Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power
The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.
Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.
Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]
There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.
Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.
Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.
Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.
There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.