India is reeling under the clashes with a belligerent China in the Galwan valley that caused the deaths of several soldiers. At the same time, Beijing has expressed its wish to de-escalate tensions and resolve the border stand-off through negotiations. This confusing signal of diplomacy and aggression can be traced to a deep-seated insecurity that has particularly troubled China for decades.
The hostile action vis-a-vis India cannot be seen in isolation. China is also in an equally tense relationship with its neighbours across the South China sea including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing has claimed several islands in the region purportedly belonging to its neighbours and has occasionally used military power to assert its ownership.
China has emerged as a country powerful enough to challenge global big daddies like the United States and countries of western Europe. But it is also a nation in a fight against the narrative of its own troubled imperial past, desperately trying not to repeat its historical mistakes.
China between the 12th century to the 19th, was the most advanced kingdom in the world. It was far ahead of colonial Great Britain in military prowess, transportation and trade According to renowned US academic James Petras, “it was only by borrowing and assimilating Chinese innovations that the West was able to make the transition to modern capitalist and imperialist economies.”
Just to give a couple of examples, Petras quoting British social scientist John Hobson states that in 1078, China was the world’s biggest producer of steel (125,000 tonnes). Much later, in 1788, Britain managed to produce 76,000 tons. China’s commercial ships in 1588 displaced 3000 tonnes of water; British ships displaced 400 tonnes.
Chinese rulers across various dynasties took their empire’s power for granted and never expected to be challenged. As a result, though it was capable it never occurred to the ruling elite to conquer or colonise any other country. But, it traded far and wide and prospered. China’s success unravelled after the British arrived in India in the form of the East India Company in the 17th century.
The Europeans, unlike the Chinese, believed in colonising the world and went about it with gusto. Once in India, the British naturally set their eyes on China. However, after attempting a few times they realised that China could not be conquered militarily and instead deployed devious means to subjugate the country, including through the use of opium, in what is popularly known as the “opium wars”. Unable to withstand the insidious assault, the last Chinese monarchy under the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1912, and the country became a republic.
The country by then had become vulnerable and soon after fell prey to the Japanese who occupied parts of northern China and subjected people to severe humiliation. The Chinese could never get over the occupation especially since Japan had historically looked up to China as its cultural and social guide. And here was an upstart turning the tables on the mentor.
Hunger, famine and poverty ravaged China during the latter half of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century. Figuratively speaking, from the first world, it had slipped to the status of third world. The west, led by the colonial British, had brought a proud civilization to its knees. The extreme conditions within China combined with Japanese humiliation led to the emergence and growth of the Communist movement which seized power through a revolution in 1949.
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A communist China was something that the west had not bargained for. Though allied with the previous liberal democratic government of Chiang Kai-shek through the Second World War that ended in 1945, all ties were cut off with China following the coming to power of the Communist party under Mao Tse-tung.
China under Mao went into a shell and remained largely in isolation for at least 20 years. During this time, the Communists embarked on rebuilding China creating world class infrastructure, health care and education after which it opened up to the west in 1972 when US President Richard Nixon visited Beijing.
After the death of Mao, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China in the 1980’s opportunistically incorporated elements of capitalism and the unique combination successfully propelled the country to great heights economically, militarily and socially almost to where it was in the 12th century, on top of the global heap of nations.
The core issue for the west is that China is a one-party communist state, far removed from liberal democracy and that is anathema to western ideologues. In a repeat of history, the west led by the US is again encircling China with a string of allies including Japan and other nations in the far-east. The US, since the end of the Second World War, has also maintained a low-profile but powerful military presence in the Pacific, eyeing the Chinese. Over time, the west has managed roped in India which has its own bone to pick with its centuries-old neighbour.
China, in its attempt to prevent a repeat of history has adopted an aggressive approach to the rest of the world. Learning from erstwhile European colonialists, Beijing has worked out a model that spells aggression all the way – from strengthening its economy, getting weaker nations under its umbrella using humongous investments as seen in Africa and parts of Asia under the Belt and Road Initiative and creating a supersized military apparatus. It has competed successfully with the best in space, Internet technology and even has a glitzy bullet train network to boot.
Its belligerence in the Pacific, particularly in the South China sea, stems from its contention that at a time when it was weak in the early part of the 20th century, Japan and the other nations in the region occupied islands that were traditionally Chinese. So it has set out to re-occupy these islands even occasionally using military power to assert its claim.
Today’s China therefore comes across as the aggressive avatar of its distant historical self ready to take on anyone it sees as a threat. Unfortunately for India, Beijing’s belligerence rubs off on it and New Delhi has no choice other than live out an uncomfortable marriage with its now-powerful neighbour. On top of it, India despite possessing an attractive market for China, finds itself politically on the wrong side of Beijing scarred by a war and the presence of Pakistan which acts as a wedge between the two countries.
In the larger geopolitical stakes, an aggressive China and a burgeoning India therefore are unable to have a relationship devoid of mutual mistrust. And given the historical baggage of suspicion and Beijing’s paranoia the border dispute between them will, for long, be an irritant that if handled wrongly, can prove deadly for the region.