In this file photo taken on October 1, 2019, Chinese troops march during a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Representational photo:AFP)
In a world preoccupied by the still-surging Covid-19 pandemic, and particularly its Omicron "variant of concern", as well as the strategic moves by the Sino-Soviet alliance of convenience, an interesting piece by Jia Qingguo has appeared in the Journal of International Studies of the University of International Relations, Beijing. He is a foreign policy adviser to the Chinese establishment.
Jia makes the point that the concept of "absolute national security" can be self-defeating. He explains that to "ignore the comparative nature of security and blindly pursue it absolutely" would ultimately make any nation less secure. The 22-page article analyses comprehensively the Chinese national security strategy. Indirectly, it casts a shadow on the aggressive posturing by China under President Xi Jinping.
Jia illustrates his thesis by examples from history. The Soviet Union, he argues, erred by placing excessive emphasis on defence spending.
Although the Soviet economy was half the size of the then American economy, diverting an inordinately large chunk of national resources to defence took a toll on economic growth and development. This led to public disenchantment which, given an opportunity, spilled into the public domain.
Then Jia reasons that absolute security may be attainable if a nation cuts off all economic links with the world, making it immune from external sanctions or pressure. In a globalised world that is impossible if a nation has to grow and not be left behind in the race for trade and technology. Companies grow and improve only when exposed to international competition. Jia is, advertently or otherwise, bringing out the paradox in President Xi’s theories of "common prosperity" and "dual circulation". The latter involves growing exports, meaning international circulation, and expanding domestic demand, implying internal circulation. How do you keep the two properly aligned when aggressive nationalism colours the approach to almost the entire maritime and continental neighbourhood? Jia perhaps could not frame the issue in this manner but that is how it will be seen. But the irony manifests when President Xi argues at Davos 2022 for globalisation and freedom to grow and foster technologies.
This cautionary piece comes as China approaches in the coming autumn the twice-a-decade Party Congress. In addition, the Omicron variant has already spread to the political capital, Beijing, and the financial centre, Shanghai. With the blighted Winter Olympics just weeks away now, diplomatically boycotted by the United States and some of its allies, bubbles are being devised for the athletes. For outdoor events that presents a great challenge as the venues are widely spread. China also had the slowest growth rate of four per cent in the last quarter, in the post-Covid period.
Jia is hinting at exactly these new challenges, which now present China with headwinds for trade and a clampdown on technology transfers. In other words, overly national security-driven foreign and defence policies are beginning to be counterproductive.
China has also complicated matters by going after domestic Big Tech, shackling its adaptive private sector. It remains to be seen if China can also sustain its Zero-Covid policy, using extremely stringent quarantine methods to check the virus.
A similar question can be asked about the Narendra Modi government’s foreign and defence policies. Jingoism colours the approach to western neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan, while playing backfoot defence against the People’s Republic of China.
Taking the cue from Jia, one needs to ask whether viewing the region through the prism of "absolute national security" is any longer useful?
Jammu and Kashmir, we learn, will have statehood restored and Assembly polls will be held only after the delimitation is done.
Combined with greater communal polarisation, as the BJP finds itself electorally challenged in Uttar Pradesh, the solutions may not lie in strong-arm tactics. Blind pursuit of politics and diplomacy through an absolutist national security mindset will, as Chinese analyst Jia has warned, only make the nation and the region less secure.
Pakistan presented its first-ever National Security Policy (NSP), running into 110 pages, on January 14. The instinctive Indian official reaction was to reject it as posturing. This is precisely what is meant by the "absolute security" bias. One can concede that Pakistan has reiterated its stand on outstanding issues like Jammu and Kashmir. Their narrative about Pakistani soil not being allowed to be used by terrorists also lacks any conviction as groups targeting India have always enjoyed sanctuary or even support across the border. But India also needs to constantly reassess its policy options. A proper cost-benefit analysis is necessary to see whether Pakistan can still be weaned away from its dependence on terrorism as an anti-India weapon.
Assembly elections are weeks away in Punjab, which has slipped from being the number one state, on a per capita basis, in 1980 to number 16. Punjabi youth see no future and are leaving in droves to settle abroad. Industrial and agricultural rejuvenation would be so much easier if the India-Pakistan border is opened to investment and trade.
There are old proposals like TAPI or the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Now Pakistan is examining a Russian proposal to bring gas from Kazakhstan to Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor itself will benefit if India became a player. At the very least, India’s role can well reduce the Chinese stranglehold on Pakistan.
Pakistan’s euphoria over the Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan is fast dissipating. The Taliban have not been very accommodative in controlling Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. After a one-month ceasefire, the outfit is back to attacking Pakistan’s security agencies. The Pakistani optimism about the China-sponsored CPEC has also ebbed.
None of this may be possible. But keeping India’s policy options frozen in a doctrine of national security based on paranoia and permanent animosity defies logic. But the starting point has to be to accept that the Hindutva philosophy cannot be the sole determinant of any government’s electoral strategy or national security. The coming state elections are important from this perspective. The BJP’s leaders will give their Hindutva agenda one last heave in Uttar Pradesh, a state that has become its primary cradle. If they retain power there, they are unlikely to review their electoral strategy and core beliefs. If they do not secure a mandate, however, it is logical to assume that they would have to rethink the utility of an excessively Hindutva-laced agenda.
Two old civilisations, India and China, are now facing the choices that all rising powers face. How to calibrate the rise domestically and abroad: to retain power at home and enlarge their zone of influence abroad.