Why China is Different

Ashok Malik
Corner Plot
Opinions - IN

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh recently got into a bother with his remarks, made to journalists in Beijing, about the Indian security establishment and Home Ministry being "paranoid" and "alarmist" when it came to Chinese business. In particular, he referred to the problems being faced by a Chinese telecom company.

Ramesh's views are not new. He has made similar points before, almost a decade ago, while arguing for an India-China compact in economic affairs. He argues the countries are competitors but not adversaries. Obviously not everyone in his government and party agrees. Ramesh's comments have evoked anger from Home Minister P Chidambaram and embarrassed the Congress. More than anything else, they run counter to the security orthodoxy in New Delhi. At best, the minister is being dismissed as gullible.

The issue, however, is beyond merely Jairam Ramesh. There are wider questions to confront. How does India perceive China? Does it accept the line of the "Peaceful Rise of China", of a benign power that rejects adventurism and sees trade and business as the language of diplomacy? Indeed, can India learn from the experiences of other democracies and how they look upon China?

Despite Ramesh's affirmation, the fact is that there remains widespread suspicion about China in not just the Indian security and foreign policy establishment but also in broader middle-class discourse. There are essentially three reasons for this - civilisational, recent-historical and contemporary-economic. Let us tackle them in order.

First, India and China are ancient civilisations that, with the exception of Buddhism, rarely interacted through the centuries. Both societies were essentially self-absorbed, if not downright insular. China had its Middle Kingdom conceit and saw itself as superior to those at its periphery. India and Hinduism had this assimilative capacity that indigenised streams of imported cultures and peoples, from the Huns to the Parsis. Islam in India, for example, is decidedly Islam with Indian characteristics. Neither society, India or China, was willing to surrender its core identity.

Today, both India and China can look upon other major powers and claim to be either a bigger economy or a deeper civilisation. When they look at each other, however, despite China's economic size being three times India's, the conceit and pride are muted. It is one thing to turn to the Americans and say, 'You are a strong country, but only 200 years old.' India and China can't say that to each other. At some level, despite the economic indices and the military battalions, this civilisational equivalence makes Indians and Chinese nervous about each other.

As a phenomenon, this is not unique. An Israeli academic from the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies once spoke of a similar dynamic between Turkey and Iran. Both were ancient civilisations and founts of culture well before Islam was born. Both gave Islam among its greatest empires. Both disparaged Arab societies, especially Saudi Arabia, as arriviste and descended from desert nomads. Yet, when it came to each other, Turkey and Iran hit a wall. Each could disagree with the other, but not mock it as inferior.

Second, India's China syndrome is also rooted in recent history. The war of 1962 was a complex episode, part of which India invited upon itself. Even so, the defeat at the hands of the People's Liberation Army, the doomed courage of Indian soldiers and that the Chinese war ended India's post-Independence innocence have created a mythology around 1962 that defines our collective memory.

In April 2010, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, the Indian embassy in Beijing published a book titled India-China Ties; 60 Years, 60 Thoughts. Sixty Indians, from politicians to business barons to sportsmen, wrote short pieces on how they saw China, from their individual vantage points. Expectedly, the volume covered a range of opinions. Four of those who wrote were former military commanders; three of them made references to 1962.

Why just a military officer, no Indian who has heard of the defence of Rezang La (Chushul, Ladakh) can ever forget the valiant Major Shaitan Singh and the C Company of the Kumaon regiment. Heavily outnumbered, they fought off wave after wave of Chinese invaders, fighting to the last man and last bullet. The war of 1962 spawned more than one such legend. These have an emotional resonance, and inevitably colour the approach to China.

Admittedly some of this is generational. Nevertheless, since India's policy-making chambers are so full of grey hair, many of those with memories of 1962 remain relevant and influential today. The hard truth is that India hasn't got 1962 out of its system yet.

In a sense this is unfortunate. No nation should forget its setbacks, but to be obsessed with them to the point that they obfuscate other verities is self defeating. An overwhelming focus on a 1962-style military-centric assault by China needs to be discounted, not because the Chinese are necessarily pacific or fraternal but because the nature of the challenge in 2010 is altogether different.

As an Indian diplomat pointed out, China simply cannot afford a big, all-out war that could disrupt trade and oil supplies. "The extent to which the top Chinese leadership is compromised by its holdings in the Shanghai stock market is not recognised," he said, "they would not want to jeopardise their investments."

However, China is not about to become a Switzerland or even a postwar Japan. Notwithstanding personal wealth and stake in the "Peaceful Rise of China", the Chinese political leadership retains its hard power goals. Many of these relate to India. Without falling back into history, it is important to understand the weapons China is choosing. This brings us to the third and emergent source of suspicion Indians have about China: does Beijing believe Asia is big enough for both of us?

Much of this has to do with economics. India is not in China's league and is unlikely to get there for decades. However, China sees it as a legitimate foreign policy mission to thwart India's economic advance. It would be happy to see India trapped in a difficult neighbourhood, which puts off potential business partners and investors. It is wary of India's admittedly fitful attempts at become a manufacturing power. As for ballooning bilateral trade, China would be quite satisfied if its current 'colonial' nature remained undisturbed - Indian exports raw material such as iron ore to China and gets cheap toys and electronic goods in return.

Indian businessmen, in industries as far apart as metal processing and pharmaceuticals, have complained of Chinese gamesmanship in third countries, of deliberately blocking markets for India by resorting to political or economic bullying. Counterfeit medicines alleged to be of Indian origin have made their way to Africa. Some months ago a consignment was found to have originated in China. Was this a one-off scheme by a Chinese crook - or was it part of a larger, semi-official racket? The question has never really gone away.

That apart, India's so-called "paranoia" - to quote Jairam Ramesh - about Chinese companies is not singular. As the old joke goes, there is no such thing as a private sector company in China. Chinese investments overseas are not always commercial decisions; they are usually part of the national strategic doctrine. This is unlike India, where Tata Steel's purchase of Corus, for example, had nothing to do with what the Ministry of External Affairs or the Ministry of Defence made of the Indo-British relationship.

China is different, and the world sees it as different. In 2005, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) tried to acquire Unocal, the American energy company. There was uproar in the House of Representatives and security implications were discussed. Eventually, CNOOC withdrew.

In 2009, there was a replay of this in Australia. A Chinese investor tried to buy a copper mine in South Australia but was blocked because the location was close to a defence facility. Then a Chinese state-owned company sought to make a substantial investment in Rio Tinto, the Australian iron ore and commodities giant. Federal authorities in Canberra delayed permission till such time as an alternative offer came along.

In retaliation, Beijing arrested Rio Tinto executives, including an Australian citizen of Chinese origin. He was accused of spying, a charge later diluted to corruption and bribery. In March 2010, he was sent to prison for 10 years.

Things haven't got that bad between India and China, and hopefully they never will. Yet, the incident is revealing. Under pressure, China's inscrutable smile cracks, as do its claims of a "Peaceful Rise". More significantly, when it comes to the crunch, Beijing tends to not draw a distinction between business targets of individual companies and strategic and foreign policy targets of the Chinese government.

When one combines this with the anyway prevalent institutional scepticism about China, it is easy to understand why Jairam Ramesh is in a minority in India. Frankly, he'd be in a minority in most free-market democracies.

Ashok Malik is a journalist writing on, primarily, Indian politics and foreign policy, and inflicting his opinion on readers of several newspapers for close to 20 years. He lives in Delhi, is always game for an Americano and can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com.