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The new Kremlinology

China’s reputation for inscrutability serves it well in all its actions

Written by T P Sreenivasan |
May 9, 2013 1:01:21 am

China’s reputation for inscrutability serves it well in all its actions

The world has long recognised that China behaves in enigmatic ways and has accepted that we do not know enough to explain its actions. Such a reputation gives China the freedom to do what it wants,without having to explain itself. The onus is on others to fathom its true intentions. China merely carries on,asserting its rights as the Middle Kingdom,trampling on the rights of its own citizens and of other countries. The world awaits a handshake here,a smile or an aphorism there to figure out the real meaning of China’s words and deeds.

The Sinology industry has assumed the dimensions of Kremlinology of the past. The constant refrain from Sinologists is that there should be more Confucius centres,Chinese language institutes and China chairs to learn about China. The secret of Chinese actions,they say,lies in the unravelling of its history,language and philosophy.

Many years of Chinese studies have not made us any wiser,though. We have still not analysed fully the purport of the Chinese claim that it was merely teaching India a lesson in 1962. The phrase came up again recently when the Dalai Lama was about to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Does it mean India has not yet learnt the Chinese lesson? If so,we need to fathom the lesson before hoping to have normal relations with China. The lesson was administered when India was at the forefront of the struggle to secure for China its rightful place in the world. The lesson we should have learnt was that China’s pursuit of domination is not tempered by any atmosphere of friendliness we create.

Many more events in Sino-Indian relations remain unexplained,and we accept that the Chinese will never explain them. Our response is generally bewilderment first,self-accusation second and then finding a temporary solution that fits the Chinese agenda. Nothing is resolved finally,but we pursue our friendship moves in the expectation that an atmosphere of trust will prevent unfriendly moves. We make common cause with China at the UN,not on our priority of reform of the Security Council but on trade and environment,where China gains from our partnership. We open up our markets for their consumer goods,intrusive IT tools and boast of huge trade figures,all in favour of the Chinese. Our comfort zone is not disturbed till we come across another unfriendly act.

We do not know why China invaded Vietnam when the Indian external affairs minister was on Chinese soil. A.B. Vajpayee’s sudden departure made no impact on the Chinese and no explanation was offered. We do not know why China decided to take nearly 2,000 km off the length of its border with India or why the residents of Kashmir,including an army general,were discriminated against in matters of visa. We still wonder why there was much sabre-rattling when the Indian PM visited Arunachal or when the Indian envoy decided to attend the Nobel prize ceremony for a Chinese dissident. No explanation was offered for violating NSG guidelines to supply nuclear reactors to Pakistan. For our part,we anticipate Chinese sensitivities and do everything possible not to provoke.

We seem to have accepted the Chinese proclivity to see issues not in terms of months or years but centuries when it comes to the border. We do not rush them in the hope that the Chinese have their own ways of dealing with such important issues left behind by the colonialists. The fact that an unsettled border is a sure recipe for trouble does not seem to trouble us. The deafening Chinese silence on the Brahmaputra issue at the Durban summit did not seem to disturb us. Our patience is proverbial; our acceptance of the Chinese mystery is incredible.

When the Chinese army decided in April to move deep into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control and set up tents,we sought no explanation and the Chinese gave none. We went on to give them the benefit of the doubt as though we had unwittingly provoked them by building bunkers in our own territory. We characterised it as a localised incident,mere acne to be healed by an ointment. The media noise was drowned out by soft words of perfect understanding from the government. Finally,victory was declared when we withdrew from our own side in return for the Chinese withdrawing from our side. The easiest way was to attribute the whole episode to the inscrutability of the Chinese.

Some analysts even celebrated the episode as a welcome change in China’s approach. The “non-threatening,but provocative military action” was apparently a benign signal of new activism on the border issue,which should be resolved as soon as possible,as set out in the new “panchsheel” unveiled by the new Chinese president. We see the Chinese action as a response to our own activities to strengthen the defences on our side. We even concede that the action may well have been taken to prevent India from becoming a pivot to the US in the Asia-Pacific. China acts and we find explanations for their action.

The Chinese reputation for inscrutability,developed over centuries,is its greatest blessing. A bewildered world,including India,spends more time deciphering its motives and intentions rather than responding to them.

The writer,a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA,is executive vice-chairman,Kerala State Higher Education Council

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