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China’s India problem | A curious mix of ambition and paranoia

Chinese thinkers are growingly forgetful that the chief threats to peace in Asia come from the camouflaged ignorance. The recent acts of violations by the PLA along the LAC also indicate the contradictions within the Chinese strategic thinking

September 08, 2020 / 03:41 PM IST

The military scuffle and deaths of Indian soldiers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) suggest that something more serious is afoot than mere temporary and frequent face-offs and transgression of the LAC by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the Chinese strategists continue to paint China as a responsible and accountable power, these incidents reflect how China is busy compiling the sequel to 1962. One needs to look at how China continues to unlearn from the past.

Many in the West call China a rising power and the master of strategic flexibility with a coherent, consistent, and effective foreign policy. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger does so in his book ‘On China’. Kissinger and alike never got China entirely correct or wrong, which is evident in many respects of global affairs.

Beyond the discipline of politics and foreign policy, the story of knowing China well and comprehensive knowledge of the Chinese psyche has been a matter of socio-anthropological interests as well. Those who have been doing so for the past few decades have produced an array of vectors, reasoning out how Chinese thought processes have been unusual, or distorted. Besides these, one also needs to check how the Chinese got the world wrong and how the idea that the Communist Party never makes mistakes, actually delivers blows to Chinese dreams.

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For some time now, the notion that geography is power is making an unwelcome comeback in Chinese strategic thinking. The real threat is when these concerns are amplified or imagined, and hitched to narrow rogue prescriptions. Chinese thinkers are growingly forgetful that the chief threats to peace in Asia come from the camouflaged ignorance. The Chinese have deployed a binary understanding of global affairs.


China was an inward-looking, continental power when it was founded, and despite the fact, China could never seize an opportunity as it got pre-occupied with party-ideology dynamics. While the post-war institutions and system are undergoing existential threats, China continued to remain inward-looking and could not expand the aperture of its strategic thoughts.

In recent days, acts of violations by the PLA along the India-China LAC indicates the contradictions within the Chinese strategic thinking.  Since the past few months, the tensions along the border indicate a larger Chinese ploy to force India to get to the negotiations dominated by the Chinese. However, China has risked being the malevolent hegemon, and may revive the cycle of belligerent rivalry in Asia.

Going by the principle of ‘geography is power’, for China’s strategic planners, securing good positioning against hostile powers remained the chief preoccupation, and such hacks have brought its neighbours in serious brawls. Looking at the worsening matters along the LAC, one would hardly disagree that China is yet to come out of the Maoist binaries of foreign policies. The ideological premises are back in fashion again, and it is evident when Chinese strategists gaze at maps and conjure up evil shapes.

It is not only India, but, in the past, powers such as the US and England committed similar mistakes by trusting China to behave responsibly in the rule-based global system. In the case of India and China, in the past few years, the leaders from both countries rendered a narrative that marked a striking departure from the norm. However, by billing the meeting of two countries as a ‘reset’, India mistakenly offered China a sense of having a panoramic authority over the range of bilateral and regional issues. The Chinese conceit of civilisational and triumphant Asian power was also fanned by such acts.

On the contrary, China has been grappling with persisting differences within the establishment over India. On the one hand, the approaches made by India were taken with a ‘limited’ positivity to balance against the insecurities rising on the western front, including the South China Sea and East China Sea conflicts and the rising tensions with the US, but vice versa even much stronger anti-India forces within the Chinese establishment remain unenamoured of India.

China refuses to treat India at the same level. Hierarchy is embodied in Chinese strategic behaviour, and China’s status as a hierarchical leader goes without saying. On the one hand, Chinese strategists express concern over being not treated as an ‘equal’ by the American State, but on the other hand China has lacked the humility to accept India as an equal neighbour or power. Hence, in addition to India’s efforts to upgrade border roads and infrastructure, the disregard for India would lead to the most severe crisis in India-China ties.

In the end, foreign policy-making remains a secretive function of the Chinese Communist Party. While the Chinese think-tanks and strategists look uncertain over how they should manage the dilemma regarding India, the space for independent public policy advice stands non-existential.

Aravind Yelery is Senior Fellow, HSBC Business School, Peking University. Twitter @AravindYelery. Views are personal.
Aravind Yelery
first published: Sep 8, 2020 10:09 am

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