India 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.
Peaceful 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 their intention to establish a permanent presence, expecting the Bhutanese to acquiesce while underestimating India’s response.
Managing the China challenge requires understanding the background of Chinese civilisation and the worldview 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 large.
The ideas of United States naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan and British geographer Halford Mackinder are just as discernible in Chinese strategic thinking today as the concepts derived from the writings of ancient strategist Sun Tzu.
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 the regional and global orders 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 predesignated order.
One key 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 country was reduced to semi-colonial status and subjected to invasions by imperialist powers and Japan, is characterised 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 the fact 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.
History shows a few periods in which 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”.
Thus, an imagined history is put forward to legitimise 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 centre of the Asian universe, commanding deference among less-civilised 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.
The One 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 South-east 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 criss-crossing 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.
Thus, recasting a complex history to reflect a Chinese centrality that never existed is part of China’s current narrative of power.
China, 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 prosperity.
Yet large 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 US 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 US, which still leads in military capabilities, and scientific and technological advancements.
In reality, 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 ageing population, an ecologically ravaged landscape and mounting debt that is 250 per cent 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.
Any emerging and potentially threatening power will confront resistance.
When Bismarck created a powerful German state in the heart of Europe in the late 19th century, he recognised 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 expenditure and security capabilities by Asia-Pacific countries.
Doklam 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-a-vis India.
India must carefully select a few key issues on which it must confront China, avoiding annoyances not vital to national security. Doklam is a significant security challenge.
India 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, the current and emerging distribution of power in Asia and across the globe support a multipolar architecture reflecting diffusion and diversity of power relations in an interconnected world.
India possesses the civilisational 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 it 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 its responsibilities in a larger interdependent world.
By Shyam Saran
Shyam 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.