is a china-centric world inevitable
THE CHINA SYNDROME
Saran has served as India’s foreign secretary and as chairman
of its National Security Advisory Board. He writes and speaks
regularly on foreign policy and security issues.
is in a prolonged standoff with Chinese forces on the Doklam plateau.
China may have been caught off guard after Indian armed forces
confronted a Chinese road-building team in the Bhutanese territory.
resolution requires awareness of the context for the unfolding
events. China has engaged in incremental nibbling advances in
this area with Bhutanese protests followed by solemn commitments
not to disturb the status quo. The intrusions continued. This
time, the Chinese signalled intention to establish a permanent
presence, expecting the Bhutanese to acquiesce while underestimating
the China challenge requires understanding the history of Chinese
civilization and the world view of its people formed over 5,000
years of tumultuous history. Caution is required before mechanistically
applying historical patterns to the present as these are overlaid
with concepts borrowed from other traditions and behaviour patterns
arising from deep transformations within China and the world at
of US naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan and British geographer
Halford Mackinder are just as discernible in Chinese strategic
thinking today as concepts derived from the writings of ancient
strategist Sun Zi. The One Belt One Road project initiated by
China is Mackinder and Mahan in equal measure: The Belt, designed
to secure Eurasia, dominance over which would grant global hegemony,
was suggested by Mackinder in 1904; the Road which straddles the
oceans, enabling maritime ascendancy, is indispensable in pursuing
hegemony, according to Mahan in the late 19th century. China’s
pursuit of predominance at the top of regional and global order,
with the guarantee of order, has an unmistakable American flavour.
It also echoes Confucius, the Chinese sage who argued that harmony
and hierarchy are intertwined: All is well as long as each person
knows his place in a pre-designated order.
uses templates of the past, as instruments of legitimization,
to construct a modern narrative of power.
element of the narrative is that China’s role as Asia’s
dominant power to which other countries must defer restores a
position the nation occupied throughout most of history. The period
stretching from the mid-18th century to China’s liberation
in 1949, when the county was reduced to semi-colonial status,
subjected to invasions by imperialist powers and Japan, is characterized
as an aberration. The tributary system is presented as artful
statecraft evolved by China to manage interstate relationships
in an asymmetrical world. Rarely acknowledged is that China was
a frequent tributary to keep marauding tribes at bay. The Tang
emperor paid tribute to the Tibetans as well as to the fierce
Xiongnu tribes to keep peace.
shows a few periods when its periphery was occupied by relatively
weaker states. China itself was occupied and ruled by non-Han
invaders, including the Mongols from the 12th to 15th centuries
and the Manchus from the 15th to 20th centuries. Far from considering
these empires as oppressive, modern Chinese political discourse
seeks to project itself as a successor state entitled to territorial
acquisitions of those empires, including vast non-Han areas such
as Xinjiang and Tibet. As China scholar Mark Elliot notes, there
is “a bright line drawn from empire to republic.”
an imagined history is put forward to legitimize China’s
claim to Asian hegemony, and remarkably, much of this contrived
history is increasingly considered as self-evident in western
and even Indian discourse. Little in history supports the proposition
that China was the center of the Asian universe commanding deference
among less civilized states around its periphery. China’s
contemporary rise is remarkable, but does not entitle the nation
to claim a fictitious centrality bestowed upon it by history.
Belt One Road initiative also seeks to promote the notion that
China through most of its history was the hub for trade and transportation
routes radiating across Central Asia to Europe and across the
seas to Southeast Asia, maritime Europe and even the eastern coast
of Africa. China was among many countries that participated in
a network of caravan and shipping routes crisscrossing the ancient
landscape before the advent of European imperialism. Other great
trading nations include the ancient Greeks and Persians and later
the Arabs. Much of the Silk Road trade was in the hands of the
Sogdians who inhabited the oasis towns leading from India in the
east and Persia in the west into western China.
recasting a complex history to reflect a Chinese centrality that
never existed is part of China’s current narrative of power.
as a great trading nation, owes its current prosperity to being
part of an interconnected global market with extended value chains.
This has little to do with its economic history as a mostly self-contained
and insular economy. External trade contributed little to its
sections of Asian and Western opinion already concede to China
the role of a predominant power, assuming that it may be best
to acquiesce to inevitability. The Chinese are delighted to be
benchmarked to the United States with the corollary, as argued
by Harvard University’s Graham Allison, that the latter
must accommodate China to avoid inevitable conflict between established
and rising power. However in other metrics of power, with the
exception of GDP, China lags behind the United States, which still
leads in military capabilities and scientific and technological
neither Asia nor the world is China-centric. China may continue
to expand its capabilities and may even become the most powerful
country in the world. But the emerging world is likely to be home
to a cluster of major powers, old and new. The Chinese economy
is slowing, similar to other major economies. It has an aging
population, an ecologically ravaged landscape and mounting debt
that is 250 percent of GDP. China also remains a brittle and opaque
polity. Its historical insularity is at odds with the cosmopolitanism
that an interconnected world demands of any aspiring global power.
and potentially threatening power will confront resistance. When
Bismarck created a powerful German state at the heart of Europe
in the late 19th century, he recognized the anxieties among European
states and anticipated attempts to constrain the expanding influence.
China, like other nations before, cultivates an aura of overwhelming
power and invincibility to prevent resistance. Despite this, coalitions
are forming in the region with significant increases in military
expenditures and security capabilities by Asia-Pacific countries.
should be seen from this perspective. The enhanced Chinese activity
is directed towards weakening India’s close and privileged
relationship with Bhutan, opening the door to China’s entry
and settlement of the Sino-Bhutan border, advancing Chinese security
interests vis-à-vis India.
must carefully select a few key issues where it must confront
China, avoiding annoyances not vital to national security. Doklam
is a significant security challenge.
must form its own narrative for shaping the emerging world order.
The world’s largest democracy must resist attempts by any
power to establish dominance over Asia and the world. This may
require closer, more structured coalitions with other powers that
share India’s preference. In fact, current and emerging
distribution of power in Asia and across the globe support a multi-polar
architecture reflecting diffusion and diversity of power relations
in an interconnected world.
possesses the civilizational attributes for contributing to a
new international order attuned to contemporary realities. Its
culture is innately cosmopolitan. India embraces vast diversity
and inherent plurality, yet has a sense of being part of a common
humanity. India should leverage these assets in shaping a new
world order that is humanity-centric. Narrow and mindless eruptions
of nationalism, communalism and sectarianism detract from India’s
credibility in this role. India should advance its interests,
with constant awareness of responsibilities in a larger interdependent
and the MacMillan Center