Elephant and the dragon

Hillary Clinton’s advice to India to be more assertive and Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama carry the same message to China — that the two democracies see it as a threat and have decided to counter the danger together. However, given the long background of the democracy vs autocracy conflicts, a lesson from history can be instructive.
Some of the similarities between Nazi Germany and communist China are obvious. Like the Third Reich, Red China is a militaristic dictatorship. It also harbours, like Hitler’s Germany, a sense of grievance over the humiliation it suffered in the field of international diplomacy and believes that the time has come for it to assert itself. Germany was riled by the Treaty of Versailles, the ‘20-year truce’ between the two world wars, as it was called. China was shamed by the ‘unequal’ treaties which were imposed on it by the West in the 20th century.
While Nazi Germany had fascist Italy as an ally in Europe, and monarchist Japan in Asia, China’s current all-weather friend is Pakistan, which is ruled by a junta in all but name. As in the case of the axis powers in the 1940s, the China-Pakistan ties are based on expansionist ambitions which seek to bring Arunachal Pradesh under Chinese rule and favour Pakistani control over Kashmir. These neo-colonial tendencies are also directed at Tibet and Taiwan in the case of China and Afghanistan where Pakistan is concerned.
Just as the Third Reich looked for lebensraum or living space in Europe, where the Germanic people would be the master race, China, too, wants a similar predominance for its own Han people over the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Indians of Arunachal, and others. What is more, this xenophobia is fuelled by the need to counter the unease in the ruling elite caused, first, by the inherent uncertainties about a dictatorship’s grip on power because of civic unrest. And, secondly, by the simmering ethnic discontent in Tibet and Xinjiang, and Taiwan’s refusal to become a province of mainland China.
Since the fanning of nationalistic embers is a surefire way to maintain control over a restive population, China’s military adventurism against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979 were not unlike Germany’s annexation of Austria and invasion of Czechoslovakia. It will be speculative to wonder whether China will also emulate the Third Reich’s final fatal militarism, but there is little doubt that Beijing’s relentless efforts to rival and even surpass America as the numero uno do not augur well for world peace. It has even had the chutzpah to tell the US that its military budget is too big at a time of economic distress.
The Chinese threat is all the greater because a dictatorship is never at ease in the presence of a democracy like India. The former always experiences a sense of inferiority complex over the opprobrium it earns for not being an open society and for its inevitably poor human rights record. In China’s case, the feeling of disquiet may be all the greater because it could not have expected India to emerge as a major regional power. Beijing’s earlier presumption must have been that India will either fall apart because of fissiparous tendencies based on a myriad languages, cultures and ethnicity (“India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator”, said Churchill) or that India’s unruly democracy — a “functioning anarchy” in John Kenneth Galbraith’s words — will hinder its economic development.
But neither has happened. Instead, India is admired for its multicultural democracy and economic buoyancy while China is feared as an unstable giant. Since Beijing cannot expect to become a model for other Asian countries — as a Middle Kingdom should — for it cannot boast of a free society, free judiciary, free press and competitive politics, the only way it can proclaim its superiority is through military might and economic clout. However, the problem with economic growth is that it can also engender political aspirations and even trade union rights, which are anathema to an autocracy, and lead to social and political disquiet. In that case, a dictatorship’s response is either internal suppression or external aggression.
Interestingly, even when India was far from attaining its present status when it is an automatic choice for a permanent seat in an expanded UNSC, Jawaharlal Nehru had recognised the Chinese apprehensions about the challenge posed by India as the reason for the 1962 conflict. In his book, The Chinese Betrayal, former intelligence chief, B N Mullick, quoted Nehru as saying: “It was wrong to assume that the Chinese undertook this aggression only because they wanted some patches of territory … The real cause was something else. That something was the basic eternal conflict between India and China … China did not want any country near her which was not prepared to accept her leadership. So, India had to be humiliated. Though India would not interfere with what was happening within China, yet she came in China’s way by the mere fact of her separate political structure and pursuing a separate policy which was succeeding”.
The Sino-Indian civilisational affinity of a thousand years is a myth. Indian Buddhist missionaries might have gone to China while Chinese travellers like Fa Hien and Huan Tsang came to India and Mohammed bin Tughlak unsuccessfully tried to introduce the Chinese practice of using paper currency. But the Himalayan barrier remained an obstacle to any closer interaction. It is only in the modern age that the dragon and the elephant have come face to face in an atmosphere of unstated rivalry — the “eternal conflict” in Nehru’s words.
While India has left China alone, except for accommodating the Tibetans fleeing Chinese repression just as India accepted the Parsis 1,200 years ago who were escaping from the Muslim occupation of their country, China’s courtship of Pakistan shows that it wants to destabilise India by bleeding it ‘with a thousand cuts’. Yet, it made a foolish, though obvious, choice, which was surprising in the case of a country with a long history. For Pakistan’s dysfunctional nature was inherent in the flawed basis of its creation — the two-nation theory — which collapsed with the creation of Bangladesh. Just as Italy was of no help to the Third Reich’s grandiose dream to be the Middle Kingdom of Europe, Pakistan, too, is a liability rather than an asset to China. The scales are tilted, therefore, in India’s favour in the eternal conflict.
Amulya Ganguli is a
Delhi-based political
commentator. E-mail:

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