Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jijnasa - 17th Nov - Ramananda Sengupta's Talk on China's rise

This is the text of the talk that Ramananda Sengupta delivered on 17th Nov at an interactive session organized by Jijnasa in Bangalore.

Update: Ramananda's talk and the following Q&A are both on Youtube in 2 parts [12].

Let me begin with  a confession.

I am not  a China expert. I am sure there are many among you who probably have forgotten more about China than I will ever learn.  

Having said that, as a individual and as a journalist, I have always been fascinated by this huge neighbor, this ancient civilization, with whom we share almost 3,500 km border.

I recall my father talking about Sikh deserters from the 1962 war who fled to Calcutta speaking in hushed fearful tones about hordes of giant 9 feet tall Chinese soldiers, immune to Indian gunfire, rushing down from the Tibetan slopes.  

I think all of us here know that this is the 50th anniversary of that war. It is also officially the Year of India-China Friendship and Cooperation. 

The world has changed dramatically in the last half century.

But I would argue that despite, or perhaps even due to, that war, we have not given China the attention it deserves. 

Of course, we do remember it, and in fact refight that war,  each year around this time, with reams of newspaper and television coverage: all asking the same question: Could it happen again? Have we learnt our lesson?  

But on a deeper level, we have not invested in understanding and developing the empathy and learning that is required to understand the Chinese way of thinking.

Let me cite an example: My first official trip to China was as part of the media delegation accompanying President K R Narayanan in April 2000. In that 9 day trip, apart from Beijing, we visited Dalian in the northeast, (whose mayor at the time was Bo Xilai,  who was recently was suspended from the party's Central Committee and its Politburo, pending investigation for “serious disciplinary violations.”) and Kumning in the Southwest. 

In Beijing, we had a brief interaction with members of some Chinese think tanks. One of them, (I think it was Dr Ma Jiali, but can’t recall) remarked that while China was keenly interested in India, India did not seem interested in China at all. To back it up, he noted that while there was just a solitary Indian journalist (from PTI) covering the entire People’s Republic of China, there were over 16 Chinese journalists in India, including those from a TV channel. “all of them spies, no doubt,” murmured a colleague next to me in Hindi. ‘Which only goes to prove my point,”  responded our Chinese host who happened to fluent in Sanskrit and Hindi. I found out later that all the dozen Chinese scholars in that group, including two women, had studied Sanskrit, knew Hindi, and some even Bengali and Tamil.

Today, 12 years later, we have four Indian journalists in China, while China has at least a dozen or more journalists in  spread across India.
In a fascinating talk in Delhi earlier this year,  former foreign secretary and eminent diplomat, ambassador Shyam Saran, said that part of this disconnect was due to the fact that China had a ‘visual’ culture.

 ‘The Chinese language has no alphabet. Each character is a word in itself and a decent vocabulary requires memorizing at least three thousand characters. A scholar may aspire to a vocabulary of five thousand,’ he said.
Some of these words have acquired nuances which are indecipherable to an outsider. According to Ambassador Saran, ‘Even to this day much of Chinese discourse is conducted through historical analogies, some of which are explicit and well known. Some are artfully coded and the language lends itself easily to innuendo and ambiguity.’

India, on the other hand, has a aural or ‘oral’ culture, where history is handed down orally first, and written down later.

‘This difference in civilizational trajectory has its impact on how our two cultures perceive the world around us and interact with one another,‘ he said. 

The other important point that he made was that ‘deception is an integral element of Chinese strategic culture…There is no moral or ethical dimension attached to deception and the Chinese would find it odd being accused of “betrayal”, in particular, if the strategy of deception had worked…’

Face is very important for the Chinese, at least the older generation. When I was running a series recalling 40 years since 1962 for, I was keen on getting a Chinese perspective. Among others, a  senior scholar from a Chinese thinktank agreed, but cancelled at the last minute because he had to prepare for a conference in Singapore. I wrote back saying that while I understood his compulsions, I would lose face, because I had promised my editor that I would have him write for us. Within half an hour, the professor’s secretary called to say I could expect the article later in the evening, because the professor had cancelled his flight to Singapore, because he did not want me to lose face because of him!  

As far as ‘interest’ goes, I had the fortune of spending a lot of time with the late Mr JN Dixit, former foreign secretary and National Security Adviser.  As the NSA, he led the Indian side at  the fourth round of high-level talks on the border issue with Dai Bingguo, the Chinese Executive Vice-Foreign Minister and Special Representative on the border issue.  At a informal meeting later, he told me: ‘ I say, these Chinese chaps have really done their homework..why can’t we?”

But that is easier said than done. How indeed does one deal with the classic Chinese game of maps? “I want Tawang. So let’s lay claim to the entire Arunachal Pradesh, and then negotiate backwards, all the while making it seem like I am one making the concessions. I want a few islands in the South China Sea, so let’s stake claim to the entire sea….”  Which is what Beijing has done with a map  called the 9dash9 map, comprising dashes staking claim to 9 segments of the sea.

Of course, another reason why we are struggling to understand China is the lack of information that comes out from it. Despite that great equalizer, the Internet, and the challenge posed by social media, China still remains a comparatively closed, insular society, and the world mostly hears what the Chinese government wants it to hear. And even then, you are expected to carefully read between the lines.

Speaking of lines, however, there is no ambiguity about the clear red lines China has drawn on what it describes as its core, non-negotiable issues: These include Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and perhaps tracts of the South China Sea. These are territorial and sovereign issues for which it officially willing to go to war.

The Chinese insecurity over these is clear from the repeated assurances Beijing seeks from every capital that it adheres to the One-China principle.
Beijing also has disputes over various island chains in the South China seas with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, and of course, Japan. Extension of maritime boundaries, fishing and mining and oil exploration rights further compound these disputes.

Anti-Japanese riots erupted across China in September after Japan purchased a group of islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from their private owner. Violent mobs attacked  Japanese-owned supermarkets, factories and car dealerships, while the local police and authorities watched. So far, Japan estimates losses of more than a $ 100 million dollars.

Things calmed down somewhat after the US categorically made clear that the islands were covered under the US Japan mutual cooperation and security treaty. However, Japan cancelled a joint military drill with the US that was to have taken place this week. Part of the drill would have simulated the recapture of a remote Japanese island from a foreign invader.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the US  provides Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character", and pledges  "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan."

Given that Taiwan is on China’s list of core,  non-negotiable issues, there is obviously much room for small misunderstandings escalating into a full fledged confrontation between the US and China.
America’s Asia Pivot, announced last year by secretary of state Hillary Clinton, had added to Chinese concerns. The State Department, while stressing that this was now a significant feature of American foreign policy, insists that it wants to work with, not against China. “We recognise that the Asia-Pacific region is big enough for both of us,” it says.   

In response, outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao stressed on the need for a more powerful Chinese Navy.

The US, however, faces a dilemma here. Use of force would buttress the Chinese suspicions abouts hostile American intentions aimed at containing China. But not using it when required would imply that it’s threats were empty, and might actually drive several nations in the region under a Chinese security umbrella.     

While Beijing will certainly not soften its position on the row with Tokyo, so far it appears to be cautious about directly challenging Washington on security issues.

US policy on China is to engage and challenge. They  believe that increasing engagement, where is China is drawn into existing international financial, social and military forums and processes, would make it less likely to attack such systems.  The challenges would be on issues like human rights and increasing access to China’s  markets. And of course, territorial issues.

Many Chinese, however, believe the existing international systems are the thin edge of the democratic wedge, and need to be revisited factoring in Chinese interests and systems. And it has already made it clear that its sovereignty and territorial claims are not negotiable.    

But is a rising China a threat?

A threat is usually defined as a combination of hostile intentions and credible capabilities.

But then the classic security dilemma kicks in: Even when a nation enhances its military capability in a defensive mode, it’s neighbours --and depending on the extent and nature of the capability, the rest of the world -- feel threatened, and take countermeasures.

In other words, regardless of intentions, capabilities are a threat.
No one doubts China’s increasing economic might, and bar some major crisis, it is expected to become the world’s largest economy over the next couple of decades. It is also a nuclear weapons state, and allocating huge budgets for its military. 

A candid discussion I had with a young Chinese scholar and journalist at an editor’s conference in Jakarta a couple of years ago, however, was informative.
After stating that China would consider a war only if its core interests were threatened, he went to argue that the United States was, and would continue to remain, the dominant military power for a long time.  He also said conventional warfare, where you captured,  secured and eventually administered “enemy territory” was becoming increasingly redundant.  After a brief discourse on asymmetrical warfare, he asked: Have you seen Die Hard 4?
This is a movie where a criminal group hacks into the american power and electronic systems,  cutting off power and disrupting everything from traffic signals to the stock market’s network.   

Last month (October 2012)  the US House of Representatives’s Intelligence Committee warned that equipment made by Huwaei and ZTE, two Chinese electronics giants, posed a risk because it could be used to eavesdrop on America’s telecoms networks.  China’s persistent attempts and advances in hacking activities pose a growing threat not just to information systems worldwide, but could disrupt or blind American intelligence and communications satellites, weapons targeting systems, and navigation computers, Bloomberg cited an anonymous US intelligence official as saying.
At a national seminar on Tech sovereignty in ICT in Delhi recently, Gen Dhruv Katoch, addnl director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies, noted with concern that 60-70 per cent of telecom software used in  India is manufactured by Huawei and ZTE.

Let’s now come back to India.

How does a rising China impact us? More importantly, how does it threaten us?

As rapidly growing economies, both India and China are competing for the same power and mineral resources, influence and goodwill. Not just in the region, but in Africa, in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia,  Latin America.
Bilaterally, we have agreed to put contentious issues like the border on the backburner, while building on areas of convergence, like trade and commerce, and re-invigorating cultural ties. From a few billion dollars in 2000, Bilateral trade between India and China reached a record $73.9 billion last year, with the imbalance widening to $27 billion in China’s favour. This is partly due to the restrictions following the mining scam in India, which impacted our iron ore exports. We mostly import Chinese machinery,  power and telecom equipment.

By 2015, bilateral trade will cross the $ 100 billion mark, making China one of, if not the,  largest trading partner. 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has met outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao about 20 times over the past few years, including about 13 meetings with Wen.

Mahindra and Mahindra, The Tatas, Infosys, Mahindra Satyam, NIIT have all set up shop in China. We are even likely to revive our joint military exercises, which were cancelled in 2010 after the Chinese denied a visa for a defence delegation visit to the northern area commander, Lt-Gen B S Jaswal, saying he was an administrator of ‘disputed areas.”   

Our strategic analysts point with increasing alarm to the Chinese missile bases in Tibet, the rapid infrastructure and even military exercises on the other side of our borders,  and China’s increasing arc of influence in the Indian Ocean region, with friendly ports in Myamnar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Seychelles, Maldives and stretching all the way to eastern Africa.  China of course insists that this is not aimed at India, but at buttressing its energy security, given that most if the oil it imports is shipped along this route.
Our analysts also point to powerful Chinese ties with Pakistan, which has actually leased parts of Gilgit Baltistan,in the Northern Areas of Kashmir, to China.   “China has already occupied a part of Gilgit Baltistan, a little part of Hunza is under its control and Aksai Chin is also occupied,’ Wajahat Hassan Khan, the chief of the Gilgit Baltistan National Alliance told ANI over phone recently.

On the flip side, the Chinese, while arming Pakistan with missiles and nuclear weapons, has studiously avoided getting directly involved in our wars with Pakistan. But that’s no guarantee that they won’t.   

India has water sharing treaties with all its neighbours –Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar..all except China.

Almost all the major rivers of the subcontinent come down from the Tibetan mountains. The Indus, the Mahakali, Kosi, the Brahmaputra, which is known as Tsangpo in China.  Ignoring protests from downstream nations and ecologists, Beijing is  aggressively building dams in Tibet, capable of regulating Brahmaputra river flows according to China's needs. A project in eastern Tibet near Mt. Namcha Barwa, where the Tsangpo turns south to enter India, is expected to be the world's biggest hydroelectric dam, with double the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. It will also be diverting water to China’s southwest.  Another smaller project near Lhasa too will be able to control the water flow into India.

China is also funding and helping build several dams and water projects on the Indus--like the Diamer Bhasa Dam in Gilgit Baltistan --and rapidly building telecom and other dual use infrastructure in those areas.
In response to Indian objections to such projects, a Chinese website said: 

“The Indian jealousy coupled with suspicion against China has lately become bigger. Firstly, India adopts precaution against the Chinese enterprises by all possible means. And then cooks up the story of an “intrusion” along the border. Whenever China gets in touch with other neighbouring countries, it invariably triggers a series of anxiety from India.”

China has never really gotten around to forgiving us for giving refuge to the Dalai Lama in 1959. The existence of the Tibetan government in exile, headquartered out of Dharamshala, is seen as an affront by many Chinese.
The recent spate of self-immolations by Tibetans across China has added to Chinese concerns. More than 20 such deaths have taken place since November 1, including at least one woman and a 14 year old boy. This has raised the Chinese sensitivity towards anything that smacks of what it describes as ‘splittist’ tendencies in Tibet.

But China’s strategic aims are not limited to the region alone.
Let me take you to nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, midway between North America and Europe. About 1,500 km from Lisbon and  2,000 km from Newfoundland, Canada, these islands form the Autonomous Region of the Azores, one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal.

At 8.30 am on June 27,  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s  Boeing 747 landed at Air Base number 4  on the island of Terceira to refuel. He was returning to Beijing after a fairly successful official trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. After being formally received by Alamo Meneses, the regional secretary of environment of the sea, Wen went on a walkabout, having coffee with the residents of the sleepy little town, talking about bull-fighting, the European economy, and of course China. He broke into a loud laugh when an old timer, asked about his impression of China, replied “very mysterious.”

”China’s reform and opening up 30 years, it is no longer a mystery,” said Wen, urging the gathering to visit his country.

A geologist who worked for 14 years with a provincial geological survey, Wen also  discussed the volcanic status of the islands, and ways to generate energy from the seabed.

But what was the premier of an aspiring superpower really doing in those remote islands?

Simple: Air Base number 4, also known as Lages Airbase, jointly operated by Portugal and the United States Air force.

This is an important refueling station for aircraft that can't clear the Atlantic Ocean in a single shot, and the played a critical role during the two gulf wars.
Here’s what Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, said in an article titled red flag over the atlantic: ‘Peace in the North Atlantic and advances in air-to-air refueling have decreased the importance of the strategic runway, which is now rarely used by the US. Pentagon budget cutters, according to some observers, are planning to make Lajes a “ghost base.”
This would obviously impact the local economy, which depends a lot on servicing the Americans on the base.  

‘If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure,’ writes Chang. ‘From the 10,865-foot runway on the northeast edge of the island, Chinese planes could patrol the northern and central portions of the Atlantic and thereby cut air and sea traffic between the U.S. and Europe. Beijing would also be able to deny access to the nearby Mediterranean Sea. And China could target the American homeland. Lajes is less than 2,300 miles from New York, shorter than the distance between Pearl Harbor and Los Angeles…’
Regardless of whether the Chinese eventually get a foothold in the Azores, the message going out to the Americans is clear…you mess in my backyard, we’ll mess in yours. 

Compare that with the weak-kneed power projections that India has displayed so far.

Here’s what Arundhati Ghose, one of India’s finest diplomats, and the lady who bluntly told the United States what it could do with the Comprehensive Test ban Treaty in 1996, once told me:

I don't think we have a sense that we are a more powerful country today, I don't see that. Because I don't think we yet understand power. I don't think we understand power at all. Economically, today we have more power, relatively, compared to what we had 10 or 20 years ago. But we do not understand it. We do not how to use it, we don't know how to project it, we are uncomfortable with it. We are more comfortable with the powerless. If you have power, you have to be able to use it, to leverage it. Be very clear about what it is you want. Whether you are dealing with Bangladesh or with Sri Lanka. How is it that Sri Lanka, which is so closely intertwined with us because of the Tamils, it's just across the straits, and we sit here and let the Norwegians handle it?

This was true six years ago, when she gave me this interview, and it’s probably true now.

Predictions about international affairs is a mug’s game, particularly in today’s rapidly changing situations. Over the past quarter century, we have predictions about the rise of Russia, the decline of the United States, the rise of China and the Rise of India.

But over the next decade, I suspect China will increasingly start asserting itself in the region, pushing the envelope against the US. We in India are likely to see more incursions across the line of control,  and increasing pressure over Arunachal and the Dalai Lama.

Here’s what we need to, not one after the other, but in parallel:
Invest intelligence, resources, and thought on understanding the Chinese culture, its way of thinking, the influences behind its strategic philosophy.
Clearly define and announce our own non-negotiable, core interests. Over which we are willing to go to war. 

Push for a water treaty with China.

Invest resources and forces to ramp up our ability along all our borders.
Avoid being promoted as a western ‘counterweight’ to China
Keep stressing on the Pakistani links to terror in Xinjiang, and the advantages of good economic relations with India.

Because in today’s world, speaking softly while carrying a big stick is not enough.

It is important to be able –and seen as being able -to weild that stick when needed. 

Speaker Profile:

Ramananda Sengupta started his career as a journalist 25 years ago with The Telegraph, Calcutta, where he became the newspaper’s first foreign editor. He then went on to head the international desks of Outlook Magazine, New Delhi, and, Mumbai (and its US publication, India Abroad), before moving to Chennai as chief editor of 

Four years later, he returned to Mumbai to join a startup,, as editor-in-chief, and then to Bangalore in January this year as editor-in-chief of yet another startup, He is now a consultant editor with Indian Defence Review - a premier strategic affairs magazine and writes for various think tanks like the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, among others. His abiding personal and professional interest, however, has always been India and its place in the region, and in the world.
About Jijnasa:

The literal meaning of the word Jijnasa in Sanskrit is Inquiry. Jijnasa is a platform under the aegis of CESS, which is an effort to promote the quest for knowledge.
It is hard to obtain the company of the noble.
It is easy to obtain the company of the ignoble.
Pebbles are available in plenty; but it is hard to obtain the precious diamond.

India is not just a nation state but a civilization state. A civilization that prides itself for the spirit of inquiry, and is not based on a contrived belief system or historicity. A civilization that is firmly rooted in Dharma. A civilization that has much to offer and inspire the world.

However, our ignorance about ourselves is profound. It is therefore Jijnasa’s desire to invoke the spirit of inquiry, which can set people on the journey of self discovery. Its aim is to provoke and equip people to see things beyond the limited mainstream discourse on issues of national importance and seek solutions to contemporary issues facing the country.

It is important to understand ourselves before we can understand the issues around us. Enlightened individuals make for an assertive society, which has the womb to carry traditions along with modernity. Jijnasa’s attempt is to make fellow travelers discover the heterogeneity of the Indian traditions yet the cohesiveness that has stood us in good stead for several thousand years. At the core of Jijnasa, is the desire to build an innate ability to see the world from an exalted position, which is so essential for a country aspiring to play center stage in world affairs. 


  1. Please include the link to the Youtube video of Ramananda Sengupta's speech on this page

    Jijnasa - Ramananda Sengupta - Rise of China and its Implications for India and Asia - 1/2

    Jijnasa - Ramananda Sengupta - Rise of China and its Implications for India and Asia - 2/2 - Q&A

  2. Thanks @racemaster for pointing out.
    We have provided links to Youtube in this post.
    Also, we have put up another post with Youtube embed watch of Part 1 and Part 2: