India’s China Policy under a New Dispensation


“Today, the Lion has woken up. But it is a peaceful, pleasant and civilised lion.” The remarks made by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with France indicate clearly that China is a powerful nation who knows it and is not afraid to proclaim it. Clearly, the outcome of the possible visit of President Xi to India, once the Indian democratic mega exercise is over, will depend on what the Indian democracy is able to deliver: a lion, a sheep or another accidental Prime Minister, insists Claude Arpi

While India is having its ‘most exciting’ election campaign ever, President Xi Jinping paid his maiden visit to Europe. In Brussels, Xi reaffirmed his country’s commitment to socialism, explaining that multi-party democracy had failed and China needed to follow its own path of political development to avoid disaster. Delivering a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, the Chinese president, who is also the Secretary General of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), affirmed that China cannot copy the ‘Western’ political system “because it would not fit us and it might even lead to catastrophic consequences”. According to Xinhua news agency, he asserted: “The fruit may look the same, but the taste is quite different,” adding that the Chinese people had already “experimented with constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarianism, multi-party system and presidential government, yet nothing really worked”.

Since the first years of ‘reform and opening-up’, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in December 1978, “China has explored and blazed a trail of development and established socialism with Chinese characteristics”. India is different. India believes in a democratic system (why is it called ‘Western’, when it was prevalent in ancient India several centuries before the Greek experiment?) and continues to stick to it, even though it may appear imperfect to the leadership of the Middle Kingdom. With the possibility of a visit of President Xi to India once the Indian democratic mega exercise is over, it is interesting to take some lessons from Xi’s European tour.

Rise of the King of the Jungle

While he was a prisoner of the British in the tiny island of St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor, said “Quand la chine s’éveillera, le monde tremblera” (when China will wake up, the world will shake). There is another version of the famous quote. In 1803, Napoleon pointed to China on a map and said, “here lies a sleeping giant, let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world”.

As he arrived in Paris to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with France, Xi quoted Bonaparte. But, in the presence of President Francois Hollande, he modified Bonaparte’s words slightly: “Today, the Lion has woken up. But it is a peaceful, pleasant and civilised lion.”

The South China Morning Post (SMPC) noted: “The remark could signal a subtle but substantial shift in how China …wants to be viewed by the rest of the world.” Though Xi immediately clarified, “Chinese people treasure peace and hope to seek, maintain and enjoy peace together with other nations in the world,” the ‘giant’ had become a ‘lion’. Analysts immediately reacted arguing that to compare China to the ‘King of the Jungle’ was a sign that China wanted to pursue a more muscular foreign policy. Indeed a change from the ‘Peaceful Rise’ enunciated by Wen Jiabao during a visit to the United States in 2003, and the ‘Peaceful Development’, so dear to President Hu Jintao!

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a French scholar who heads the political science department at the Hong Kong Baptist University commented: “Have you ever seen a peaceful, civilised and not aggressive lion? A lion is a big, wild and predatory animal, very much like China in its relations with other countries.”

Keeping Xi’s remarks low key in China, The People’s Daily described China as a large but responsible nation. Clearly, the outcome of the forthcoming visit of the Chinese president to India will depend on what the Indian democracy is able to deliver: a lion, a sheep or another accidental Prime Minister. The fact remains that China is a powerful nation who knows it and is not afraid to proclaim it. It has not been the case with India.

Xi Jinping, the Lion

Right at the beginning of his mandate, Xi made it clear that corruption was one of his main priorities and that he would ‘go after the tigers as well as the flies’. It was not empty words. For the past 18 months, he and some of his collaborators have worked relentlessly to book both tigers and flies. But what is more amazing is the speed with which Xi has taken control of the Middle Kingdom.

While foreign policy and military affairs are regularly neglected during the Indian electoral campaign, in China, most of the premier’s report to the recently-held National People’s Congress (NPC), was consecrated to foreign-policy, military and weiwen (‘uphold stability’). All these subjects are under President Xi Jinping’s tight control. Premier Li Keqiang indicated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) “must ceaselessly raise their deterrent and actual combat ability under conditions of informatisation.” He also reiterated that China was a responsible player on the world stage: “China will fulfil the function of a responsible major power in handling important international and regional affairs and flashpoints.” There is no doubt that Xi Jinping has decided to introduce changes in China and is also determined to keep the Communist Party at the helm.

During the CPC’s Third Plenum in November 2013, a leading group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms was set up. On December 30, 2013, the Politburo announced that the group will be chaired by Xi Jinping, with the task to “elaborate policy guidelines for reforming the economic, political, cultural, social, ethical and party-building systems in order to address long-term reform issues and supervise the implementation of reform plans”. A National Security Commission (NSC) was also established. Its objective was to “co-ordinate security strategies across various departments, including intelligence, the military, foreign affairs and police in order to cope with growing challenges to stability at home and abroad.”

On January 24, 2014, Xi Jinping was appointed NSC chairman, while Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the NPC, were made deputy chairmen. On February 27, China set up a Central Internet Security and Information Leading Group. Once again, Xi Jinping assumed the leadership role of the Leading Group. Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan were to be the deputy chairpersons. Xi asserted that if a nation is without Internet security, there is no national security. He further stressed the importance of Internet control: “We must innovate and improve our online propaganda, spread our main message, stimulate positive energy, cultivate and practice socialist core values, effectively guide online media, and have a clear cyberspace.” This is quite ominous for human rights defenders in China. Then, another leading group was created to tackle the reform in the PLA; again with Xi as the boss. Many observers believe that this task may require more courage and determination than others. Xi declared the goal of armed forces reform was to ‘build a strong army’.

Such is the leader that the next Indian Prime Minister will have to meet, a man who controls the entire state machinery in China. This has not been seen since Mao; and the difference with the Great Helmsman is that Xi Jinping does not live as a recluse, he is seen everywhere, travels around the world and interacts with Chinese and world leaders.

What is amazing is that during his European tour, Beijing was able to muzzle the voices of Human Rights defenders, or the Tibet or Xinjiang supporters, just because the West ‘needs’ to do business with China. It shows the extent of the power wielded by the Chinese President.

India’s China Policy after May 2014

Most pollsters believe that the NDA will be able to form the next government. Presuming that they are right, what does it mean for India’s China policy? The BJP manifesto does not utter the ‘China’ word, though it speaks of foreign relations based on ‘Nation First and Universal Brotherhood’. It says: “BJP believes a resurgent India must get its rightful place in the comity of nations and international institutions.”It plans to “reboot and reorient foreign policy goals, content and process …so that it leads to an economically stronger India, and its voice is heard in the international fora.” It concluded: “We will build a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations.”It does not help much to grasp a future ‘China policy’.

The speech of Narendra Modi, the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, while he visited Arunachal Pradesh in March, may give an indication. He said: “Expansionist mindset won’t be acceptable. China too will have to give up this mindset. Only the mindset of development will be in currency.” Modi also reiterated that Arunachal “is an integral part of our country and will always remain so, no power can snatch it from us”.

The border dispute will undoubtedly continue to remain on the top of the bilateral agenda. But it is an old, complicated issue, which requires give and take; in other words, it will not be solved immediately.

During the recent 6th round of strategic dialogue, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and her Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin went through the list of pending issues. It includes India’s $35 billion trade deficit with China, the opening of new consulates, the fate of Indian IT and pharmaceutical companies in China and the Chinese investments in India. If Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister, he would have the advantage to be a known face in Beijing; he has already visited China twice as Gujarat CM looking for investments for his state.

There is no doubt that China has more respect for clear-minded leaders. After US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel’s recent visit to China, he was given ‘a blunt public warning over America’s military presence in Asia.’ Analysts believe that it marks a shift in tactics: by adopting a ‘tell-everything’ tone, Beijing shows it is no longer allowing its adversaries to set the tone. Fan Changlong, CMC’s deputy chairman told Hagel that China was ‘dissatisfied’ with the US calls for Beijing to respect its neighbours, while Defence Minister Chang Wanquan warned the United States to ‘stay vigilant’ over Japan. It is something Indian diplomats and politicians will have to learn: to call a spade a spade. Frankness should not be confined to the rooms of Zhongnanhai or South Block; it should be shared with the press and the general public. The new dispensation should definitely take a cue from Hagel’s visit and Beijing’s new tactics; it may pay some dividends. Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary and a China watcher believes: “China is likely to show restraint in dealing with India, including on the border issue, provided India’s relations with other countries are diversified and stronger. It will, therefore, be important for Delhi to rebuild its relations with India’s neighbours, as well as the US. Will the new Indian Prime Minister have the strength to resist bullying from a Chinese president in full control of the Middle Kingdom? For this, he will definitely need a good team.”

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