China’s moment of vulnerability

China is at its most vulnerable moment since the Tiananmen Square upheaval of 1989.

At a recent panel discussion at the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, I argued that it is important to include the dimension of China’s vulnerabilities in the way we see the India-China dynamic. The following is a summary of my remarks:

First, it has managed to antagonise almost all major nations–Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and India—in its region, causing them to explore ways to counter-balance it. This has raised the demand for a US presence and strategic engagement in East Asia. The upcoming East Asia Summit will essentially be a framework that will attempt to bind China’s rise in the silken bonds of international norms. [See the East Asian kabuki]

Second, it is locked into geo-economic interdependence with the United States in a situation akin to two people with a gun to each others’ heads. China cannot escape the consequences of a US default or devaluation. [See my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran’s pieces on China’s policy tangle, quest for balance and US default.]

Third, China’s internal stability has been rocked by multiple vectors. The three big ethnic minorities are in various stages of unrest: the Mongolians have joined Tibetans and Uyghurs in mass protests. Rising productivity is exerting upward pressure on wages that the Communist Party is being forced to keep a lid on. Some of the labour grievances have erupted into agitations. Farmers protesting against expropriation and eviction have constituted another vector of instability. While many of these incidents might not make it to televisions, newspapers and even websites due to information control, Beijing still has to deal with them.

Fourth, there is certainly a serious factional war raging within the cloisters of the Chinese Communist Party. The recent drama around the health and whereabouts of Jiang Zemin is the latest in a series of events that suggest China’s policies are outcomes of factional contention. For all its attempts to show otherwise, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not a monolithic entity. The Shanghai faction, the Youth Communist League Faction and the ‘Princeling’ faction have been identified. Even within the PLA, geographical regional loyalties and the changing balance of power between the PLA and the PLA Navy (PLAN) might be shaping China’s behaviour, not least in the East Asian maritime domain.

What should we make of it?

India should attempt to become a swing power. It should aim to achieve better relations with China and the United States than they enjoy with each other. At the same time, it must have the credible capacity to inflict pain and give pleasure to either of the two. This requires an unprecedented level of foreign policy dexterity.

While there is some empirical evidence that China tends to be more amenable to settling boundary disputes when it is internally weak, India should not be (and should not appear to be) in any haste to rush to a settlement. China is and perceives itself to be much more powerful than India at this time, and is likely to insist that disputes are settled only on its own terms. Instead of over-emphasising the Himalayan frontier, India should engage more deeply in East Asia, and contribute to a stable balance of power there [See the Asian balance and on the East Asian dance floor]. This is the primary means for India to acquire strategic leverage vis-a-vis China, for New Delhi is mostly on a weaker wicket on other issues.