As the Chinese Communist Party begins its centenary celebrations this week, it is a good moment for India to reflect on China’s great progress and its implications for India. The CCP is justifiably proud of its role in making China the world’s second-largest economy, a military power with widening reach, and a technological powerhouse.
India had much in common with China when they set out to re-engage the world a hundred years ago. Scepticism is certainly in order when contrasting the political, economic and strategic evolution of these two Asian giants. After all, the two societies faced different sets of internal and external circumstances that had a great impact on their evolution.
Yet, the fact is that the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, is older than the CCP by a clear 36 years and the Chinese Nationalist Party, Guomindang, by two decades. The Communist Party of India was formed in 1920, around the same time as the CCP.
It is perhaps legitimate to ask why the Indian political classes have underperformed in realising India’s full potential. But this column is not the place to judge their achievements and failures. As a column devoted to international affairs, it is better placed to look at the paradox of the appealing but impossible Indian effort to construct a united front with China over the last century.
As the 20th century dawned, both China and India were gripped by powerful ideas of nationalism and internationalism in the period between the two world wars. Let us look at the four broad phases in the evolution of China’s internationalism and the Indian difficulties of coping with it.
In the first phase, before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the experiences of Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru underlined the difficulty of harmonising the views of China and India.
Tagore travelled to China in 1924 to lecture at Peking University. But his message was on building a “spiritual Asia” that is very different from the “material West”. That did not resonate well with the worldview of the young communists who demanded rapid modernisation and had little time for the spiritual civilisation that they saw as a return to the pre-modern era.
Nehru met the Chinese nationalist delegation at the 1927 meeting of the anti-imperialist league in Brussels backed by the Communist International (Comintern). The two sides issued a joint declaration underlining their shared interest in defeating imperialism and jointly building post-colonial order in Asia and the world.
Yet, when the most decisive moment in the 20th century, the Second World War, confronted them in 1939, the two national movements could not find common ground. For the Guomindang and the CCP, fighting Japanese occupation was the priority and for the Congress, it was about ousting British colonialism from India.
This pattern has been recurrent. In the second phase of China’s international evolution that began in 1949, Delhi went out of the way to befriend China and oppose US efforts to isolate Beijing. But the bilateral disputes over territory and Tibet drove them to war. On the geopolitical front, communist China fell out with its ideological soulmate communist Russia and moved closer to the US. To restore regional balance, Delhi turned to Moscow. India and China were on the opposing sides again.
In the third phase of China’s international evolution, Deng Xiaoping ended Mao’s political excesses at home and focused on rebuilding the Chinese economy. Instead of pursuing revolutionary goals abroad, he sought a peaceful periphery to facilitate domestic development. This had helped in establishing peace on the Sino-Indian border, normalising political relations, and expanding economic cooperation.
But the situation began to change in the late 2000s, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. China read it as the beginning of Western decline. As its growing economic power steadily translated into military power and diplomatic clout, China’s international attitudes began to change.
If Deng Xiaoping had called on China to hide its capabilities and bide its time, Xi Jinping has heralded the fourth phase in Chinese international policies, marked by assertiveness on territorial disputes with neighbours, a determination to rewrite the regional order, and a vigorous claim to run world affairs. In the CCP’s narrative, Mao Zedong led the Chinese people to stand up after a century of humiliation; Deng Xiaoping made them rich; Xi Jinping is now destined to turn China into the world’s strongest nation under his watch.
If Deng and his immediate successors sought economic integration with the West, Xi believes China is ready to offer an alternative to the US-led global order. He is betting that the CCP’s party-state can deliver a superior form of capitalism, better ways of domestic political governance and a new model of international relations centred around Chinese power.
India, which joined hands with China in the 1990s (despite the debacle of the 1950s), to promote a “multipolar” world, now finds itself squeezed by Chinese power on multiple fronts — from the Great Himalayas to the Indian Ocean and from regional to international institutions.
The continuing military contestation in eastern Ladakh that began last year reflects the more difficult phase in the complex interaction between the forces of nationalism and internationalism in China and India. This phase is likely to endure and test India’s national strategy, given the widening gap in the two nations’ comprehensive national power. China’s GDP is five times larger than that of India and Beijing spends three times more than Delhi on defence.
China did not let its internationalism come in the way of its national ambition. Mao broke from the Russian-led Comintern to carve out a path of his own for the Chinese revolution. He leaned to one side (Russia) in the 1950s to deal with the threats to the new state from the US; he leaned on the other (America) to deal with the threats from Russia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Deng broke from the communist ideology to accelerate Chinese economic transformation in partnership with the US and the West. Even as Deng talked about fighting both American imperialism and Soviet social imperialism, China’s policy in practice was one of collaborating with the US and containing the Soviet Union.
It is a pity that the Indian communists took CCP’s ideological gymnastics too seriously and repeatedly divided one of the world’s largest progressive movements. More consequential for national policy was the Indian establishment’s reluctance to contest Chinese slogans, such as the Panchsheel, even when it saw through them.
India’s persistent romantic internationalism on constructing a common front with China has now taken a big beating. At the same time, CCP might be the best guide for Delhi on finding the right balance between internationalism and nationalism.
For any nation, large or small, internationalism can’t be an end in itself; it is a critical instrument in strengthening national unity, security and prosperity. There is much that India can learn from China on building flexible global coalitions, adapting quickly to changing internal needs and external circumstances, and devising slogans to suit policy rather than let policy become a prisoner of slogans.
The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express