All about understanding the Chinese mind
Just when the stand-off between India and China over the Doklam plateau threatened to go the way of the 1986-1987 incident (Arunachal Pradesh), the two sides agreed to step back and disengage, thus avoiding a confrontation. The Indian side has pulled back its personnel and equipment to the Indian side of the boundary, while China has agreed to make ‘necessary adjustments and deployment’ on its part. It is unclear, however, whether China will patrol the region, which it claims to have been doing earlier. Road construction will not continue for the present.
Behind the scenes, quiet diplomacy by the two sides and ever dominant Indian Foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi, no doubt, led to the defusing of what could have been a serious crisis. Those on either side of the divide currently claiming victory must, hence, pause to think what the future holds.
To savour victory without understanding the factors at work would be a serious mistake. To begin with, China and India have a kind of competitive coexistence. While professing friendship, both sides nurse a mutual suspicion of each other — at times prompting several degrees of alienation. Both countries remain wary of each other’s intentions and actions. Understanding the way the Chinese mind works is, hence, important. The Chinese mind tends to be relational, i.e. dictated by context and relationship. When the Chinese state that they have halted road building in the disputed Doklam area, while adding that they may reconsider the decision after taking into account ‘different factors’, what China means is that it is willing to wait to implement its decision, but at a time of its choosing when an opportunity exists for a settlement suited to its plans. Little finality can, therefore, be attached to any of China’s actions.
Any belief, hence, that China has been deterred by India’s firm position at Doklam could be misplaced. Since the China-Vietnam conflict in 1980, China has avoided getting into any outright conflict. By stepping back from a confrontation with India over a minor issue at this time, what it had in mind were two significant events, viz. the BRICS summit in China in September and the forthcoming 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Also, it possibly believes that this would help China dilute global perceptions about its aggressive designs.
The BRICS summit and the 19th Party Congress both have high priority for China today. Nothing will be permitted to disrupt either event. Extreme factors would not be allowed to affect this situation. For President Xi Jinping, presiding over the BRICS Summit at this juncture will help consolidate his informal leadership of the group. As the undisputed leader of BRICS, China believes it can take a signal step towards global leadership.
China is currently seeking to reshape the regional and international order, and is keen to fine-tune its ‘Great Power diplomacy’. It, hence, needs to be seen as preferring peace over conflict. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a potent instrument in this direction, but needs a peaceful environment to succeed. Limited wars or conflicts, even with the possibility of successful outcomes, would damage China’s peaceful image globally.
The 19th Party Congress is even more important from President Xi’s point of view. It is intended to sustain his legacy and leave his stamp on the Party in the mould of Chairman Mao. To achieve comprehensive success, he needs peace to achieve his target. Till then everything else will need to wait.
This is again a delicate moment for China on the economic planes. China’s growth rate is actually declining, debt levels are dangerously high, and labour is getting more expensive. At this moment, hence, it is more than ever dependent on international trade and global production chains to sustain higher levels of GDP growth. For the present, development, therefore, is the cardinal objective.
The Achilles’ heel of the Chinese economy is the lack of resources, specially oil. Oil from the Gulf region is critical for China’s growth. Peace in Asia is thus vital to ensure uninterrupted supplies of oil. Uncertainties and disruptions across the Asian region would hamper China’s economic progress.
For all the above reasons, China currently leans towards the pragmatic when it comes to relations with countries other than those in its immediate periphery in East Asia. It is not keen to follow a policy adopted by its new-found strategic ally viz. Russia which has paid a high cost for its ‘interventionist’ policies. China tends to take a longer term view of its future and, despite the rising wave of nationalism in China today, is anxious not to upset the international political or economic order. For this reason alone, it would shun a conflict with India in the Doklam area.
China is not a sleeping giant , and aspires to be a Great Power. It is well-positioned to achieve this if it maintains its present course. Any interruption, by indulging in a conflict with nations small or big, would not only damage but derail the levels of progress that are essential to achieve this objective. President Xi’s China dream seems predicated on this belief. It implies support for a rule-based international system, linked to ‘Tianxia’,in the belief that this would help China overtake the U.S. as the dominant world power.It is unlikely to do anything to deviate from this goal.
China is definitely not a ‘Pakistan’ that, it would show its emotions in a defeat or a victory. The Chinese don’t fire bullets and there is no cross border insurgency but more effective than that, is the Chinese policy of ambiguity and unresolved tensions, for what it is, the Chinese are made of nerves of steel and are ever comfortable with the awkwardness that surrounds its neighbours. The Chinese would never show their cards not even in a crisis or in a state of dominance.
While this attitude cannot be taken for granted for all time, the current Chinese leadership seems comfortable in following this prescription. It appears to believe in the ideal that ‘the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward’.
For China this is a game of Chess and not that of a T20, for that they are ready to play the long waiting game and sacrifice some of its pawns.