SPMRF Round Table Week (18 November to 25 November)

Reconfiguring Indo-Pacific

By Dr. Anirban Ganguly

Doklam has fallen silent, the CPC party Congress has also come and passed with President Xi’s position only further strengthened, as some argue that Xi’s stature has now attained or will eventually attain the relevance of Mao. It appears that Xi’s staunch and unequivocal advocacy of the Chinese dream has gained greater credence and acceptability within China. Doklam for us has displayed a shift vis-a-vis our approach and relations with China. India has demonstrated her quiet determination to work for her own rise as a responsible power to legitimately protect her national interest and continue with her quest for strategic depth in the region.

For the Chinese, Doklam seems to have provided a clear indication that the present Indian leadership is not going to resort to false sentimentalism, or to public rhetoric while ceding space, all the while. There was no indication during the entire episode that India was a soft and undecided state, prone to backsliding and compromising. Neither did she resort to rhetoric nor did she cede space and buckle.

The narrative that must now be taken forward is whether China’s rise will be a peaceful and responsible rise, whether that rise recognises the right of other powers to rise equally and prosper, whether it accepts the right of other powers to equal access on international lanes of communication and trade, whether the region as a whole can aspire to a future of peace, interconnectivity and prosperity? Can China deny India her civilisational approach and space? Since the times of the mighty Cholas to be precise, India has had a clearly marked out civilisational space in the region, she had amalgamated, fused and subsumed her cultural and religious expressions among people and civilisations of the area abounding southeast Asia right up to Japan and Korea; the Chinese were mostly always in a state of flux.

Howard French in his latest study of China, “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps China’s Push for Global Power” (2017) notes that as an “empire built upon succession of dynasties, China had never had a fixed name as a country, nor anything like a universally shared national language, nor for that matter anything remotely resembling a national history”

This was in sharp contrast to India where despite many political differences and diversities, the term Bharatvarsha evoked a clear geographical and spiritual entity, where Sanskrit was widely spoken and recognised, where a larger cultural and religious unity was reinforced and reiterated through institutions like the Tirthas (pilgrimages), where the narrative of Itihasa displayed a clear historical sense. Howard cites Chinese scholar, philosopher and reformer of the “late Qing and early republican period”, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who played a crucial role, through his writings from 1901, in formulating “an idea of the nation for the first time”. Qichao lamented thus, “What I feel most shameful of is that our country does not have a name. The name of the Han or people of Tang are only names of dynasties, and the name ‘China’ that foreign countries use is not a name that we call ourselves.”

The Chinese approach, the formulation of its policies towards the region and its players has been conditioned with a mindset of the past. Their approach to present day policy formulation is always infused with a sense of their past, whether that past existed in reality or not, is another matter. China’s approach to her neighbourhood, where she attempts to expand and dominate, is influenced by her past mindset which sees the entire surrounding region right up to Japan in the north and Philippines in the south and India’s northeast and the Indian Ocean as a subsidiary region, which ought to pay tribute to it.

As French observes, “for the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under the heaven, a concept known in the Chinese language as tian xia (everything under the heavens)”. The Chinese saw everything as their dominion, especially that part of the world, which they saw daily and with which they interacted. But this is a calcified mindset that sees no takers in the present times, even though, as American thinker John Mearsheimer has argued in his, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, powerful states have the habit of “pursuing regional hegemony” and China is seeking to do the same in the region.

As Robert Kaplan in his fascinating account, “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” notes, “China will pursue regional hegemony as a matter of course, regardless of whether or not its political system becomes open.” The Chinese thinking on statecraft argues, therefore, based on a created historical narrative that since the surrounding region stretching up to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea was a tributary region, China has to rise to the status of a dominant power and once again command the allegiance of the countries around. This is what makes its international conduct untenable in the end; disturbance, coercion, imbalance and hectoring are its expressions. The powers in the region and their aspirations cannot be stifled.

Prime Minister Abe’s recent electoral victory in Japan is a reiteration of the Japanese aspiration to rise as a normal and equal nation. The Japanese yearning to liberate itself from its binding past and to start anew as a confident nation is a legitimate aspiration; seven decades of atonement must now be allowed to pass. Over the decades, Japan has demonstrated its deep adherence to international norms and multilateralism, while contributing to stability in the region. There ought to be a recognition of the Japanese aspirations, the tendency to keep them bound and guilty is a tendency that is passé.

It is here that India, an equally long-running civilisation, more cohesive than China, and with a deep sense of international commitment and responsibility, emerges as a crucial player. The manner in which India addresses the Chinese challenge, the way in which she handles herself in the face of challenges from China, the commitment that she displays towards international institutions and multilateralism will determine the way forward.

Prime Minister Modi has emphasised on the need to reject expansionism – Vistaarvad, and to embrace development, growth and progress – Vikaasvad, in the region and beyond. His words express the collective aspiration of the people of the area. Under his leadership and guided by his international vision, India is emerging as a proactive, dynamic and mature power with a narrative of co-existence, growth, interconnectedness; it is a narrative that attracts and will eventually dominate and be the anchor for transforming the Indo-Pacific region into the next global power zone.

(The author is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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