, Tibet, China 1949-62 and the most recently published Manoj Joshi’s book, India-China Border: Understanding the Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas (2022).
These books “offer very balanced accounts of the origins of the border dispute and the likely consequences.
“While these books are focused mainly, though not only, on the border issue, we now also have good books written by Indian scholars on the broader India-China relationship. Vijay Gokhale’s The Long Game, Ananth Krishnan’s India’s China Challenge, Kanti Bajpai’s India Versus China……The facts on the ground are well recorded and assessments of capabilities and intentions are available….” Joshi’s newly published book for example, offers a detailed account of recent developments along the northern border and concludes that the risk of unintended consequences has risen. While neither side may want border clashes to escalate into a war, concludes Joshi, both need to be aware that the ‘enduring threat of war remains high in the Himalayas’.
Dealing with an ‘unstable equilibrium’
The power gap created by China’s rise, concludes Baru “has created a situation that is best described as an ‘unstable equilibrium’…..To manage the power imbalance, India has closed ranks with other powers on three fronts. First, it has entered into a strategic partnership with the United States, Japan and Australia through the Quadrilateral Strategic Initiative (Quad); second, it has strengthened relations with Russia, despite the invasion of Ukraine, sending a powerful message across the world; third, it is engaging several ‘middle powers’ like Germany, France, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia and so on. However, in the final analysis, what will count is the speed with which India can bridge the CNP gap.”
India’s stress on multipolarity is like chasing a useless dream
Agreeing with Baru is Rajesh Rajagopalan (Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi). “The simple truth is that even if the situation at the border returns to normal, India’s troubles with China will not go away. What China did at Galwan Valley in 2020 may have underlined the challenge to India but it does not encompass the entirety of the difficulty that New Delhi faces with its neighbour.”
To manage the ‘unstable equilibrium’, over the last two years, Indian officials have stressed own multipolarity - a multipolar world requires a multipolar Asia. Rajagopalan disagrees with such an approach calling it “chasing a useless dream."
The focus on multipolarity is problematic for two reasons. “Multipolarity cannot be wished up or built with diplomatic effort. Polarity is a function of power, and it is consequential for just this reason. Polarity describes the relative power balance, whether globally, in Asia or any other region. To be multipolar, there has to be a minimum of three countries (or preferably five or six) with roughly the same or comparable power resources in terms of wealth and military capabilities.
Neither Asia nor the global system has such a distribution of power. Asia in itself is undoubtedly unipolar, with China as the hegemon……
“The global system, by this same token, is clearly tending towards a US-China bipolarity. Indeed, it may not be wrong to characterise it as already bipolar. The US has been the world’s most dominant power in military and economic terms for decades……..While Beijing may not yet have the globe-girding military power that Washington has, it is growing at such a pace that in the Indo-Pacific at least, it is now capable of matching American military power. It will not be long before China builds the capacity to challenge the US outside of the Indo-Pacific.”
With India being so far behind China, militarily and economically, “it is difficult to imagine how the current bipolar order can become multipolar. It will take a long time for any other power to grow sufficiently large to match these two. Diplomacy cannot create a multipolar world, let alone a multipolar Asia, when power is so grossly unbalanced.”