Reforming our Chinese brothers

A democratic China will level the playing field

The motivation of states, according to the Realist view, is the maximization of national power; not merely in absolute terms, but relative to each other. The United States, for example, is not just concerned with being stronger in the future than it was in the past. It is concerned with being stronger than its competitors, which because the United States is a global superpower, means everyone else. By the same token, China’s goal is not only to remain the pre-eminent power in Asia, but to prevent anyone else—India and Japan, for instance—from reducing its lead. To assuage fears that the challenge to rebalance the Asian power equation will lead to open conflict, China has articulated its “peaceful rise” philosophy. The validity of which will begin to be tested when the going gets really tough, as it is beginning to.

Morgenthau, the father of the modern western Realist school, holds that relative to democracies, authoritarian states are better equipped to pursue the quest for greater national power. In foreign policy matters, there is often a disconnect between what is popular and what is necessary. Democracies are left with the complex, time-consuming task of reconciling this difference, often at the cost of losing opportunities to maximize national power. Authoritarian states, on the other hand, are less inhibited.

To take Morgenthau’s argument further, even among democracies—presidential governments and those with strong parliamentary majorities have greater leeway in the pursuit of a strong foreign policy. Coalition governments have the least. This partly explains why China, Pakistan and Russia are perceived to be single-minded in their quest for power. It also explains why Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government was able to pursue by far the most robust foreign policy in the last three decades.

What does all this imply for India-China relations? Well, firstly, one-party China can run circles around a democratic, coalition-governed India. Secondly, if only for that reason, that turning China into a democracy should be an important long-term goal for India’s foreign policy. For sure, a democratic China will not abandon the quest for supremacy. But it will not be able to do so with the single-mindedness that it now enjoys, in a way leveling the playing field.

And finally, it’s a catch-22 situation: a democratic coalition-governed India will find it a steeply uphill task to change China. Right now, it’s not even trying.

14 thoughts on “Reforming our Chinese brothers”

  1. Nitin,

    I know this won’t find popular support, but the motivation of state is also dependant on cultural contruct of society.
    I have a theory that China even with democracy will be far more “focussed” than India (with confuscian philosophy and idea of china as centre of world dating back to thousands of year).
    Similarly the reason present American will finds resonance in both parties (liebermann being one of them), and has a historial precedence (manifest destiny,munroe doctine, cold war being examples)

    I think most pundits reduce the complexity of international powerplay to state, which doesnt explain the picture


  2. Nitin,

    I really can’t imagine China becoming a democracy in the near future. I really consider China to be a confused nation supposed rules by Communists, Who do not know/understand the meaning of the word. They are more capitalists than America and knows how to exploit its own people. May be this is my perception. But that is what I feel.

  3. I believe that the cliché “it’s the economy, stupid” applies as much to geopolitics, as to domestic politics. Imagine the counterfactual – that the Nixon-Mao thaw did not take place, and/or the “gang of four” prevailed over Deng Xiao-Ping. Would a Maoist China have had a double digit economic growth rate? I think not. Few, if any, of your readers, I think, will disagree with the premise that democracies are more friendly to free markets, and by implication, long-term economic growth.

    I have not read Morgentheau, but I disagree with the view that democracies compare unfavorably with totalitarian regimes in geopolitics. A totalitarian regime may pursue power single-mindedly – really, how many minds can there be in totalitarian country;) – but that does not mean that it will be successful in its quest. If history were to be trusted, it will not be.

    Enlightened self-interest dictates the outcome of rivalry in any arena, be it individual, national or global. I have some misgivings about the current state of Indian democracy with respect to that, both in the domestic and the global context, but nothing that will not be addressed eventually.

  4. RF,

    I have not read Morgentheau, but I disagree with the view that democracies compare unfavorably with totalitarian regimes in geopolitics.

    The issue is which system allows the state to engage in a naked game of realpolitik. Quite clearly, autocracies and authoritarian states have an advantage here.

  5. Nitin, India’s handicap in foreign policy is not democracy or lack of majority within a democratic framework. The real handicap is that the politicians do not subscribe to the real politik viewpoint. This being the case, it hardly matters if congress had 500 MPs. They will still harp on the “tapestry” of Indian multiculturalism or “confluence of civilizations”.

  6. Gaurav,
    Enlightened self-interest comes in different wattages, depending on the particular self’s need to be illuminated about self-interest. Left edges of the spectrum, I suspect, will need greater wattage.

    As I said, a totalitarian system may allow the state to engage in the game of realpolitik or geopolitics but playing is not the same as winning. The games that nations play are not all isolated “games of chicken”. What may be an advantage in warfare, may be a disadvantage in trade.

  7. Your argument for bringing democracy to China is certainly a novel one – not for the benefits of democracy , but rather why should we be the only ones suffering. 🙂

  8. Nitin: sorry to be picky, but there are no Democracies around. All modern (and most ancient) states are Republics. Democracy is the tyranny of the majority. Not a small distinction in practice.

    Disagree on single-mindedness being a guarantee of success. Single-minded flawed strategies are more likely to be fatal. China’s own history bears this out. It had far more sophisticated weapons and a fearsome war machine before the then-bumbling Europeans. But the white boys (from a very fractious continent) came and kicked some Confucian butt. Another data point is our single-minded Western twin. We’re cut from the same cloth as they (literally). They’re committing hara-kiri in slow motion at the hands of their single-minded military. More proof that single-mindedness could lead to long-term disaster is the stark example of the “playboy” US vs. a determined, disciplined USSR.

  9. My argument above is not suggest that China or Russia will self-destruct (Pakistan is a special case) – or that India (the state) can bumble its way to political success. My point is that single-mindedness usually implies little debate, and exclusionary behavior. While an inclusive dialog among a larger audience is less likely to produce a clear strategy, it is also more likely to throw up options that an exclusive committee (or in Pakistan’s case, one man) cannot conceive. Inclusive behavior (“democracy”) is a guarantee of built-in checks and balances. Long-term this is a better system – it breaks the reliance on “great people doing great things” – and usually ensures continuous feedback and forward progress. Not sexy, or revolutionary – just very sure.

  10. Folks, one thing I wanted to point out, Nitin referred to [b]authoritarian[/b] regimes rather than [i]totalitarian[/i] ones, since the latter, if Hannah Arendt’s work on the Nazis and USSR under Stalin are anything to go by, often make completely irrational, anti-utilitarian decisions in order to realize their fictional, often impossible world-view. Thus, saying history is not on their side is warranted. Authoritarian regimes however, are simply one party states and thus can act rationally in their state’s interest, since they are not beholden to any irrational overarching ideology such as Nazism that demands certain anti-utilitarian, inefficient policies and actions. China under Mao during the Cultural Revolution might have been totalitarian but today, it, Russia, Pakistna, and many other countries are authoritarian, giving them considerable maneuvering room in foreign policy.

  11. “One party China can run circles around a democratic,coalition governed India.Secondly,if only for that reason,that turning China into a democracy should be an important long term goal for India’s foreign policy”
    What is long term here? By the end of 21st century ? Let us start distributing free copies of TOI, Indian Express,Hindu etc.As it is,even in India people buy newspapers because it is a good source of entertainment.
    But we have some common areas of strength,weaknesses,opportunities and threat.So in the short term ,the goal for our foreign policy should be to pursue self interest .If Hu wants to discuss free trade,India should discuss free trade

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