Strategic Estrangement an Odd Bedfellow to Economic Engagement

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.)

Keywords: Chinese economic growth, India-China bilateral relations, Johnson Line, McMahon Line, Aksai Chin

The inextricable interdependence of survival of China’s despotic leadership, its economic growth and stability of State controlled Capitalism poses a curious dilemma when large democratic economies choose to expand and boost economic engagement. This is particularly so when there exists unresolved geo-strategic fissures. And yet, the overriding importance of political stability and economic growth (in that order) to China’s Communist Party leadership presents an opportunity to best influence China.

Of the ten bloodiest massacres in history five of them occurred in China (Qing conquest of the Ming Dynasty, 1618-83 casualties 25 million; Taiping rebellion, 1850-64 casualties 20m; An Lushan rebellion, 755-63 casualties 13m; Dungan Revolt 1862-77, casualties 10m; Chinese Civil War 1927-50 casualties 7.5m). It can hardly be accidental that all five were internal to China. Neither is it coincidental that this part of their grisly past is an important determinant of their resolve to suppress uprisings whether in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square or indeed in the current more-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The so called “Umbrella Revolution” has thus far resisted strong arm tactics, the State buying off local tycoons and veiled threats of the use of disproportionate force. The underlying fear of encroachment of the Party’s authoritarian values on Hong Kong’s way of life is at the core of dissent. Nonetheless a vacillating leadership runs the risk of being perceived as weak when withholding the impulse to action. All the while an edgy mainland China watches uneasily. The Party knows full well that to loosen grip is the first step down the slippery slope to political instability.

On the growth front China is at that stage in development when expectations and standards of living of its citizens can no longer be nourished by the diminishing sheen of the “China Price”. The IMF World Economic Outlook for 2014-15 marks a downward GDP growth forecast for China to under 7% by 2015 as the economy attempts to make the transition to a more sustainable path along the service and technology sectors. This relative slow down puts a poser before Beijing: the only guarantee of the passivity of the masses is a satisfied populace; dissatisfaction amongst the citizenry animated by the urge to more democracy provides the recipe for mass upheavals; so how best can the current politico-economic situation be bridled?

In the meanwhile India finds itself fortuitously positioned. Politically, the Modi-dispensation’s resounding mandate and economically an avowed emphasis on development prodding an upward growth trend (indicated by the same IMF report), reaching 7% by 2015, a combination of both factors provides the vehicle to not just influence Sino-Indian relations but also to resolve our prickly border predicament. According to a study by the PHD Chamber of Commerce, an industry trade group in New Delhi, China has become India’s largest trading partner and in the wake of Premier Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India, targeting bi-lateral trade of over $100 billion is not only achievable but also would take India amongst China’s top five trading partners.

Economic intertwining comes with its own set of tilting levers which may be actuated to mutually settle the tricky border situation. It must be kept in perspective that the 3,225 kilometres border (un-demarcated in the main) has been influenced historically by considerable cartographic jugglery. Significant to the boundary situation are the Johnson Line of 1865 which placed the Aksai Chin in Kashmir (which the British never took seriously); and the McCartney-MacDonald Line of 1899 which showed Aksai Chin as Chinese. China was not a signatory to either of these frontier delineations. However, by the second decade of the 20th century as both China and Russia lapsed into turmoil the Raj sensed a closure to the ‘Great Game’ and the border was redrawn to the original territorially favourable Johnson Line.

At the time of India’s independence in 1947, the Johnson Line in the North and the McMahon Line in the East, also not ratified by China, were inheritances of the partition award. Both independent India and China harboured no apparent conflicting territorial claims. But the annexation of Tibet in 1950 and the consequent moves aimed at strategic consolidation of the Aksai Chin to conform to the McCartney-MacDonald Line presaged the coming armed clash of 1962. It is of some consequence to note that in 1960; Premier Zhou Enlai had ‘unofficially’ offered a quid pro quo in Aksai Chin and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), that India accepts the McCartney Line while China would abandon its claims across the McMahon Line. The time for this ‘grand bargain’ has perhaps arrived.

Geo-politics and international relations are often greatly influenced by timing events to capitalize on circumstances. For India to consider on the one hand strategic estrangement of China while on the other intensify economic engagement, at a time when Beijing faces the prospects of a slow down in growth coupled with restiveness amongst its citizens is to miss the opportunity to bring about stability on our borders and indeed in relations. In turn this can only spur growth, which for both nations is currently most desirable. The time to resurrect Zhou’s ‘grand bargain’ is at hand and as Mark Twain put it “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

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2 thoughts on “Strategic Estrangement an Odd Bedfellow to Economic Engagement

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