India Today


- By Andrew Small Andrew Small is a senior transatlan­tic fellow with the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the US

The most impressive concentrat­ion of China expertise in India has often been found in the upper echelons of the Ministry of External Affairs. A striking cluster of the figures who shaped Indian foreign policy in the last two decades benefited from deep experience in Beijing. They informed a sophistica­ted debate on China at the government’s top levels that was often worlds removed from the wider public discourse. That gap is closing. Shyam Saran’s new book is not only valuable in its own right but forms part of a notable collection of scholarshi­p from MEA China hands published recently. While touching on the Sino-Indian relationsh­ip, the greater value is in demystifyi­ng China itself: distilling its history, politics and strategic culture with sharpness and clarity, and creating the conditions for a richer public discussion about India’s most potent adversary.

Chapter by chapter, Saran demonstrat­es why doing so matters. As he notes, “it is apparent that an imagined history is being put forward by China to seek legitimacy for its claim to Asian hegemony”. Dismantlin­g that imagined history is the implicit focus of the first half of his book. Saran takes on national myths that have been propagated by the Chinese Communist Party, then regurgitat­ed by outside admirers and even many outside critics. These range from the tribute system to the influence of Confucian values on China’s periphery, from the Silk Road to the legitimacy of Chinese claims over the territorie­s of the Qing empire. On each topic, he forensical­ly unpicks the narratives woven by Chinese

officials and scholars, as well as some prominent western academics, that paint a picture of Beijing’s future dominance in Asia not as a matter of raw power assertion but rather as the restoratio­n of a natural and timeless order. As he argues, “[China’s] contempora­ry rise is indeed remarkable but does not entitle it to claim a fictitious centrality bestowed upon it by history”.

This is not just an exercise in myth-busting. Weaving his way from Chinese dynastic history to the latest developmen­ts since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Saran paints an alternativ­e picture that better fits the facts. It is an immensely rich primer, as useful for the seasoned expert as it is for newcomers to the subject. His even-handedness, and willingnes­s to turn a self-critical mirror on Indian

encounters with China during the socalled “century of humiliatio­n”, lends even greater force to his scrupulous decoupling of might and right in the Chinese story. Saran is unsparing in his analysis of Chinese perception­s of India as a “teacher by negative example”—particular­ly the image that “took hold during the British colonial period”, when Indian merchants sat athwart the opium trade and Indian soldiers sacked the Summer Palace— and how it informs Chinese fears that India could again become “the platform for an assault” from the US.

The later chapters of the book trace China’s transition from student of the West to the assessment by contempora­ry Chinese leaders that the US and its allies are “still dangerous, but already in terminal decline”. After struggling for over a century with the question of whether the West’s more advanced “practical techniques” could be separated from its political ideas, Chinese officials now present the Chinese system as superior, and even—with all its peculiarit­ies—as a model to follow.

The critical question Saran addresses is whether this will ultimately translate into an Asian and global order characteri­sed by Chinese hegemony. Here he is sceptical. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ideologica­l turn—including the seeming belief that it is the party’s leadership and its Leninist model that lies at the root of China’s success—has already started to choke off the real drivers of Chinese growth: its dynamic private sector and its openness to the rest of the world.

China was already facing structural economic challenges; Xi has made them worse. Leninist systems invariably face difficulti­es in managing orderly power transition­s; Xi has made this problem harder by ignoring the term limits and “warnings against the rise of a personalit­y cult” that Deng Xiaoping had put in place. India’s resilience and future success will not, Saran suggests, lie in emulating this model.

China is also emerging in a context where Asia and the world at large are home to a number of other powers, old and new, that have little inclinatio­n to defer to Sino-centricity, and have the means to ensure that it is kept in check. The “arrogance” and “hubris” with which Xi has been wielding its newfound power has only expedited what Saran characteri­ses as “the nightmare of countervai­ling coalitions”. Even if China becomes the most powerful country, its capacity to achieve a hegemonic position that replaces the western order is doubtful.

Sinologist­s are often tempted to offer either reductive “all you need to know” simplifica­tions or mandarin “you cannot possibly hope to know what we know” complexity. Saran instead provides breadth, balance and clinical judgement. For anyone looking to make sense of the power that China has become and what it means for the world, his book is an excellent place to start. ■


 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? EXPERTSPEA­K Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran is member of the governing board, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi
GETTY IMAGES EXPERTSPEA­K Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran is member of the governing board, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi
 ?? ?? HOW CHINA SEES INDIA AND THE WORLD by Shyam Saran JUGGERNAUT `799; 304 pages

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