DELUSIONS OF COMFORT - Will Modi's India look a more powerful neighbour in the eye?

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 26.09.14

The term, “bamboo curtain”, has today fallen into complete disuse. Yet, until the post- Mao Zedong succession struggle was conclusively resolved in favour of the reformist Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China was a closed society and, indeed, a mystery that professional China-watchers tried to solve with an imperfect mixture of information, ideology and conjecture.

One of the few foreigners who enjoyed privileged access to the Communist Middle Kingdom was the writer, Han Suyin (the pen name of Elizabeth Comber), the daughter of a Hakka father and Belgian mother. Han Suyin was an incorrigible fellow-traveller who combined her insights into Chinese society with a near-slavish adulation of the regime. In 1979 or thereabouts, she delivered a talk at — if my memory serves me right — London School of Economics. She spoke at length on how the perfidious Gang of Four, which included Mao’s ambitious widow, Jiang Qing, had tried to hijack the legacy of the Great Helmsman and had been thwarted by the proverbial “great, glorious and correct” Communist Party of China. After the talk, an insolent student got up and reminded the great China expert of her earlier praise for the “revolutionary” qualities of precisely those individuals that were now being denounced as “counter-revolutionaries”. It was an awkward moment for Han Suyin, and she tried to get out of a sticky situation by recalling some conversation with a wise Chinese peasant — the counterpart of the ubiquitous taxi driver favoured by foreign correspondents — who had warned her of the dodgy personality of Mao’s second wife.

The West-Indian-born British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, used to remark that Communists never admit to being wrong: they merely travel from “correctness to correctness”. This was particularly true of the Sinophiles who doubled up as Sinologists.

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, when Maoism was both a political and fashion statement, the students of Contemporary China in Indian universities were forever told of the monumental achievements of the collectivization process, the backyard foundries that had contributed to the exponential growth of steel production and the Great Leap Forward. A lot of time was devoted to deciphering Mao’s cryptic utterances, such as “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent” and “It is always darkest before it becomes totally black”. In hindsight, it seems bizarre that some of the most intelligent products of our universities were inspired by Mao to undertake vicious bouts of self-flagellation, all the time quoting the Chairman’s great advice, “To read too many books is harmful.” It was even more unpardonable that their state of hallucination was egged by on by the so-called China experts.

Contemporary research, based on a combination of archival research and Chinese self-realization, has demonstrated the scale of the Chinese disaster under Mao. Reading the histories by scholars such as Frank Dikotter — Mao’s Great Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation — makes me wonder whether the “China experts” can ever be truly trusted to convey an accurate picture of events and trends behind the old “bamboo curtain”.

The issue arises in the context of the India visit of China’s president, Xi Jinping, and its immediate aftermath. In normal circumstances the visit would have been uneventful and routine had it not been for two factors. First, it was preceded by the Indo-Japan bonhomie that was on display during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan. Modi’s stray comment about the pitfalls of “expansion” was quite rightly viewed as a reference to an over-assertive China. Read with China’s grave distrust of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to modify Japan’s post-war pacifism and build an indigenous defence capability, there were good reasons to believe that China would do its utmost to thwart any emerging Delhi-Tokyo-Canberra axis that would also have the tacit backing of the United States of America.

Secondly, unlike the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government, which was forever trying to second-guess China and reacting with a spectacular measure of defensiveness, Modi reacted with great displeasure to the standoff in Chumar, along the Line of Actual Control. He is understood to have told President Xi that the much-touted economic cooperation and China’s assurance of $20 billion investment in India would not take off as long as border tensions persisted. Maybe Modi was throwing back at China Xi’s assertion to the Military Commission in October last year that “core interests” would not be compromised for the sake of “development interests.”

Whatever the calculations behind India’s unexpected development of a spine, Xi had assured Modi that the People’s Liberation Army’s provocations would cease. But this assurance appears to have been greeted with either incomprehension or studied defiance by the local PLA commanders. Not only are tensions in Chumar persisting, matters have been complicated by Xi’s remarks to PLA commanders on September 22, immediately after his return from India.

The debate in India centres on which aspect of Xi’s message alludes to the India-China border tangle. Should New Delhi view the call for the PLA to be unquestioningly obedient to the political leadership as an indictment of those army commanders who had derailed his India visit? Alternatively, should the advice to the PLA to “improve… combat readiness and sharpen the ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology” be viewed as a veiled warning to India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam to desist from any anti-China alliance?

As with such cryptic remarks, no definite conclusions are possible. Unlike most “democratic” countries where decision-making is circumscribed by domestic pulls and pressures, the direction of Chinese nationalism is relatively less dependant on internal compulsions and guided essentially by calculations at the top. To argue that China would always shun a full-fledged, localized conflict because it values old-style economic hegemonism is only partly true.

Not since Beijing undertook economic reforms and out-performed the capitalists in their own game has it faced such wariness over its rise and rise. The benign view of an energetic China that prompts admiration in Europe and even the US is not so easily shared in Asia where China combines commerce with the threat of coercion. Even in Australia, which had once embraced China exuberantly as its route into Asia, there is now a great deal of anxiety over the implications of an unchecked great power that doesn’t share the political and cultural assumptions of other open societies. Canberra’s endorsement of Japan’s re-militarization and its decision to sell uranium to India can well be viewed as facets of contingency planning vis à vis China.

In this context, India appears as a soft target to China. Contrary to the Nehruvian myth about Asian solidarity, China’s present leadership, and indeed its people, views India with a mixture of contempt and condescension. This is a perception that neither Indian diplomacy nor Indian business has been able to counter meaningfully. On its part, the Indian government always pursued the line of least resistance in coping with China’s aggressive postures along the LAC. The capacity-building exercise along the border that China has pursued with single-minded vigour has not met with any worthwhile Indian response. The lack of serious intent in building up infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh even prompts speculation on whether the Indian establishment has mentally abdicated its responsibilities over that region. The mystification of China and the creation of an intellectual fog around it by India’s small-scale China industry, under the circumstances, are understandable. Lacking the political will to look a more powerful neighbour in the eye — a hangover of the 1962 debacle — India has often used abstraction to obfuscate its denial of China’s harsh reality. Is Modi about to destroy this delusionary comfort zone?