Dealing with China has been an issue which has kept the foreign policy researchers engaged the world over. China, being a single-party system of governance, follows her foreign policies on the principle articulated by their leader of the communist party. Changes in leadership, therefore, inevitably lead to transitional stress, as witnessed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Deng’s socialistic capitalism and now Xi’s focus on realising Chinese dream.
In a recent interaction with Fudan University’s Prof Shen Dingli, he mentioned that China is using the strength of three Ms, ie, Money, Muscle or Might and Mind to achieve per capita income for her citizens, comparable to those of the US. Unfortunately, the Chinese system of governance may not permit a smooth transition from communism to socialistic capitalism leading to near parity in per capita income.
Democracies tend to handle the transition from pure capitalism to capitalistic socialism with lesser turbulence since the generation of capital by the state improves the ability to spend on social security and healthcare, which is a pro citizen. The benefitted population is a sizeable vote bank for elections.
In a communistic form of governance, the benefits of capital generation must simultaneously benefit all citizens or else there is a danger of collapse of the system due to public unrest. Soviet Union’s collapse is an example of China. They do not wish to follow a similar trajectory. Therefore, the Chinese always suppress public dissents very rapidly, introspect and reflect upon the possible solutions.
That is the challenge even the present party leader Xi Jin Ping has to face. This inherent characteristic of suppressing public views which are counter to the Party theme is similarly reflected in China’s foreign policy. China communicates or miscommunicates to the world in a manner as if it is binding on the rest and non-compliance could result in repercussion. This is akin to addressing her domestic audience; there is no room for accommodation of counter view. The accommodation of counter views is virtue of democracy; one cannot expect any other form of governance to possess this characteristic.
Whenever there is a leadership change in China, it goes through these aches and pains of changes in public policy which is driven by the principles announced by the party leader. It is during these transition periods that China tends to deflect the attention of internal dissensions by stirring up Chinese nationalistic sentiments by focusing on issues external to China. A country which abides by Chinese principles is branded as a friend. There is a number of recent examples.
The Philippines accepting less than what is desired in the South China Sea, Pakistan virtually becoming China’s autonomous region by accepting handing over of Gwadar port and large investments in CPEC where only Chinese companies are being given construction contracts and many more. China’s reaction to non-conformal countries is very sharp and often threatening.
It tends to use near-identical yardstick for communicating with both the internal and external dissenters. China also has a tit for tat approach. If India does not relent on OBOR, Dalai Lama etc, China counters by scuttling India’s bid for NSG membership and its attempts to declare Masood Azhar as a terrorist at the UNSC. China lacks the ability to accommodate views of other nations in her march to fulfil her own dreams, typically a communistic approach. This remains a challenge.
In the recent past, there have been mushrooming of think tanks and universities which essentially research international relations and recommend policy models to realise the Chinese socialistic capitalism dream within the broad canvas of Communistic principles (which does not strictly follow Marxism, Leninism or Maoism contours). These are Chinese thinkers who have undergone education in western countries and have witnessed the power of democracy.
They are constantly evaluating the errors China has made at various stages of her growth. There is some introspection and they offer possible solutions or policy alternatives to the CPC. These thinkers are generally heard talking of Confucius philosophy of China and how the CPC can deal with her citizens and the world within those bounds. Often, China needs to be pushed hard to remind her to introspect and make amends to her bilateral and multilateral dealings.
As far as India is concerned, it can leverage a lot from China. The three Ms of Chinese policy, ie, money, muscle and mind have to be outdone without usual outcry. There is a lot of scope of cooperation with China in the maritime security domain which directly impacts her own pursuit to first M ie money from trade and therefore the security of energy routes through the Indian Ocean.
This cooperation is well within the existing capability of the Indian Navy and does not violate any principled stand taken by India. To counter the second M, ie, muscle/might, India should progress with rapid capability building of her Armed Forces, much from indigenous manufacturing, to force China to introspect on her aggressive behaviour.
And lastly, India should outdo China in the third M, ie, mind. Anticipate Chinese action and reaction and create an environment to dissuade China from using her money or muscle power against India. This is easier said than done but is not impossible. China knows that within a few years India will be the most populous country in the world and a challenger to her economy and cannot be a pushover or ignored.
Chinese thinkers now have a task to find policy alternatives for the CPC which could improve her process of communication with the world by developing skills for the most desirable fourth M, ie, Maturity.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.