Is A China-Centric World Inevitable? – Analysis


Nations must determine when to confront Chinese aggression; for India, Bhutan is a priority.

By Shyam Saran*

India is in a prolonged standoff with Chinese forces on the Doklam plateau. China may have been caught off guard after Indian armed forces confronted a Chinese road-building team in the Bhutanese territory.

Peaceful resolution requires awareness of the context for the unfolding events. China has engaged in incremental nibbling advances in this area with Bhutanese protests followed by solemn commitments not to disturb the status quo. The intrusions continued. This time, the Chinese signaled intention to establish a permanent presence, expecting the Bhutanese to acquiesce while underestimating India’s response.

Doklam region involved in the Bhutan-India-China conflict. Source: Indian Defense Review.
Doklam region involved in the Bhutan-India-China conflict. Source: Indian Defense Review.

Managing the China challenge requires understanding the history of Chinese civilization and the world view of its people formed over 5,000 years of tumultuous history. Caution is required before mechanistically applying historical patterns to the present as these are overlaid with concepts borrowed from other traditions and behavior patterns arising from deep transformations within China and the world at large.

The ideas of US naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan and British geographer Halford Mackinder are just as discernible in Chinese strategic thinking today as concepts derived from the writings of ancient strategist Sun Zi. The One Belt One Road project initiated by China is Mackinder and Mahan in equal measure: The Belt, designed to secure Eurasia, dominance over which would grant global hegemony, was suggested by Mackinder in 1904; the Road which straddles the oceans, enabling maritime ascendancy, is indispensable in pursuing hegemony, according to Mahan in the late 19th century. China’s pursuit of predominance at the top of regional and global order, with the guarantee of order, has an unmistakable American flavor. It also echoes Confucius, the Chinese sage who argued that harmony and hierarchy are intertwined: All is well as long as each person knows his place in a predesignated order.

China uses templates of the past, as instruments of legitimization, to construct a modern narrative of power.

One key element of the narrative is that China’s role as Asia’s dominant power to which other countries must defer restores a position the nation occupied throughout most of history. The period stretching from the mid-18th century to China’s liberation in 1949, when the county was reduced to semi-colonial status, subjected to invasions by imperialist powers and Japan, is characterized as an aberration. The tributary system is presented as artful statecraft evolved by China to manage interstate relationships in an asymmetrical world. Rarely acknowledged is that China was a frequent tributary to keep marauding tribes at bay. The Tang emperor paid tribute to the Tibetans as well as to the fierce Xiongnu tribes to keep peace.

History shows a few periods when its periphery was occupied by relatively weaker states. China itself was occupied and ruled by non-Han invaders, including the Mongols from the 12th to 15th centuries and the Manchus from the 15th to 20th centuries. Far from considering these empires as oppressive, modern Chinese political discourse seeks to project itself as a successor state entitled to territorial acquisitions of those empires, including vast non-Han areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet. As China scholar Mark Elliot notes, there is “a bright line drawn from empire to republic.”

Thus, an imagined history is put forward to legitimize China’s claim to Asian hegemony, and remarkably, much of this contrived history is increasingly considered as self-evident in western and even Indian discourse. Little in history supports the proposition that China was the center of the Asian universe commanding deference among less civilized states around its periphery. China’s contemporary rise is remarkable, but does not entitle the nation to claim a fictitious centrality bestowed upon it by history.

The One Belt One Road initiative also seeks to promote the notion that China through most of its history was the hub for trade and transportation routes radiating across Central Asia to Europe and across the seas to Southeast Asia, maritime Europe and even the eastern coast of Africa. China was among many countries that participated in a network of caravan and shipping routes crisscrossing the ancient landscape before the advent of European imperialism.  Other great trading nations include the ancient Greeks and Persians and later the Arabs. Much of the Silk Road trade was in the hands of the Sogdians who inhabited the oasis towns leading from India in the east and Persia in the west into western China.

Thus, recasting a complex history to reflect a Chinese centrality that never existed is part of China’s current narrative of power.

China, as a great trading nation, owes its current prosperity to being part of an interconnected global market with extended value chains. This has little to do with its economic history as a mostly self-contained and insular economy. External trade contributed little to its prosperity.

Yet large sections of Asian and Western opinion already concede to China the role of a predominant power, assuming that it may be best to acquiesce to inevitability. The Chinese are delighted to be benchmarked to the United States with the corollary, as argued by Harvard University’s Graham Allison, that the latter must accommodate China to avoid inevitable conflict between established and rising power. However in other metrics of power, with the exception of GDP, China lags behind the United States, which still leads in military capabilities and scientific and technological advancements.

In reality, neither Asia nor the world is China-centric. China may continue to expand its capabilities and may even become the most powerful country in the world. But the emerging world is likely to be home to a cluster of major powers, old and new. The Chinese economy is slowing, similar to other major economies. It has an aging population, an ecologically ravaged landscape and mounting debt that is 250 percent of GDP. China also remains a brittle and opaque polity. Its historical insularity is at odds with the cosmopolitanism that an interconnected world demands of any aspiring global power.

Any emerging and potentially threatening power will confront resistance. When Bismarck created a powerful German state at the heart of Europe in the late 19th century, he recognized the anxieties among European states and anticipated attempts to constrain the expanding influence. China, like other nations before, cultivates an aura of overwhelming power and invincibility to prevent resistance. Despite this, coalitions are forming in the region with significant increases in military expenditures and security capabilities by Asia-Pacific countries.

Doklam should be seen from this perspective. The enhanced Chinese activity is directed towards weakening India’s close and privileged relationship with Bhutan, opening the door to China’s entry and settlement of the Sino-Bhutan border, advancing Chinese security interests vis-à-vis India.

India must carefully select a few key issues where it must confront China, avoiding annoyances not vital to national security. Doklam is a significant security challenge.

India must form its own narrative for shaping the emerging world order. The world’s largest democracy must resist attempts by any power to establish dominance over Asia and the world. This may require closer, more structured coalitions with other powers that share India’s preference. In fact, current and emerging distribution of power in Asia and across the globe support a multipolar architecture reflecting diffusion and diversity of power relations in an interconnected world.

India possesses the civilizational attributes for contributing to a new international order attuned to contemporary realities. Its culture is innately cosmopolitan. India embraces vast diversity and inherent plurality, yet has a sense of being part of a common humanity. India should leverage these assets in shaping a new world order that is humanity-centric. Narrow and mindless eruptions of nationalism, communalism and sectarianism detract from India’s credibility in this role. India should advance its interests, with constant awareness of responsibilities in a larger interdependent world.

*Shyam Saran has served as India’s foreign secretary and as chairman of its National Security Advisory Board. He writes and speaks regularly on foreign policy and security issues. This article is adapted from the inaugural lecture delivered by the author at the Institute of Chinese Studies and the India International Centre, New Delhi.

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

2 thoughts on “Is A China-Centric World Inevitable? – Analysis

  • July 26, 2017 at 6:37 am

    The author should review the last paragraph. In the last two years Hindu fundamentalists have started actively attacking India’s secular identity. Minorities are lynched and the weak co opted into adopting a singular Hindutva ordained belief system or else. I think the author is living in lala land if he thinks these ‘eruptions’ will simply go away. Minorities in the Hindutva worldview serve the core Hindu ideology and nothing more. Either India will succeed in domesticating its minorities or it will open the door for more serious issues down the road.

  • August 4, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    I did graduate studies in Chinese and East Asia history. It’s pretty obvious that Mr. Saran is not an expert with ancient East Asian history. Overall, it’s complicated to make modern comparison to ancient foreign relationships because the world view was very different prior to the modern Westphalian system. For one, there was actually no country or empire officially named “China”. What we called “China” today was largely a geopolitical concept meaning the central state of its known world (sort of like how we use the term “superpower”). The official names of the empires were the dynastic names. Ex: the Great Qing empire, the Great Ming, Great Yuan, etc. These dynastic empires on the East Asia continent often occupied the “China” or central geopolitical position because of its size, sophistication, resources and power projection. Some of these dynasties were ruled by the ethnic Hans while in some cases the nomadic tribes like the Mongols, Manchus, Qidan, Jurchen established dynasties. Some like the Tang was actually with mixed ethic Han and nomadic Xianbei origins. But regardless, they all saw themselves as the legitimate holder of the so called “mandate of heaven” and the rightful succession dynasty to occupy the “China” or central geopolitical positions. The ability and willingness of these dynasties to project power fluctuated within each dynasty and the ambition of the imperial court. Every dynasty went through peak and trough in relative powers. During periods of strength, the nomadic frontiers were subjugated into the empire as direct protectorates. While during times of weakness, the imperial count was not able to control the nomadic frontiers and had to appease the nomadic powers usually with political marriage. In some cases, the nomadic powers were even able to take over the empire by establishing dynasties. This was a constant pattern and really more of an intrastate relationship. Whereas relationships with states (such as Korea, Vietnam, Ryukyu, at varying times Japan, kingdoms in Central, Southeast and parts of South Asia) that were not directly under the imperial count were vassals and tributaries relations (there were differences with these categories as well and generally benefited both parties). Basically “China” was not based on ethnicity or modern notion of nationality; it was purely a geopolitical concept. That is why all the dynastic empires regardless those led by the Hans, Mongols, Manchus, etc all referred to their dynasty as “China”. In fact, the Japanese and Vietnamese wanted to use the term “China” to refer to their own state during the decline of the late Qing period. This is a basic description of how the geopolitical system worked in much of East Asia prior to the 19th century which is very different with how the modern world works. By the way, the Xiongnu tribes were with the earlier Han dynasty and not the Tang.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *