Thursday, September 17, 2009

India and China: A clash of ideologies

India and China: A clash of ideologies
By Susenjit Guha

Frequent incursions into India by Chinese troops are not only about territory that China considers disputed, but also about ideology the Chinese are not comfortable with. While India is aiming for a top slot in Asia economically, China – way ahead in the race – also has expansionism embedded in its ambitions.

China was never at ease with the largest democracy in the world. India has maintained its democratic institutions, amid other South Asian nations that have frequently undermined their own democracies in the six decades since they attained nationhood.

There may be acute economic problems among the majority of Indians, with intermittent clashes based on caste and religion in some pockets, but the edifice built “of the people, by the people and for the people” was never shaken to its foundations.

Despite the free world’s amazement at the rapidity of China’s economic growth and strength of its foreign currency reserves, its record on human rights and freedom of speech cannot be talked about in glowing terms.

But does that bother China? Not at all, as communist China is a closed regime, totalitarian in nature, and cares not a fig for world opinion.

Paradigm shifts in China’s foreign policy are driven by two power centers. While the militarists hark back to the glory of the Middle Kingdom and want a remaking of the world on Chinese terms, reformers want the traditional world order and rules respected to avoid conflict.

Instead of hard power as displayed by U.S. military actions – taken to the limit during the George W. Bush era – reformers are for soft-power projection, with more cultural exports to realize the Chinese dream. But they are silenced under the din of the former.

That explains why China has denied incursions along the Indo-China border by Chinese troops and incidents of airspace violations. Sun Weidong, a Foreign Ministry official, seemed to be applying balm when he told Indian reporters in Beijing, “China does not pose any threat to India … the biggest task is to develop ourselves so that 1.3 billion people can lead a good life. I don’t think it’s logical to say that when a country grows strong it will bully others.”

Despite such denials, sensitive borders have been breached up north in India’s Ladakh, places like Bara Hoti in Uttarakhand state, Sikkim and the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Shepherds are repeatedly shooed off and their tents destroyed. The terrain in some of these areas is inhospitable. Also, India has deployed most of its armed patrols along the border with Pakistan rather than the one with China.

Chinese troops have left evidence of their visits by painting in Chinese on the rocky mountainous terrain and leaving empty cigarette packets. Such acts may seem innocuous, but they have triggered the need for more Indian patrols along what is known as the Line of Actual Control that separates India and China.

That brings us back to the opening lines of this piece. Is there a clash of ideologies?

Chinese incursions are an attempt to assert their power in regions they consider theirs, which they believe were wrongly demarcated by the British when India was a colony. India inherited these regions upon gaining independence. No government or political party – except shards of the Hindu nationalist parties – has harbored ambitions of annexing territory from Pakistan, cut out of India during the partition of 1947, or Bangladesh, wrested from what was then West Pakistan in 1971.

If China feels the urge to wrest back certain regions through troop incursions, banking on superior military might – such as the attempt made in the 1962 Sino-Indian war – then it would be a straightforward act of bullying.

So is China’s constant harassment of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Buddhist leader plans to visit the state of Arunachal Pradesh in mid-November – around the same time U.S. President Barack Obama will be on a visit to China. If this is seen as provocative, it is also what Indian democracy is all about.

Nowhere in the world has the Dalai Lama been referred to as a terrorist, as the Chinese administration painted him during riots in Tibet in March last year. If ideology is not at loggerheads between India and China, then what is?

Earlier this month, an aircraft from the United Arab Emirates bound for China was detained at Kolkata Airport for not declaring the cache of arms it was carrying. After formalities were completed and it was released, China accused India of espionage over the inspection of its weapons. Again, the Chinese military is unhappy with the Indian media, as it supposedly portrays China in a bad light. But democracies do not control the media. This again is a clash of ideologies; it would never resonate with a closed and totalitarian regime’s method of handling the media.

Lurking behind China’s economic surge is a foreign policy of expansionism, fuelled by embedded militarists, who unfortunately may carry more weight than their soft-power counterparts.

Having the United States in a bind economically, China wants to reassert the historical, political and economic dominance it enjoyed for many centuries over Southeast Asia, Russia, Japan and the Korean peninsula. But political and military expansion is antithetical to democracy in a resurgent India, which has a civilization as old as China’s. And that is why, with regard to its largest neighbor, renascent Chinese nationalism is best expressed by troop incursions rather than dialogue and diplomacy.

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