‘Indian Obsessions: China’ by Randeep Purewall

Even as he spoke of ‘India China Bhai Bhai’, Nehru wrote about China in his personal letters as India’s ‘foe or adversary for a considerable time to come’. Just after India conducted nuclear tests in April 1998, the then Minister of Defence George Fernandes proclaimed China as India’s ‘potential threat number one’. And again in May 2011, a Times of India article rang alarm bells about the expansion of the Chinese navy into the Bay of Bengal.

Whether it is the lingering trauma of China’s invasion of India in 1962, China’s coziness with Pakistan, or India’s endless self-comparison against China’s higher GDP growth rates and HDI rankings, the idea of China as a threat or competitor to India is an Indian obsession. But while many Indians focus on the actions of the Chinese toward India, few have reflected on factors that are part of India’s own national psyche. Why is India so fixated on China? How does India see itself in the world? And how does this affect India’s perception of China?

Like any country, India perceives other countries the same way that a particular person may perceive (or misperceives) another person. And just as it is difficult, if not impossible, for one individual to observe another individual objectively, free from personal bias, belief or experience, so too can it be difficult for one country to perceive another country ‘objectively’ free from history, realpolitik, or nationalist ideology.

India’s perception of China is affected by India’s perception of itself and its place in the world. With the birth of the idea of a united India under the British, and the rediscovery of ancient Indian learning, many Indian nationalists, including Nehru in The Discovery of India, became convinced that India had once been ‘great’ and dreamed that destiny would restore it to such greatness. The idea of India’s greatness was lavishly displayed at the First Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March 1947. It found echoes in Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’, and spawned the ‘Nehruvian’ school of Indian foreign policy thinking which envisioned India as a key player in Asia and the world. It later became India Shining under the BJP in the 2003 reelection campaign after India’s GDP received a boost from good monsoon rains.

China is a threat to India because it threatens to challenge or appropriate India’s own belief that it is the great Asian power. Not only does China share with India a conviction of its own historic destiny as a great power, but China also lays claim to being one of the most successful and influential civilizations in Asia and the world.

Whereas India may be an emerging or potential emerging power, the China threat is already arriving or has arrived through its growing share of world trade, its diplomatic and political influence through the United Nations, and the ‘soft power’ challenge of the Chinese model of development. For India, Chinese actions such as the 1962 invasion or competition for resources in Africa are threatening not simply in and because of themselves, but because they challenge India’s own belief that it should be the preeminent power in Asia and have its place amongst the great powers of the world.

If we challenge India’s beliefs about itself, we also change its perceptions of others. By challenging India’s beliefs that is inherently ‘great’, or destined for ‘greatness’, its perception of other countries like China who are rapidly growing economically or becoming powerful diplomatically, may become less distorted. China may instead start to look like a developing country that is working hard to achieve self-sufficiency and prosperity after its own troubled history. By looking at what may influence one country’s perception of another, we can appreciate why Pakistan perceives India a certain way, why Israel looks at the Palestinian authority in a particular light, and how perceptions can be readjusted by challenging and discrediting core beliefs in inflated national selves, mythologies and destinies.

Randeep Purewall is a lawyer, researcher and cultural activist based in Surrey, Canada. Contact him at:
rspurewall@gmail.com
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4 comments on “‘Indian Obsessions: China’ by Randeep Purewall

  1. […] are links to some of his posts: ‘Indian Obsessions: China’ Skeena: a story of discovery, death and […]

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  2. The annexation of Tibet by communist China with the backing of USSR is one of the most important factors while discussing the relation between India-China and China-Pakistan. One can clearly see the reasons for the Chinese support to Pakistani view on Kashmir and this ‘coziness with Pakistan’ is a tit-for-tat policy for India’s stand on Tibet and the Dali lama.

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  3. Dear Mr. Purewall:

    You begin the article by a curt summation of India’s protracted effort to chisel its strategic posture towards China, skimming quickly through a gamut of complex issues and developments which have helped shape the relationship between these two regional powers. To term it as intentionally disputatious just by mentioning a few symbolic markers from history undermines the very collective consciousness of a nation (‘beliefs about itself’) on which you have pinned the hopes of betterment.

    In leaving no space between India’s strategic outlay towards a powerful and restive neighbour — and the general swagger or hawkishness that is considered to be healthy in a globalist environment – you have fallen into the set trap of policy wonks who would rather perceive our mutual and painful histories from the hazy prism of their own imperialistic past. Conflicts, real or conceived, are not the precursor on which we base our relationships, and this applies to both India and China. For it is the same fear of imperialism and expansionism on both sides that led to the ’62 debacle; Nehru was acutely sympathetic to this shared lineage of tyranny but he never discounted the contrarian views offered by the likes of Patel, nor did he ever restrain BN Mullick of the Intelligence Bureau in bolstering India’s geopolitical standing. Similarly, BJP’s assessment was the outcome of an extensive and entrepreneurial overhaul of the national security apparatus; being the right-of-centre party, it tried its best imbue a strategic culture in an obstinate bureaucracy. From that perspective, our threat-mongering was prophetic. The same neighbour that forestalled our Nehruvian ambition of being a responsible global power, by downsizing it to a paranoid policy of intervention in South Asia, is building a ‘string of pearls’ around the subcontinent. By aggressively influencing the state of affairs in our neighbouring countries and influencing control over vital strategic installations there, China has made the subcontinent even more volatile. Let’s not even talk about avenues of covert subversion by means as unimaginable as cyber-warfare.

    However, the subsuming aspect of this power play is the pursuit to seek economic advantages, which should actually concern our Western partners more than it does to us! So your justification of China’s soft-power exercise is very fair.
    That being said, China’s brinkmanship has rather mysterious origins. We never know as to what have been the catalysts of their collective psyche. It actually seems to be the result of a potent mixture of ambition and fear – both originating from that tumultuous and schizoid past. This can also be surmised from the fact that we are not the only country which has borne the brunt of its flippant attitude; with US being a case in point.

    Nonetheless, I do realize the underlying passion and optimism in your argument. Our duplicitous treatment towards each other has to end from within. The only problem is that a vast vacuum of history needs to be filled in order to bring those levels of comfort but the chances of this happening while our neighbour reels under authoritarianism are remote.

    Best,
    Pukhraj Singh

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