A world full of barbarians

China is unlikely to succeed in using moral power to upstage the United States

Yan Xuetong is one of China’s finest minds on international relations. His recent volume, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power is an excellent introduction to the schools of political philosophy in the Chinese civilisation. His op-ed in the New York Times today presents his view on the essence (if at all an essence can be distilled from diverse, rich strands of wisdom) of what ancient Chinese thinking might mean for contemporary geopolitics.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.
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How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.

This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness. [NYT]

Mr Yan argues that China must display humane authority abroad by developing better relations with other countries than the United States does. China must protect weaker states and strengthen regional security arrangements like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. He calls for China to be open to foreigners and attract talented immigrants. This is the way, he says, China can defeat the United States—not through hot or cold wars, but through strategic competition.

There’s much to recommend Mr Yan’s vision of China’s role in the world, not least because it might be a better template for Beijing’s foreign policy than whatever is on offer today. However, Mr Yan’s conceptualisation of humane authority being the route to global hegemony has two fundamental problems.

First, nations of the world resist the idea of an external authority, humane or otherwise. This resistance grows when the said authority is illiberal and inequitable. It is unlikely that nations that have tasted freedom, or are yearning for it, would willingly accept authoritarianism even of the humane variety. The best that can be said is that China’s civilisational ethos makes its people accepting of authoritarianism, but a look at Taiwan and Hong Kong suggests otherwise. If people value liberty more than whatever domestic or hegemonic humane authority offers them, then China is unlikely to gain influence. Mr Yan might be betraying the Middle Kingdom mindset, implying that “what Chinese people consider good, everyone else ought to consider good”.

Second, if China interprets ‘humane authority’ as discarding the Middle Kingdom mindset and accepting liberalism, plurality and diversity, then it might be indistinguishable from the United States. What then would be China’s competitive advantage vis-a-vis its primary rival? To defeat the United States, China will have to become more like the United States. If it becomes more like the United States, would it be a victory for China at all?

Traditional Chinese political philosophy is at its weakest when analysing a diverse, heterogenous world with multiple sovereignties. As Mr Yan’s arguments show, it finds it hard to reconcile values, beliefs and behaviours that are just different. In ancient China, people who didn’t subscribe to the norms were termed “barbarians”, to be kept out using great walls, kept away through diplomacy or subdued by military force. Chinese strategy has the unenviable task of dealing with a modern world that is full of such ‘barbarians’.

Related posts: On the Middle Kingdom mindset; and how it interacts with India’s geopolitical worldview.

The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China

China’s external, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities are worsening

Here’s today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

This may come as a surprise to many, but China today is at its most vulnerable since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. That’s not all; it is unlikely that the country will shake off its vulnerabilities – geopolitical, economic and internal security – over the next three to five years.

The developments in East Asia in the past few weeks, focused around the East Asia Summit at Bali, have put China on the defensive. Not only is the United States reinvesting its military assets into the Indo-Pacific region, but almost all of China’s neighbours have moved to construct bulwarks against China. Even Myanmar is showing signs of wanting out of China’s orbit, and is opening up to India, the United States and Vietnam. If countries of the region are ganging up against China, it is largely Beijing’s fault. Picking a fight with each one of your neighbours at the same time is not the smartest of moves. Yet, that’s what China has done over the past couple of years.

What happened in Beijing’s foreign policy kitchen is anyone’s guess but China no longer enjoys a favourable external environment that it used to for the last two decades.

Let’s come to economics. Not only does China hold more than a trillion dollars of US debt, it is likely to have to increase its dollar holdings given the sovereign debt crises in the euro zone. So a lot of China’s money is, and will be for some time, at the mercy of its biggest strategic rival. Continue reading “The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China”

On bloggingheads – India, US, China and Af-Pak

The geopolitics of hope?

Here’s a diavlog with Robert Wright, editor-in-chief of bloggingheads.tv on what they’ve titled as the geopolitics of hope. The conversation ranges from India-US relations, US-China relations, Af-Pak and even legitimacy of governments.

So sit back relax, spill your coffee or Fall Off Your Chair™

Jump to segments:
When American jobs go to India and elsewhere (06:21)
Is China malicious or just coolly self-interested? (08:08)
What India gets out of the AfPak mess (05:14)
Pakistan’s “Military-Jihadi complex” (06:11)
Do the terrorists win when we withdraw troops? (08:29)
India’s expanding beat as global cop (05:10)

The Asian Balance: Myanmar’s Narasimha Rao moment?

A pleasant surprise from the east

This is the unedited draft of today’s column in the Business Standard:

In a matter of months, Myanmar’s infamous junta diluted itself out of power, a new ‘elected’ government took office, duly freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, lifted some curbs on the local media, unblocked YouTube, declared that censorship ought to go, announced the intention to introduce economic reforms and — hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen — bowed to public pressure and suspended construction on a huge hydro-electric dam that Chinese companies were building on the Irrawaddy river.

So far, so remarkable and so quiet have these developments been that even seasoned observers are in a state of surprise. It seems impossible that a country which appeared so utterly hopeless even twelve months ago — with a closed-minded, curmudgeonly junta presiding over the destruction of generations of human capital — has turned around even to this extent. Then again, this is 2011, the year of geopolitical surprises, where the unexpected is a daily occurrence. Myanmar is unique because the changes happened without ceremony, without round-the-clock television coverage, without foreign fighter aircraft flying sorties over the capital, even without that symbol of early twenty-first century revolution — the twitter hashtag. And so far, at least, it has been good news.

The country may be at its own Narasimha Rao moment. President Thein Sein, who was in India last week, was a top-rung general in the previous military regime and had served as prime minister. Like Rao, he is an unlikely figure to open his country to the world. And like Rao, he might well be the most appropriate. It is way too early to declare that Myanmar has climbed out of the pit its generals dug for it. The new government’s moves are tentative, but they are in the right direction. What happens next depends as much on how the world responds to Thein Sein’s overtures as on his ability to carry his country’s armed forces along.

Because some of Thein Sein’s key decisions preceded or coincided with his trip to New Delhi, some have portrayed them as a vindication of New Delhi’s approach of engaging the erstwhile junta despite its odious human rights record. Such an argument, however, must be tempered with the fact that the Myanmarese foreign minister visited Washington, which had shunned and sanctioned the junta, two weeks prior to Thein Sein’s arrival in India.

Others have cast the developments within Myanmar in the context of a grand contest between India and China, with reformist-democratic forces gravitating towards New Delhi just as conservative-authoritarians are aligned to Beijing. This is misleading.

Take for instance the halting of construction of the Myitsone dam that angered the Chinese government. Given the enormity of public opposition to the dam which mainly benefits China while causing environmental damage in Myanmar, the Thein Sein government confronted a choice between antagonising its own people and angering China. That it chose the latter is a credible signal of its approach to governance. That said, the geopolitical consequences of rubbing a powerful neighbour on the wrong side had to be managed, which explain the overtures to India and the United States. This does not mean that Myanmar will now start favouring India over China in commercial dealings. Rather, it will seek greater policy autonomy for itself by balancing its relationships with regional and world powers. This is still a positive for India, but only to the extent that the playing field will be more level that it was earlier.

So it is up to the Indian government and Indian industry to capitalise on the opening promised by the Thein Sein government. China’s success in South East Asia over the past decade has been due to a combination of money and speed. India’s announcement of a $500 million line-of-credit for development projects in Myanmar can make a meaningful different, but the our government is unlikely — for good reason — to be able to match its Chinese counterpart in the spreading of largesse. We should not get into a spending race. But we should not make excuses for the glacial pace at which India’s developmental projects move forward.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which connects India’s eastern seaboard to its north-eastern states through Myanmar, is of strategic importance. You should be properly horrified to hear that it is proceeding “slowly”. Also, last week, when one of Thein Sein’s cabinet colleagues broached the idea of re-opening the World War II-era Stillwell Road (which connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar) our minister of development of the north-eastern region’s reply was: “We have told them that Government of India would consider the proposal after it is formally submitted.” In triplicate, he might have added.

We cannot say for sure that the Thein Sein government will sustain its current course. It may only be aiming at gaining greater international legitimacy and foreign investment while only marginally transforming the nature of the regime. In such circumstances, a tit-for-tat strategy — rewarding desirable movement and punishing backsliding — is called for. New Delhi should work in cooperation with the United States, Japan and key South East Asian countries to put Myanmar on an irreversible course towards freedom, democracy and development.

Copyright © 2011. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Baburam Bhattarai’s tilted bridge

How Nepal might see relations with India

During an interaction in March this year, Baburam Bhattarai, now prime minister of Nepal, made some points that should interest observers of international relations.

(These were made before he became prime minister and might indicate his personal thoughts and inclinations.)

– Nepal sees itself as being located in between South Asia and East Asia. It is now engaged in a democratic restructuring of social, cultural and international relations.

– Nepal wishes to become a bridge between India and China. For reasons of history, culture and geography this bridge will be a “tilted bridge”, inclined towards South Asia. That said, Nepal seeks an “objective and balanced relationship” with its neighbours and is not “courting” one or the other.

(He also made two points which I interpret as being designed to coerce India into getting over its reluctance to support a Maoist-led government)

– While Maoists will not be able to take over Nepal given the internal balance, a “people’s revolt” cannot be ruled out of the constitutional processes remain suspended, and if the Maoists are denied the share of power that they won at the elections.

– If the political process breaks down, a relapse of armed conflict could make Nepal like another Afghanistan, which would draw in regional and international powers.

The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement

Geoeconomics is the key to the seas East of Singapore

This was published in yesterday’s Business Standard.

The Asian Balance turns one today. It had promised to “devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be an unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca”. If anniversaries are a good time for some reflection, recent events make it even more necessary.

I had argued that three factors would shape the Asian balance. First, nuclear deterrence would shift the India-China context away from direct military conflict along the disputed land borders to theatres in and around the Indian Ocean. Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of East Asia would look towards India to help them counter the pressures arising from China’s geopolitical assertiveness. Third, the whole effort to create “one workable grouping (such as the East Asia Summit) is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to”.

It is not uncommon to hear Indian commentators lament how China is expanding its presence in countries traditionally considered close to India, how it has hardened its posture on the border dispute, and how it continues to prop up the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. New Delhi could do little about much of this because, by and large, it lacks direct levers. The structural geopolitics of the subcontinent leads to our neighbours welcoming an outside power to balance India.

Seen from the confines of a subcontinental mindset, New Delhi appears to have few options between resigned hand-wringing and reckless aggressiveness, both accompanied by rhetorical frenzy. But if you realise that the game board of the raja-mandala is global, New Delhi doesn’t look that helpless any more. Continue reading “The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement”

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.