Demolishing the myths of a Chinese threat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2009, 12:00am

Despite Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's befuddlement by what he calls 'a certain amount of assertiveness on the Chinese part', he and his aides have taken the unprecedented step of demolishing dominant notions about Sino-Indian relations, the nature of international competition and the security of the bulk of humanity. The comments also highlight a deeper malaise shaping thinking about Asia. It is that Asians are incapable of learning from the West's futile cold war, and that India and China are locked in competition because that is the history of Europe. These notions are hegemonic, because they are propagated endlessly by the media, and foreign policymakers and watchers.

The first act of demolition required Singh himself; the myth is highly tenacious as it arises in the West, the intellectual home of India's disconnected and Anglicised elite. More familiar with Europe than their own history and culture, they claim that the greatest threat to India is China. Singh categorically stated that the greatest threat to India lies within, from an armed insurgency raging in the heart of the country. Contrary to popular opinion, the glittering bastions of international commercial success that dot India's coastline are not threatened by a Chinese naval attack, but by disaffected Indians.

The point was driven home by an adviser, India's recently retired top diplomat, who attacked another ubiquitous myth: China's 'string of pearls'. A favourite proposition of analysts raised on the cold war is that China is building naval bases in the Indian Ocean to hem in India. The adviser definitively denied that China is building any naval bases.

India's real view of international competition is encapsulated in the proposal by another member of Singh's team, that of a security structure comprising India, China and others interested in maintaining the security of the sea lanes on which Asia's energy security rests. Another approach is to focus on areas of commonality, such as climate change. Far from viewing China as a threat, India's leadership believes that the way to provide opportunities to the disenfranchised and disenchanted millions is to build international trading links.

In speaking their minds, India's foreign-policy elite challenged a discourse that dominates academia and popular opinion. Singh's team spoke out of fear that these myths will become self-fulfilling prophecies. The unthinking application of European history and culture to Asia leads those unfamiliar with India's corridors of power to conclude that India views China as an irreconcilable enemy.

None of this is to deny that India and China are competitors, but it is grounded in reciprocity, not animosity. Not only are New Delhi and Beijing working to transform areas of competition into zones of co-operation, but the world has also changed. First, Asians know Europe's costly history of partition and have no interest in repeating it. Second, there is the conviction, at least in New Delhi, that a world of expanding opportunities means there is enough room for both Asian giants to manoeuvre.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian.