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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 30 New Delhi July 18, 2015

Chinese Pundits tell Fairy Tales

Monday 20 July 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

Do not be surprised if after reading former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran’s column in the Business Standard newspaper, entitled “The Beijing paradox”, on a Track II in the Chinese capital, the Chinese think-tanker bears striking resemblance to his Indian counterpart, trading in fantasies and passing them off as strategy.

Saran summed up some hypotheses that lie behind China’s global strategy. One, China assumes that the emergent world order will be “bipolar” and headed by it and the United States. Two, China can have stable relationships only with those countries that accept its supremacy; thus, Sino-Russian relations have stabilised while Sino-Japanese relations remain turbulent. In sum, China doesn’t respect relationships based on equality and mutual interests.

In reality, these hypotheses are what they are —mere hypotheses. There is no way the contemporary world order could assume characteristics of “bipolarity”. Let us recall that “bipolarity” was imposed on Joseph Stalin despite his own disinterest in it. Winston Churchill conjured up the “iron curtain”, which from Britain’s angle made sense, since alliance politics anchored America in Europe and slowed down Britain’s inexorable decline.

In a historical context, however, whatever happened on the ground was largely due to the liberation of Berlin in 1945 by the Red Army, which got there ahead of the Allies.

Such conditions simply do not exist today— politically, ideologically, militarily—for a Warsaw Pact-like alliance to emerge under Chinese leadership in the Asia-Pacific or the Eurasian region. And, without an alliance system, how could China become a “pole”?

Without an alliance system, China can only be a lone ranger. One would imagine that there are enough sensible people in Beijing who understand that the prudent course will be to constructively engage neighbours and the world at large to counter the United States’ containment strategy.

To my mind, that is quintessentially what China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is about. On the contrary, if China is hell-bent on becoming a “pole” it must first militarily conquer Central, South and South-East Asian countries—prefe-rably, Russia too—and install puppet regimes in those countries and create an alliance system. Now, that is preposterous, isn’t it?

Be that as it may, what took my breath away is the Chinese think-tanker’s appalling lack of understanding of the Sino-Russian entente. Frankly, it is sheer baloney to say the Sino-Russian entente is based on Moscow’s capitulation.

Moscow and Beijing openly admit that their partnership is based on pragmatic conside-rations. In strategic terms, each remains sensitive to the other’s core interests; they coordinate regional policies and exploit the complemen-tarity between their economies; and, they do have shared concerns over the working of the international system.

But neither wishes to have an alliance and for both it is sufficient enough that the pragmatic partnership helps augment their capacity to be robust players on the world stage and allows them to pursue independent foreign policies.

Thus, in the Asia-Pacific, Russia has a hugely consequential and dynamic relationship with Vietnam (which at times upsets Beijing) and the Kremlin is receptive to the Japanese overtures for strategic partnership (which unnerves Beijing). On the other hand, the chill in Russia’s relations with Europe doesn’t stop China from revving up cooperation with the countries of the European Union (which “isolates” Russia as a European power).

Now, Russia may desire that out of the searing experience of the debt crisis, Greece developed a “Look East” outlook, whereas China insists that Greece remained anchored to the Eurozone.

What cannot be overlooked in all this is also that it is Russia that ensures global strategic balance—not China. It will take China decades to reach where Russia stands today in strategic capability. And Russia is not standing still, either. The core principle in Russia’s military doctrine is that it shall never allow another power to become superior to it militarily.

Ironically, Sino-Russian entente is the finest example in the contemporary world under-scoring that two big neighbouring countries with dissimilar strengths and weaknesses (and a tumultuous common history) can still forge a partnership on equal basis built on the bedrock of common interests and shared concerns.

It can be a model for India, if it wishes to take a good like at it. Indeed, is there need for any existential angst in the Indian mind—except, perhaps, to invent an alibi to India becoming a junior partner to the US?

Given the US’ steady decline as a world power and the rise of independent power centres in various regions, we should anticipate that multilateralism will gain ground in world politics.

Therefore, for India, taking into account its political economy, a foreign policy riveted on preserving the country’s strategic autonomy creates space to manoeuvre to its best advan-tage, multiplies its options in the volatile inter-national situation and enhances the capacity to safeguard its interests.

Alas, Saran misses the wood for the trees. He doesn’t seem to get the point, namely, that in real life you can lose your innocence only once —and, besides, you don’t threaten someone that you are going to lose innocence, because your interlocutor jolly well knows that the consequent loss will be yours and yours alone, and that the loss is irretrievable. That’s why India should not identify with the US’ “pivot” strategy.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.