Despite decades of unprecedented economic growth, which propelled China to a position in the world next only to the US in terms of economic and military power, its future trajectory remains shrouded in a seemingly impenetrable fog. Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that China remains essentially a closed system that has belied sanguine Western assumptions that rising economic prosperity and deeper global integration would temper its authoritarian political structure and transform it into something more akin to the liberal, democratic order of the West.
In reality, after a brief political and economic loosening, China seems to be veering towards greater state control. The presidential change in the US ended the linear predictability and virtual strategic detachment of US policy in the Obama era, which facilitated China and Russia to significantly expand their spheres of influence. However, in the absence of any coherent foreign policy vision from the Trump administration, there is a disconcerting uncertainty about the US’s future role in the world order.
In the first flush of power, statements from the current US administration, questioning the “One China” policy, reiterating the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and more recently, the strong posture in the Korean peninsula stand-off, appeared to demonstrate a refreshing willingness to confront China’s threatening postures. However, as events unfolded, it seems likely that these positions were taken without a full understanding of the complexities involved. In either case, it is becoming more apparent that given his penchant for the transactional, Trump is unlikely to commit to any long-term strategic involvements which do not pose an immediate security threat to the US.
For India, the US presidential change has brought major foreign policy dilemmas. The installation of the Modi government in 2014 witnessed a deepening of the relationship with the US and the elevation of India as a significant defence partner with greater access to advanced technologies. This was accompanied by a more self-assured stance vis-a-vis China in seeking a reciprocal recognition of each other’s security concerns. But the growing proximity to the US and strengthening defence infrastructure along the India-China border, particularly around areas that China claims as its own, have been viewed as unfriendly acts by the Chinese.
The degree of mutual trust between India and China has currently plunged to perhaps its lowest point in the last decade. Apart from the deepening defence and strategic ties with Pakistan — visibly targeted at India — China has significantly expanded its footprint in India’s neighbourhood via commercial and infrastructure projects and growing defence cooperation with countries in the region. The harsh reality is that there remain few areas of strategic convergence — and many of conflict — in this uneasy relationship.
Although it is not unexpected for rising powers to be overbearing towards weaker neighbours, it is difficult to imagine that the hardening of Chinese attitudes towards India is entirely unrelated to the ideological competition posed by a democratic, rapidly growing India. This is particularly relevant in the context of its own economic problems accompanied by slowing growth and rising disaffection in its peripheral territories.
The Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese regard as a treacherous separatistm and who has been in the eye of a storm over his recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, had reportedly remarked in an interview that common sense was missing from the brains of Chinese hardliners. Although this was a light-hearted comment in the context of the constant barrage of invective heaped against him by the Chinese authorities, he may not have been entirely off the mark. As an explanation for the episodes of seemingly illogical Chinese behaviour vis-a-vis less powerful nations, Edward Luttwak, in his book The Rise of China vs The Logic of Strategy put forward the concept of “great state autism” — a collective national lack of situational awareness that reduces a powerful nation’s ability to perceive international realities with clarity.
While to some extent, all great powers, including the US and Russia, have been episodically affected by this condition, Luttwak considers China’s affliction an “especially virulent” case due to its civilisational past, its size and long periods of its development in relative isolation. China’s demonstrated insensitivity to the concerns of nations it considers weaker, while being hypersensitive to its own, is an offshoot of this affliction. Luttwak further argues that due to this domineering attitude, China will be unable to forge lasting alliances with other nations, a factor that will ultimately prove detrimental to its quest of world dominance. The validity of this insight is evident from the fact that despite its growing strength, China’s closest allies remain rogue states — North Korea and Pakistan.
With an aggressive dragon at its doorstep and the US reluctant to take on global leadership, India’s options are limited — to rapidly build its national strength and to deepen alliances with like-minded nations. The rise of China will likely be stemmed because of what Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, termed “imperial overstretch” — a growing contradiction between a power’s global ambitions and its weakening economic capacity to support its strategic and economic commitments.
Source : Diagnosing China
Courtesy : Indian Express – Columns