For celebrities and the super-rich, the Seychelles is the holiday destination of choice. The latest to soak in the sunshine of the archipelago in the western Indian Ocean, though, are not being universally welcomed. In December 2011, the Chinese People’s Liberation Navy announced that it would be using the islands as a regular refuelling point for ships engaged in anti-piracy activities around the Horn of Africa. Beijing’s defence ministry has been at pains to stress that they have no plans to establish a full naval base in the island chain. But in New Delhi, so used to thinking of the Indian Ocean as its backyard, there is distinct nervousness that this may be yet another stage in an expansion that will see a belt of Chinese influence from West Asia all the way to the Pacific Ocean, leaving India trapped in the middle. But how real are these fears?
It has been a long time since Nehru coined “Hindi Chini bhai bhai”—India and China are brothers. That particular dream died in the remote borderlands between the two countries during the India-China war of 1962. The memory of that conflict, which China won handily, continues to weigh on the minds of Indian politicians whenever their thoughts wander to the power across the Himalayas. While the economic powerhouse of the present day is a very different animal from the Maoist state of the 1960s, there is a residual fear that, someday, China may shift its sights once again onto India. Over the past decade, growing Chinese influence has been visible in South Asia, from the building of the Gwadar port in traditional ally Pakistan to new economic influence in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. The threat of China’s “string of pearls” around India’s neck plagues policymakers’ minds and regularly sets off alarm bells in the media.
Recent Chinese reactions have suggested a similar growing concern about India. In November 2011, the proposed move of some 1,00,000 troops into India’s Northeast provoked rumblings from China’s influential Youth Daily newspaper, which suggested, ominously, that in a world of precision-guided weapons, large troop concentrations might not be of much value. More broadly, China has become alarmed about the perception that India may team up with the US and the asean nations to contain the expansion of Chinese influence in Asia. On his recent visit to Myanmar, prc vice-president and ranking politburo standing committee member Xi Jinping, who is almost certain to become Chinese president and Communist party secretary-general next autumn, could not emphasise enough China’s desire to “enhance, exchange and deepen cooperation” with the government there. As tentative signs of democracy emerge and germinate in that country, China fears losing influence in a buffer state close to the sensitive northeastern states of India.
And yet despite Indian fears about China, there are sound reasons not to exaggerate the threat. For, while China weighs constantly on the Indian official’s mind, India is accorded a rather lower level of priority by his mandarin counterpart in Beijing. There remains one country, and one alone, that really occupies the uppermost echelon of Chinese consciousness: the United States. China also spends a great deal of time pondering over its relations with the asean countries, Russia, Japan and the Eurozone. China may be overly careless about New Delhi’s feelings. But part of the problem may just be that there is too much else in Beijing’s in-tray.
Worries over a Chinese noose around India’s neck continue to plague Indian officialdom. But for the Chinese mandarins, India is a lower priority than America.
Indian fears about Chinese intentions may also overstate the level of strategy that operates in Beijing. Behind the veneer of nationalist bluster—of which there is plenty—the Chinese elites themselves are still startled about their sudden elevated status in the world. This ascendancy received a boost in the early 2000s by the global perception that then American president George W. Bush was following a new policy of unilateralism, allowing Beijing to portray itself as a more consensual actor in global society. The debacle in Iraq and the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House has worked to moderate, somewhat, international sentiment that the US was bent on spreading its values by force and in recent months, China has been more on the backfoot. It has had to work hard to rebuild alliances in southeast and central Asia because of growing suspicions that China is trying to dominate sea lanes and monopolise resource rights in those regions. Nor does China speak with a unified voice: an assertive statement made by one official can easily be followed by a more dovish one from a different ministry just a few days later. The jockeying for position within the leadership in advance of the handover of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping has not helped matters any.
India’s greatest concern is growing Chinese influence in South Asia, not least because Pakistan was a close ally of China through much of the Cold War. Yet China is also nervous about the increasingly vulnerable Pakistani state. Although relations between Pakistan and the US are worse now than they have been in recent memory, China has shown little interest in picking up the pieces in a failing state—not least because its paranoia about terrorism is, if anything, even stronger than that of the US.
India should not fear China in the conventional sense—of being surrounded or invaded. India’s model of a booming economy coupled with political pluralism has as much to say to the developing world as China’s growth model under authoritarianism. Also, India has historical resources to draw on to redefine its relationship with China, if indeed it chooses to do so. The most recent memory of China in India is the 1962 war. Yet there are other memories which are more deeply embedded. Less than two decades before the Sino-Indian conflict, China and India were linked by another war, this time as allies. The Chinese, defending themselves against the Japanese invasion, fought alongside Indian, British and American troops in Burma during the Second World War. A substantial body of Chinese troops (the “X Force”) was stationed in India at Ramgarh, Jharkhand, as part of the collective war effort. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader, even flew to Delhi in 1942 to meet Nehru and Gandhi and urge them to support the Allied strategy wholeheartedly. He did not succeed (the Quit India movement began later that year), but the two Congress leaders recognised Chiang’s credentials as a non-European anti-imperialist leader with credibility that Churchill and Roosevelt lacked. Yet little is made of this shared history in either country. Now that Chiang is no longer seen as an anti-Maoist demon in Chinese Communist mythology, but has been recast as an anti-Japanese patriot, the time is ripe for harnessing the shared past to stress common interests in the present.
Knowledge is a great antidote to fear. India has some great China analysts, but it could do with more expertise on what China’s ascent in Asia means for India. Maybe it is time for more Mandarin lessons and courses in Indian schools and universities. If nothing else, proficiency in the language of mainland China might come in handy on that next vacation to the Seychelles.
The writer is professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University