China’s challenge is deeper
As India turns 70, the biggest threat to its idea as a plural, inclusive democracy not only comes from the forces within but also from the external world. Post the 2008 economic slowdown, democracy is not the most cherished value or system behind forming governments. Now there is deep admiration for systems that are authoritarian, paternalistic and tough, that are now synonymous with ‘getting results’. China, that would not have got much appreciation for its economic growth a few years ago is wooed and lauded for the changes that it is bringing to the world. No one seems bothered about their authoritarian structure, their refusal to adhere to democratic norms and arrogance in interpreting its own borders and interests. Due to these reasons, no one is really asking tough questions about how Chinese investments impacts economies and societies in Africa and other parts of the world.
The promise of economic growth that is enticing smaller societies towards China has the potential to undermine the influence of democracy and values needed to create a humane and liberal society. The challenge to a country like India comes from the growing acceptability amongst smaller nations for China’s model of development. Its neighbourhood comprising of countries like Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives—all members of the SAARC—are being offered significant handouts to diminish their engagement with India. This wooing has been elevated to the level of ‘policy’ after China unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing in May 2017. India opposed the BRI as one of its projects, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through a disputed part of Kashmir. Also, India’s two main issues with the project are that it’s undemocratically conceived and that it could compromise the sovereignty of participating countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping assured the member countries that they would be mindful of these allegations.
China wants India to withdraw its troops that are there on the invitation of the Bhutan government, but Beijing thinks differently.
However, there is enough happening in India’s neighbourhood to seriously contest China’s peaceful rise as a great power. Since the time it has come to riches in the last two decades, China is not just reinterpreting history, but also its borders. Though unresolved borders with India and other smaller nations are a legacy of the British Raj, the manner in which the Chinese have begun to assert themselves is making its neighbours very nervous. They are pursuing a two prong approach: promising large investments and using that to soften resistance to their attempts to enlarge their influence. Take for instance its growing influence in Nepal. In Kathmandu, China has used political instability and successive weak governments to push through deals that could change the balance in the region. Nepal’s economy and society, which has close ties with India is facing a serious threat from Chinese hegemonistic designs. After it forced the Nepalese government to sign the BRI, it is pushing projects that could lead to the economic enslavement of the Himalayan state. Commentators have been bringing to the fore the deleterious impact of large Chinese investments and give the example of how the Sri Lankans have lost the ownership of the Hambantota harbour after they got into a debt spiral. In Pakistan, lead writers are wondering what will happen if Pakistan sinks in debt after it fails to service $61 billion worth of loan. Will Pakistan lose its sovereignty and if yes how will it impact India and Afghanistan? Earlier China was a benign power, but now it’s muscular attitude is threatening to reorder the region like never before. It is this mindset that is revealing itself in the angry confrontation between the two Asian giants on the issue of Doklam plateau. China wants India to withdraw its troops that are there on the invitation of the Bhutan government, but Beijing thinks differently. It’s possible that this dispute may die down, but there will be many more issues that will challenge not just India’s system of government, but its world view.