China has become synonymous with neo-expansionism in the last decade. India plays a key role in the plot of Chinese expansionism. No matter what, Chinese expansionism will continue in the coming decades albeit recalibrated and India has to deal with that.
Expansionism as defined in dictionaries mostly looks at the element of physical aggrandisement namely a country’s tendency and desire for territorial expansion. However, when one tries to understand China, as an expansionist power, the discourse cannot be as simple and linear as to be confined essentially to spatial dimensions.
China’s urge for territorial extension is only perhaps one aspect, rather a manifestation of the country’s own analysis of expansionism in a broader sense. It is rooted in Chinese history, particularly the contemporary period since 1949 and its perception of the international order through its own historicity. China perceives itself to be a civilisational power with a capacity to lay an alternative world order and provide leadership in it.
Given this background, this discussion tries to understand the rationale of Chinese expansionism taking into account two aspects of Chinese posturing vis-a-vis the international community – its urge for global leadership and its regional dynamics focusing on expansion and its impact on Sino-India relations.
Expanding influence worldwide: The urge for global leadership
Right from the days of revolution led by the iconic Mao Zedong, China perceived the international order from a perspective of deprivation, subordination and injustice thus making it illegal and unacceptable as it were. The preceding century of colonial exploitation reified the cause of grievance against the western order.
In the post-revolution period as a consequence, China sought to initiate the trajectory of leadership by siding with North Korea in confronting South Korea (and the United States), sponsoring insurgency in neighbouring Southeast Asia and providing support to all liberation struggles in far-flung colonies.
In doing so not only was China advocating the replacement of neo-colonial, capitalist systems with socialist ones, it was also providing alternative models of liberation to the struggling countries, keeping at arm’s length the major organisations advocating against colonialism and neo-colonialism – the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77. During this period China restrained from multilateral participation and responsibility partly because of a lack of recognition in the international order by the Western world (Communist China was deprived of membership in the UN) and partly because it was not interested in any multilateral system that did not allow it leadership in its own way.
China emerged as an economic and military power and continued to do so under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
More so because of its internal weakness, China could not afford larger military expeditions to expand territorially barring those challenging its own understanding of territorial sovereignty like the 1950 Tibet expedition and the border confrontation with India in 1962. As such the leadership remained ideological and notional and the country was directed towards internal transformation with the least disruption.
During Deng’s period, the country took a partially positive attitude towards the international order and it ought to be contextualised in the normalisation of relations between the US and China in the early 1970s. China’s modernisation and economic development under Deng required China to participate in international affairs rather than remain isolated from them. Subsequently, China became a member of global institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) and regional arrangements of the Asia Pacific like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC).
Since Deng, China emerged as an economic and military power and continued to do so under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It also emerged as a nuclear power acceding to the NPT and enjoyed the advantage of a recognised nuclear power along with the US and the Soviet Union. All these created the confidence for China to seek global leadership.
In striving for this leadership, China did not continue its radical revolutionary avatar, instead, it sought to demand a democratic re-ordering.
In striving for this leadership, China did not continue its radical revolutionary avatar, instead, it sought to demand a democratic re-ordering constantly, seeking an alternative to the US version of the liberal order. Thus China’s urge for global participation in the last few decades has to be juxtaposed alongside Chinese rhetoric against US hegemony. In balancing US hegemony, China sought to expand its influence economically and politically beyond its borders, particularly across the neighbourhood.
In 2012, the China that Xi Jinping inherited was the second-largest economy in the world (displaying almost a double-digit growth) and a formidable military power with nuclear-backed land, maritime and air power. With the formidable challenge of harnessing the economic growth and fast-tracking economic reforms Xi has converted Mao’s tao guang yang hui (developing capabilities while keeping a low profile) with his own idea of the Chinese Dream (Goujia Fuxing). The Chinese Dream not only calls for national strength, in its external relations China chooses to remain outside the international order at the same time creating alternative, competing, international institutions that may herald new order under its leadership.
The BRICS and the AIIB are some manifestations of alternative ordering. This does not imply that China has rejected the existing international and global institutions; on the contrary, it continues to play a prominent role in the UN, IAEA, the IMF, and the WTO and the idea is to have a distinct source of influence and prominence in these institutions. This would strengthen China’s urge to be more visible as a responsible player in global politics. China realises that in the contemporary economic realm, self-reliance is wishful thinking.
Many a time Chinese leadership has spoken of win-win strategies that would bring China and the Western economies, especially the US aboard. China promotes the idea of Chinese companies and Western corporations having interlocking relations for mutual benefit. This part of Xi’s Western outreach has a fair amount of continuity from his predecessors trying to exhibit a positive side to China’s sense of global responsibility.
It is Xi’s proactive policies towards the Asian neighbourhood and the continents beyond (into Europe, Africa and Latin America) that indicate the emergence of a more ambitious expansive China. Chinese foreign policy with a battery of initiatives of financial assistance, aid and infrastructural support has reached various parts of the world not to mention its entire neighbourhood.
China’s original position of exporting revolutions has been now replaced by exporting goods and courting countries with generous funding.
China’s original position of exporting revolutions has been now replaced by exporting goods and courting countries with generous funding. It is in this context Xi’s decision to revive the ancient silk route by executing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) with both land and maritime components is expected to yield for China both economic and geopolitical dividends. Many scholars consider this a manifestation of Chinese expansionism under Xi. There are a lot of frowns regarding the murky nature of funding of the projects related to the BRI, but the fact is that many countries of Asia and Europe have fallen for the attractive assistance programmes offered by China.
If one would argue that China’s neighbours could not have resisted the BRI because of the physical proximity, there are a number of European states who have joined the BRI resulting in a remarkable rise in the trade between China and Europe (compared to trade between the US and Europe). Subsequently, the EU is grappling with the challenge of China’s economic foray into the region and members do not have uniform perceptions about the BRI in Europe. Meanwhile far away from the BRI China’s policies toward Africa and Latin America have been directed toward engaging as a trade partner, facilitator and financial banker.
In Africa, China is looking at the lucrative extractive industries and consumer markets and in Latin America, Xi is investing in various infrastructural projects and promoting technological cooperation. Given these series of developments, China’s global economic outreach has also set the trajectory of Chinese expansionism at a larger scale than was ever conceived before Xi.
Expansionism and regional leadership: Implications for the relations between India and China.
In the contemporary period, Chinese foreign policy has indicated, two shifts. First is the shift from a country-oriented foreign policy to a more issue-based foreign policy. Second, China’s foreign policy shifted from an adaptive or reactive (as the case may be) stance to a proactive one aimed at shaping the world order. It is in this context China’s foreign policy looked for value addition beyond simple trust-building and glided towards investing in common interests.
As a consequence, China seeks to give more attention to its neighbours and not remain typically invested in the United States. The idea now is to have active diplomatic involvement in the neighbouring region to ensure uninterrupted development in China’s favour such that these neighbouring regions become a part of the development. Xi’s Goujia Fuxing is now complemented with Striving for Achievement (fan fa you wei) and other elements like taking greater initiative (Gengjia judong) and actively going in (Jiji Jinqu). They constitute an active foreign policy (Jiji Waijiao). Fan fa you wei now translates into providing leadership to the neighbourhood based on common interests and sharing the benefits of Chinese development and prosperity.
This reiterates China’s original position of securing an undisturbed periphery to ensure that its economic rise is smooth; at the same time has an unchallenged influence over the neighbourhood. In this context, the US presence in the Asia Pacific creates a sense of challenge for China. Some experts would suggest that Chinese proactive involvement in the region and the aggressive posturing has been actually defensive posturing vis-a-vis the US.
The contemporary dynamics between India and China have to be contextualised in this backdrop. As civilisational neighbours both the countries have different perceptions about each other. China for long did not identify India as a serious neighbour who deserved separate attention within China’s periphery. Neither China felt that there were any concerning strategic contradictions between the two countries although some border issues have stressed the bilateral relations. Notwithstanding the border issue, India was not seen as a serious threat to China, even under Xi, there has not been a fundamental change in that perception.
Indian foreign policy on its part has not exactly followed the Chinese trajectory of taking revolutionary departures from its preceding periods, seeking change in principles or in formulating any grand strategy.
Indian foreign policy on its part has not exactly followed the Chinese trajectory of taking revolutionary departures from its preceding periods, seeking change in principles or in formulating any grand strategy. On the contrary Indian foreign policy has evolved through response-based adjustments to the developments beyond its borders. Perhaps this is the reason that India has attempted to temper the criticality of the border issues by stressing the importance of dialogue and joint mechanisms like the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question in April 2005.
Moreover, in 2006 both sides signed a Joint Declaration to formulate the ten-pronged strategy for deepening the strategic and cooperative partnership. As both sides completed 70 years of their relationship in 2020, several pieces of literature highlighted the positive diplomatic activities and agreements that were signed between the two sides. This was indicative of the fact that India has been always aware of the tricky state of its relationship with China – a case for long-standing contention but, that should not preclude chances of cooperation howsoever possible.
Yet larger sections of the Indian strategic community are of the opinion that China has never been appreciative of India’s strategic concerns. In particular, China’s footprints in South Asia have been worrisome for both the Indian strategic community and leadership. Clearly, there are differences in mutual understanding of each other and their respective strategic priorities. It is, therefore, no surprise that China’s BRI and its growing interests in the maritime domain are seen by India as impeding its strategic domain.
India’s relationship with China has turned complex in the present times.
Given this context, India’s relationship with China has turned complex in the present times. Notwithstanding the interactions between Modi and Xi, China has apprehended a more assertive India in the region. India’s refusal to concede to China’s vision of engagement with the periphery countries frustrates China. Policies like Neighbourhood First are interpreted as India’s zero-sum response to China’s drive to attain a foothold in South Asia.
China finds these moves offensive to its interests. India’s gradual increasing inclination towards the maritime domain – the Indian Ocean, the Indo Pacific. India now has an active maritime strategy supported by active naval presence and diplomacy. It supplements India’s gravitating towards the larger Pacific more specifically Indo Pacific as her Look East Policy has matured into Act East Policy. As China uses the territorial advantage by pinning India’s northern boundaries, India’s conspicuousness in the maritime domain is seen as a countervailing strategy.
Since the last decade, India has found Chinese activism in the maritime domain – the confrontation in the South China Sea, the proactive presence in the Indian Ocean, along with the border incursions indicative of Chinese expansionism under Xi. The age-old China-Pakistan Axis has been a malignant policy challenge for the South Block. Xi’s promotion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) only causes further anxiety for India as China creeps closer to her borders. Given China’s land and sea-based activism, from the Indian perspective, China is not only a territorial opponent but also a geopolitical contender.
Economically there has been a growing trade deficit between India and China.
Economically there has been a growing trade deficit between India and China; China has complained that Indian goods are unproductive (though they get access to other markets). Chinese investments in India are not so substantial either (as of 2020, it is 0.51% of the total FDI inflows to India). Thus India feels China has remained insensitive to India’s core concerns by choice. And it has become more prominent under Xi. China on the other hand sees India as a new avatar, proactive, dynamic and assertive keen to make her presence in the region and ready to contend with China in other continents like Africa and Latin America.
Back home, India clearly has control over the Northern Indian Ocean as its zone of influence and she has been generally tolerant of other countries in this region so long they do not challenge Indian authority over the region. India understands that Southern China is landlocked and needs access to the Indian Ocean; besides China would also develop means to protect its Sea Lanes of Communication in these vital waters. But what disturbs Indian strategists is the Chinese military interpretations of Indian presence in the Indian Ocean are detrimental to India’s interests.
It is important to note here that since the last decade of the previous century, China embarked on grand projects of building ports, roads and railways in South Asia primarily because of economic reasons. It was termed as String of Pearls (by US strategic experts) and it predated the BRI. BRI only took forward the String of Pearls aiming at Chinese outreach; it indicated Chinese designs to expand. For a long India has reacted to the String of Pearls as an encirclement ala containment strategy. The fact is that China never found it necessary to address these Indian apprehensions.
China does not appreciate India’s rationale for the India-US strategic partnership evolving especially around the maritime domain.
It is in this context that the convergence of India and US strategic visions and partnerships have to be seen. Not surprisingly, China interprets this growing partnership between India and the United States not just as any other bilateral relationship, but from their perspective of Sino-US rivalry. China does not appreciate India’s rationale for the India-US strategic partnership evolving especially around the maritime domain; China reads the naval cooperation as a design to contain and encircle China and justifies aggressive postures in the maritime domain.
Yet again, if one refers to the timeline, it has been mentioned before that China has been concerned about the maritime domain since the last century. Since the beginning of this century, issues like the Malacca Dilemma, CCP’s declaration to emerge as a maritime power, the naval expansion – militarisation and major fleet modernisation, the reference to the nine-dash lines, its aggressive activities on the South China Sea, the systematic civilian oceanographic surveys of in the Indian Ocean including the continental shelves and EEZs of the littoral countries and, opening of the first foreign military base in Djibouti – much of it happened much before the US – India alignment.
The point here is that by no rationale can India read the Chinese maritime agenda as a reaction to a sense of insecurity derived from the naval cooperation between the oldest and largest democracies.
India has accepted the concept of the Indo-Pacific and acknowledged its relevance in the region. But China does not accept it. It would rather stick to the Indian Ocean paradigm and calibrate its policies in the Asia Pacific context. For China, the Indo-Pacific and the BRI are incompatible, perhaps hostile. Chinese would be happy if India gives up on the Indo-Pacific (because for them it is a US-driven containment strategy) and aligns with the BRI thus acknowledging China’s vision of the region.
China has found the border contention(s) a way to exert pressure on India; China’s territorial advantage and military superiority has given it to believe that military incursions and contentions can provide geopolitical leverage over India.
Hawks in India would interpret that as a Chinese design to alienate India from the Pacific domain and confine her to the Indian Ocean. Yet Chinese leadership is heard saying the Indian Ocean is not India’s backyard. Modi has made India’s active interest clear both in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. Evidently, the incompatibility in visions as maritime powers, between India and China is another building block in the already existing differences between the two countries.
Chinese concern for India’s role under the Modi Government is well-founded. For a long, China has found the border contention(s) a way to exert pressure on India; China’s territorial advantage and military superiority have given it to believe that military incursions and contentions can provide geopolitical leverage over India. But at present, the Indian army is in a position to confront and counter Chinese incursions, the 2020 Galwan Incident and following negotiations on military withdrawal are examples of that. In addition, China realises arrangements like QUAD or the newly founded AUKUS will not allow China to feel unchallenged in the Asia Pacific especially in the maritime domain.
It may be somewhat early to predict the future QUAD and AUKUS in the Indo Pacific but it is evident that China feels constrained already and is upset with India as a member of it. For India, QUAD is one of the means of balancing the Chinese pressure, but not the only means. In any case, QUAD has no mandate of military cooperation, and at this point in time focuses on non-military issues. China has an economic urgency to push the BRI and has the option of focusing on land-based communications in face of challenges on the seas.
As the contention between India and China is not limited to spatial dimensions India needs to wisely calibrate its response to Chinese designs.
As the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan, China has a better option to work on its BRI– continental trade routes going to the Central Asian Region (CAR), extending to the North to Europe and towards the west to Africa. Moreover, with Pakistan as a faithful ally, China will concentrate on the CPEC which is often highlighted as the jewel of the BRI. In addition, China has proposed its own QUAD roping in Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan, called the Himalayan Quad.
This would help China develop its own land-based communications further. The point here is that these developments will take place right across India’s disputed borders in South Asia. It has serious geopolitical consequences for India. The recent land law declared by China focuses on opening up and developing border areas, building model villages and protecting them, this gives a new angle to the ongoing border tiffs and withdrawal between India and China.
A section of Indian strategic experts and defence officials think that China will now employ the civilian population to reinforce its claim on disputed territories with India. Others would suggest waiting and watching how China actually uses such laws to its advantage.
The point that needs to be realised is that if the Indo-Pacific Theatre can be conceived in both land and sea domains, China will try to secure the Indo-Pacific waters and move more stridently on the continental side namely the Himalayan Belt and around. Chinese expansionism will continue albeit recalibrated. As the contention between India and China is not limited to spatial dimensions India needs to wisely calibrate its response to Chinese designs. It is the age of smart diplomacy; QUAD or no QUAD, India has to deal with China, because there is no way to change neighbours.
(Ishani Naskar is Professor, Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.)
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