Can China Break India?
13 August 2009
There was a fascinating story in today’s Financial Times about a Chinese website called China International Strategy Net, privately administered by Kang Lingyi. The Financial Times characterizes the website as an unofficial organ of Chinese nationalism that the Chinese authorities allow in order to co-opt nationalist sentiment to shore up their legitimacy credentials.
The Chinese website carried an essay suggesting that China could facilitate the breakup of India into twenty or thirty statelets through sponsorship of separatist groups, and thereby remove a major Asian rival. This essay proved to be provocative, and was brought to the attention of Indian media by D. S. Rajan of the Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS).
The CCCS website carries a couple of items about the Chinese essay, one announcing the essay and another of clarification. A statement in English has been put up on the Chinese website, Statement on the Hype of Indian Media in an attempt to disambiguate some initial impressions of the essay being an official statement of the Chinese government.
Of course, India once did consist of a patchwork of principalities, and it was the British colonial regime and welded India together into a more-or-less single political entity. But the process of Indian unification was never exhaustive, and the British colonial regime struck deals with many small principalities (and some of them not so small, like Hyderabad) that worked under colonialism but could not be sustained after the partition and independence of India. The partition of India along confessional lines left problems that remain to this day, such as the open sore of Kashmir.
China and India are perceived, and perceive each other, as the two great and growing Asian powers. As both grow in economic strength and influence, both seek strategies for continued future growth, and both have begun the process of creating a contemporary military force that will protect current and future interests as well as allow for the projection of power.
China and India are also both ancient societies that, like the West, have seen a succession of civilizations come and go over time. These ancient histories are a source of both strength and weakness. A history provides a tradition that can be made the focus of nationalist sentiment. But a long history also includes ancient conflicts, rivalries, and disagreements. An adept adversary can play upon these ancient fractures in a society and make much mischief. If an adversary is willing to sponsor armed insurrection, it can cause more than mischief, and much suffering as well.
China and India have distinct histories, and therefore distinct fractures built into their societies, but if the contention of the Chinese essayist, identified ex post facto as one Xin Lang Bo Ke, is correct, the opposite is likely to be equally correct. If China could realistically hope to break India, India could realistically hope to break China.
China’s unity as a nation-state is, if anything, more unstable than that of India, and not only because India has a functioning democracy and China does not. China’s one party state has presided over significant corruption as China’s economy has rapidly grown. China has gone so far as to execute some of the more flagrant offenders, but that has not changed a social structure that makes bribes part of doing business.
India has many ethnic groups, and moreover caste divisions within its society, but China too has deep ethnic divisions. We know in the West about Tibet, of course, and recent news has made more people aware of the Uighers in Xinjiang. If ever there was an insurgency waiting to be funded by an outside party, it would be the Uighers. And the resentment is not all on one side. It is little known that many ethnic minority groups in China have special privileges not enjoyed by Han Chinese. For example, Uighers are not only exempt from the one child per family policy, but are also exempt from the death penalty.
When Mao consolidated his control over China he was not in a position to force the issue with Taiwan, and he needed to buy leverage with ethnic groups that might not have cooperated with Beijing had Mao taken a sterner line with them. So many ethnic groups received privileges, and the Han Chinese who move to ethnic regions, often opening successful businesses in a kind of internal colonization movement, live side-by-side with fellow citizen living under different laws. It is not unlike what jurists call the personal principle in law. Part of this inter-communal rivalry and resentment was what was behind the recent violence in Xinjiang.
If it came down to a conflict of destabilization between China and India, each could give as good as they got. The crucial question, then, would be whether the social fabric of China or India were ultimately stronger, that is to say, if the conflict were allowed to run until one or the other broke. But escalating conflicts of this magnitude in the two most populous nation-states on the planet would cause such obvious suffering that considerable international pressure would be brought to bear to put an end to such a spiral of violence. This pressure would probably be more significant than the sentiment of reasonably hoping for the other side to break within a politically sustainable period of time. Thus each side could likely injure the other, but there would be no winners, and there would likely be no catastrophic break up of either nation-state.
. . . . .