By Vinay Kaura
Whether or not Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s‘ informal summit’ with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China on 27-28 April is being conducted from a position of weakness can be understood from the drivers of China’s behaviour on the global stage. Economic interests coupled with security considerations definitely play a vital role in China’s contemporary international affairs, but it would be hazardous to overlook the most important cultural driver: honour or prestige. One can have a better understanding of China’s foreign policy behaviour by comprehending the role that ‘honour’ plays in influencing Beijing’s external actions.
Many scholars have argued that as opposed to the concept of ‘anarchy’ embedded in the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty, the ordering principle of China’s historical tributary system is based upon ‘hierarchy’. The Chinese empire was always viewed at the pinnacle of this hierarchical construct, in which states and ethnic groups surrounding the empire were treated as the tributaries or subordinates. The Chinese emperor sought recognition of the Chinese empire’s dominance and geopolitical influence from these states and groups through this tributary system, whose key element was an inherently unequal nature of the relationship. The most critical domestic role that the tributary system played was to enhance legitimacy for the imperial rule. Hence, the Chinese regime sought external prestige for its own internal legitimization by having the quasi-vassal states show the prestige through regular tributary delegations. Since the Chinese regarded themselves as the most advanced civilization in Asia, it is no surprise that they claimed the role of uncontested regional hegemon. Through the tributary system, China was fairly successful in institutionalizing its hegemony over much of East Asia. Though, it is another matter that outside China, this was perceived differently by Chinese neighbours.
When China became a victim of colonialism, the most lethal attack it faced was on its notion of honour or prestige. With the disappearance of the imperial Chinese dynasty, the tributary system should have come to an end. But it did not. It got embedded into the deeply-engrained trauma often referred to as the ‘Century of Humiliation’. China felt utterly humiliated by the Western countries and Japan who, during the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, partly colonized it and partly conquered it through wars, conflicts and unequal trade pacts. This century of humiliation, which came to an end only after the Chinese drove the Japanese out of the mainland, has left indelible marks on the collective psyche of China.
As the Communist China claims to be in pursuit of regaining China’s lost ‘honour’, the most compelling drive is to overcome the trauma of the century of humiliation. Economically, technologically and militarily, China is already a great power. One way of recovering this humiliation is to recover territories that Beijing considers to have previously been parts of China or to have been under Chinese hegemony. Besides Taiwan and other territories which currently form parts of Japan, Russia and Mongolia, India’s Arunachal Pradesh also falls in this category. Many of China’s recent grand international ventures can also be understood with reference to the logic of honour or prestige, which are seen to increase China’s global reputation – the Confucius Institutes, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and mostly importantly the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) – besides also serving to enhance the domestic legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. In particular, the link between the OBOR with the historical tributary system is unmistakable as it is sure to lead to an institutionalization of China’s international prestige and recognition in Asia and beyond. China’s claims that the only objective of the OBOR initiative is to increase infrastructure connectivity for ensuring economic development is in fact a wily attempt to hide its real motive. This also explains Chinese anger over India’s refusal to participate in the OBOR.
As long as India aspires for great power status, it will be considered a huge challenge in Beijing for China’s ultimate aim of regaining its previous honour: Asian hegemony. As the Modi government pursues great power status for India, striking a diplomatic balance among big powers, and developing more favourable global partnerships, Chinese disquiet is clearly visible. The public narrative of Sino-Indian equation during the last couple of years has been that New Delhi is gradually learning to stand up against Chinesebullying. Recent tensions between the two countries over the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief as a global terrorist, the CPEC and the Doklam border stand-off have been seen as India’s firm refusal to being a mute spectator of China’s aggressive behaviour. On Doklam, China had to back off in the face of India’s unusual strong public position. Therefore, the sudden public announcement of Modi visiting China to hold informal discussions with Xi may have taken many in India by surprise.
It would be unfair to say that India simply acquiesced to the meet. Almost all Indian gestures towards deescalate the tensions since the resolution of the Doklam issue have been reciprocated by the Chinese, though not in equal measure. However, Indian government’s public stand over the Dalai Lama issue seems to have indicated hugely uneven nature of Indo-China relationship. Global uncertainties may have been the primary driver of the Wuhan summit, the critics would certainly argue that by visiting China at Xi’s ‘invitation’, Modi has acknowledged India’s weak position vis-à-vis China. One can only speculate about what the summit intends to achieve or what would be its actual outcome, but it is very crucial for Modi not to give the impression that his government has unreasonably ‘softened’ India’s China policy.India would never want to be seen as acting like a subordinate in the newly-emerging tributary system whose emperor has the authority to summon the Indian leader.
(Vinay Kaura, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan)