What India can learn from the evolution of China’s foreign policy

As the Chinese Communist Party kicks off its centenary celebrations this week, it’s a good time for India to reflect on China’s great strides and its implications for India. The CCP is rightly proud of its role in transforming China into the world’s second-largest economy, a growing military power, and a technological powerhouse.

India had a lot in common with China when it set out to re-engage the world a hundred years ago. Skepticism is certainly in order in the face of the political, economic and strategic evolution of these two Asian giants. After all, the two companies faced different sets of internal and external circumstances that had a great impact on their development.

Yet the fact is that the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, is older than the CCP by 36 years and the Chinese Nationalist Party, Guomindang, by two decades. The Indian Communist Party was formed in 1920, around the same time as the CCP.

It is perhaps legitimate to wonder why Indian political classes have failed to realize India’s full potential. But this column is not the place to judge their achievements and their failures. As a column devoted to international affairs, it is best placed to examine the paradox of India’s alluring but impossible effort to build a united front with China over the past century.

At the dawn of the 20th century, both China and India were gripped by powerful ideas of nationalism and internationalism in the interwar period. Let us look at the four major phases in the evolution of Chinese internationalism and the Indian difficulties in dealing with them.

In the first phase, before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the experiences of Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru underscored the difficulty of harmonizing the views of China and India.

Tagore traveled to China in 1924 to lecture at Peking University. But his message was about building a “spiritual Asia” very different from “the material West”. It did not fit well with the worldview of the young Communists who demanded rapid modernization and had little time for spiritual civilization which they saw as a throwback to the pre-modern era.

Nehru met the Chinese nationalist delegation at the 1927 meeting of the anti-imperialist league in Brussels supported by the Communist International (Comintern). The two sides issued a joint statement stressing their common interest in defeating imperialism and jointly building a post-colonial order in Asia and the world.

Yet when the most decisive moment of the twentieth century, World War II, confronted them in 1939, the two national movements failed to find common ground. For the Guomindang and the CCP, fighting the Japanese occupation was the priority, and for Congress, it was about ousting British colonialism from India.

This pattern is recurrent. In the second phase of China’s international development that began in 1949, Delhi did everything possible to befriend China and oppose U.S. efforts to isolate Beijing. But bilateral disputes over territory and Tibet led them to war. On the geopolitical front, Communist China has fallen out with its ideological soul mate, Communist Russia, and has moved closer to the United States. To restore regional balance, Delhi turned to Moscow. India and China were again on the opposite side.

In the third phase of China’s international development, Deng Xiaoping ended Mao’s political excesses in his country and focused on rebuilding the Chinese economy. Instead of pursuing revolutionary goals abroad, he sought a peaceful periphery to facilitate domestic development. This had helped establish peace on the Sino-Indian border, normalize political relations and expand economic cooperation.

But the situation began to change in the late 2000s, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. China read it as the start of Western decline. As its growing economic power gradually translated into military might and diplomatic clout, China’s international attitudes began to change.

If Deng Xiaoping had called on China to hide its capabilities and bide its time, Xi Jinping announced the fourth phase of Chinese international policy, marked by assertiveness over territorial disputes with neighbors, a determination to rewrite the regional order and a vigorous claim to run world affairs. In the CCP’s account, Mao Zedong led the Chinese people to stand up after a century of humiliation; Deng Xiaoping made them rich; Xi Jinping is now destined to make China the strongest nation in the world under his leadership.

While Deng and his immediate successors have sought economic integration with the West, Xi believes China is ready to offer an alternative to the US-led world order. He is betting that the CCP party-state can offer a superior form of capitalism, better modes of domestic political governance, and a new model of international relations centered on Chinese power.

India, which joined China in the 1990s (despite the debacle of the 1950s) to promote a “multipolar” world, now finds itself grappling with Chinese power on multiple fronts – from Great Himalayas to the Indian Ocean and from regional to international institutions.

The continued military contestation in eastern Ladakh that began last year reflects the more difficult phase of the complex interplay between the forces of nationalism and internationalism in China and India. This phase is likely to last and test India’s national strategy, given the growing gap between the overall national power of the two nations. China’s GDP is five times that of India, and Beijing spends three times as much as Delhi on defense.

China has not let its internationalism hamper its national ambition. Mao broke with the Russian-led Comintern to make his way for the Chinese revolution. He leaned to one side (Russia) in the 1950s to deal with US threats against the new state; he leaned on the other (America) to deal with threats from Russia in the 1960s and 1970s.

Deng broke with communist ideology to accelerate China’s economic transformation in partnership with the United States and the West. Even as Deng spoke of fighting both US imperialism and Soviet social imperialism, China’s policy in practice was to collaborate with the United States and contain the Soviet Union.

It is a pity that the Indian Communists have taken the ideological gymnastics of the CCP too seriously and have repeatedly divided one of the greatest progressive movements in the world. The reluctance of the Indian establishment to challenge Chinese slogans, such as Panchsheel, even when it pierced them, has been more consistent in national politics.

India’s lingering romantic internationalism on building a common front with China has now taken a big hit. At the same time, the CCP could be the best guide for Delhi to find the right balance between internationalism and nationalism.

For any nation, large or small, internationalism cannot be an end in itself; it is an essential instrument for strengthening national unity, security and prosperity. India has a lot to learn from China about building flexible global coalitions, adapting quickly to changing internal needs and external circumstances, and designing slogans to suit politics rather than letting politics become the prisoner of slogans. .

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 29, 2021 under the title “Engaging the World, Like China”.
The writer is director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and associate editor on international affairs for The Indian Express


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