In 2007, James Mann, a former Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times penned a slim book titled “The China Fantasy” whose real punch lay in its subtitle: “Why capitalism will not bring democracy to China.”
At the time the book was dismissed as a “curious polemic” that went against the grain of the prevailing wisdom that over time, China would progressively liberalise and become a democracy, just as South Korea and Taiwan had. Successive administrations argued that the goal of American policy must be to “integrate China into the international community.” And a slew of specialists forecast the eventual democratic future of China.
Looking back at America’s China hallucination, you can speculate whether it was the Americans who deluded themselves or that they were cleverly played by the Chinese. As recently as 2012, Chinese leaders like its Premier Wen Jiabao spoke of the need for political reform and democracy. Often this was carefully tailored for global audiences such as, in one instance, a meeting of the World Economic Forum.
After 2017, that illusion is gone. As the Trump administration’s new national security strategy laments, “for decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post war international order would liberalise China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.” The US suddenly realises that not only is China a competitor, but it could well be a principal threat to the American homeland and its global primacy.
America’s global hegemony is the sum total of its domination in various regions of the world like Europe, Middle East, or East Asia. Today when the Americans look at East Asia, they see a hugely enriched and militarily powerful China increasingly challenging them.
This is where India comes in, as a principal balancer of China in a region now termed the “Indo-Pacific”. China looms large in the western Pacific, even though the US remains the most powerful nation from the military point of view. But Japan, tainted by its past, even now finds it difficult to assume a larger role in the security of the region. Vietnam and Australia lack heft and are economically dependent on China.
By stretching the region to incorporate India and the Indian Ocean, China looks smaller. India’s economy may be a fifth of China’s and its military much weaker, but its size, location and potential make it a peer competitor of China. By mid-century, India’s economy could exceed that of the US and be second only to China. And you can be sure, this will be accompanied by the rise of Indian military capacity as well.
Because of its border dispute and the China-Pakistan relationship, New Delhi has never had any illusions about China. It has actively engaged Beijing, and made no bones that it sees it as an adversary. In recent years, as China surged economically and militarily, things have become a bit difficult. Beijing is now expanding its reach in South Asia. It has recently taken a 99-year lease of Hambantota Port that it had earlier built; this month, a coalition of pro-China Communist parties have swept the elections in Nepal and the Maldives has ratified an FTA with China. Chinese naval vessels, rare in the Indian Ocean a decade ago, are now deployed routinely. And last week, the visiting Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi blandly told India that China disapproves of the concept of spheres of influence.
Under its new strategy, the US promises that it “will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region.” It also says it will support India in its “leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.” India needs the US, as much as the Americans need us.
The arrival of Xi Jinping as the most powerful political figure since Deng Xiaoping has changed things. Far from liberalizing, Xi is doubling down on the hold of the Communist Party on the country. Xi’s speech and in the recent 19th Party Congress was a profound rejection of western values, particularly liberal democracy. His idea of reform is the need to build an efficient authoritarian state which he offered as a model for other countries.
If the Pakistan experience is anything to go by, we must accept that it is uncommonly difficult for the US to get rid of its international fantasies. Even so, in word and deed till now, the Trump administration is sold on the Indian partnership. There is an opportunity here which can serve us well, if we relentlessly pursue the national interest and not get distracted by illusions, of which we have our own share.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal