RODERICK MACFARQUHAR, Leroy Williams Research Professor of History and Political Science, Harvard University, is a leading international authority on China’s elite politics. He was born in pre-Partition Punjab and has maintained a life-long fascination for India. These two sides of his intellectual personality — appreciation of India and scholarly depth on China — put him in a unique position to interpret the conflicting signals Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India produced. He spoke at length to Ashutosh Varshney, director, India Initiative, Brown University, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’, in his office at Harvard. Excerpts:
Before we get to President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, could you tell our readers about Xi’s background? And what have been the main features of his leadership?
Xi Jinping is the son of a senior revolutionary leader, a so-called “princeling”. His great rival was Bo Xilai, whose father was senior to Xi’s father. Bo was eliminated partly because of his own corruption and partly because Bo’s wife murdered an Englishman. As Xi rose to power, he became well known for his obsession with Mikhail Gorbachev — for the idea that a Communist party should not allow political liberalisation to come in the way of state consolidation. Xi has also aroused a lot of nationalism in China by promoting naval activities in the East and South China Seas.
Just before Xi arrived in India, China’s consul general in Mumbai announced that deals worth $100 billion were likely to be signed. In the end, the MoUs covered investments not worth more than $20-$25 billion. What might explain this huge gap?
The consul general is unlikely to cite a figure not even close to the ballpark. I suspect something went wrong during the visit. Most probably, Narendra Modi was tougher on the border question than Xi expected.
What India viewed as border incursions by the Chinese army in Ladakh coincided with Xi’s visit. Indian observers are still trying to sort out how to interpret the show of warmth in Ahmedabad and Delhi, but a display of force on the Ladakh border.
If Chinese soldiers in Ladakh were operating on their own, then that is big news. That would mean that there were people in the Chinese military who were prepared to make, in effect, a foreign policy statement. I don’t believe that to be the case. I suspect that Xi knew what was happening. He is, of course, the chairman of the Military Affairs Commission. He has emphasised Party leadership of the military time and again. Making excessive concessions to India would not be in keeping with the profile Xi has established with the Chinese public, which is as a strong nationalist leader. If my reading is right, Xi was basically telling Modi that you might be a tough political leader, but I am telling you that we have got the advantage of terrain on the border and we can exploit it. Indeed, Xi would be very angry and feel threatened, if it were true that the soldiers acted on their own.
If true, it might have serious implications for internal Chinese politics. That is what you are proposing.
What, going forward, are the prospects of the border dispute getting resolved?
As I understand it, the Chinese are now indicating that it is not just the old swap that Zhou Enlai had proposed: that India can have the McMahon Line in the Northeast if it cedes Aksai Chin in Ladakh to China. Now, they have raised the Tawang issue. The Chinese are basically showing their muscle like they are doing in the East and South China Seas. The kinds of conditions that the Chinese are going to put forward for a border settlement are unlikely to be acceptable to Modi.
In what ways is the border dispute today affected by the presence of Tibetan exiles and the Dalai Lama in India?
They are a constant irritant for the Chinese, but the Chinese elites must be aware that the Indian government has not given them anything except refuge. The Dalai Lama has on the whole behaved very quietly. The Tibetan government-in-exile is not aching for a guerilla war for freedom. If radicalism does appear after the Dalai Lama’s death, it is more likely to come from within Tibet, not from the Tibetan community in India.
With the latest Modi visit to Japan, which was a great success, the Indo-Japanese relationship appears to have gone through a qualitative shift. What are the consequences for an emerging India-Japan-China triangle, if any?
The Japanese had put a lot of investment in China. They feel that investment is at risk. Japanese firms and citizens in China have been subject to attack. A point of view is perhaps emerging that China is not a good repository of investment, and it is time to put more investment in India. More importantly, the Japanese have always had a lot of respect for India. They have put far greater emphasis on their Buddhist heritage than China does. Once India and Japan take their political relationship forward, this will form a very strong historical bond. The Japanese are clearly looking around for a major ally in Asia. They have got the United States as a back-up. In Asia, they see India as an emerging giant with all sorts of possibilities, economic and strategic, especially as their relationship with China sours.
Would it be fair to say that Japan is China’s master adversary and China is likely to view India through that prism, if India and Japan come closer?
It is certainly true that the Chinese can’t forget that a tiny Japanese island occupied enormous proportions of Chinese mainland for a number of years and inflicted big military defeats during World War II. Japan was historically viewed as a student of China. From China, the Japanese borrowed their writing system, their political ideas, their philosophical ideas, etc. And then suddenly, in 1894-95, the Japanese militarily defeated China and took Taiwan. Yes, the Japanese could be seen as China’s master opponent.
But we should also note that the Chinese have viewed India, especially since the 1962 defeat, with condescension. India’s progress in information technology did change that view a little, but basically the 1962 war indicated for China that India would crumble if the Chinese pushed.
If you were asked to advise New Delhi about how to approach China, what would you say?
I would say that the Chinese would try to do business with India, through trade and investment, but they would view India as a country with a political system antithetical to their own, a natural ally of America or Japan or both, and, therefore, a country to be looked at with some wariness, a country for which the Chinese should crack the whip on the border when necessary. The Chinese will not make big concessions to win India’s friendship.