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Nitin Pai: What if China becomes a democracy?

Will democratic China change its outlook, positions and policies with respect to India? Will it be any easier to deal with?

Nitin Pai  |  New Delhi 

It is extremely unlikely, but let’s say the fragrance of Jasmine flowers wafts across the Great Wall and perfumes China’s Han heartlands. A post-revolution China could take many forms, but let’s say that it turns into a democracy while retaining its existing international boundaries. Let’s set aside these two big “if's” for a moment and ask what such a scenario would mean for India.

There are three fundamental questions. Will democratic China change its outlook, positions and policies with respect to India? Will it be any easier to deal with? And therefore, is a democratic China in our interests?

China is a civilisation-state. Despite the tumult and upheaval of foreign domination, civil war and Communist attempts to erase the past, Chinese society retains its particular moorings. In his book on China’s relations with the external world, Harry Gelber notes that historically, the Middle Kingdom “saw itself as the centre of the civilised world, to which properly brought-up foreigners should pay tribute.” While ancient Indian and European political philosophers saw a world with many sovereign states vying for power, their Chinese counterparts recognised only one sovereign — their own — who ruled with a mandate from heaven. Outsiders were seen as “barbarians”, to be contained by Chinese hegemony. While the influence of these ideas on modern day policy must not be exaggerated, it is likely that democratic China, like the People’s Republic, will see itself as the successor to the glorious empires of history.

Democratic China is likely to maintain its territorial unity and reunite with Taiwan. While it might not be inclined to use the same strong-arm methods to keep restive Tibetans and Uyghurs under check, it is unlikely to permit secession. Nationalism and Han majoritarianism would constrain how much autonomy these regions can really have. It is unlikely to want to see a united Korea, under Seoul’s leadership, across its borders. Geopolitics being a tussle to maximise relative power, democratic China will want to narrow its power differential with the US, and increase it vis-a-vis India. In other words, democratic China’s geopolitical interests will not be too different from the People’s Republic’s.

Will India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have the same moral legitimacy if China were to become a democracy? How would New Delhi respond if the free parliament of China demands that India must end support for all anti-China activities on its soil for Beijing to even resume negotiations over the boundary dispute? Would a democratic government in Beijing even be able to make territorial concessions necessary to solve the boundary dispute? There is no certainty that India will have it any easier on any of the issues that have vexed bilateral relations over the last six decades.

There is also nothing to suggest that China will stop using Pakistan and other countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood as proxies and surrogates. Even the methods might not change. After all, if the US and France sell arms to the Pakistani army why can’t democratic China do the same? Let’s not forget that the US was very much a democracy when it abetted Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Will democracy make it be any easier to deal with the northern neighbour? Again, unlikely. Democracy in the eastern, western and southern neighbours has done little to transform their relations with India. Why should it be any different with China? One way to model government decision-making is to see it as the political resultant of the various forces at play. The more forces there are, the more complicated it gets. Just ask foreign diplomats who have to deal with India.

None of this implies that a democratic China is not in our interest.

From a foreign policy perspective, the main reason to prefer a democratic China is to be able to mutualise the democratic disadvantage.

It is harder for democracies to doggedly pursue the quest for power. As we know too well, there is often a disconnect between what is popular and what is necessary. Democracies are left with the complex, time-consuming task of reconciling this difference, often at the cost of losing opportunities to maximise national power. Authoritarian states, on the other hand, are less inhibited.

Democracies are also more transparent. To the extent that we are familiar with Democratic China’s domestic political landscape it will be an improvement over the current situation, where we know little about the way the cards are stacked. Transparency will also make China’s politics more manipulable, and thus neutralise an asymmetric advantage that it has over India today.

Preference is one thing, capability another. A democratic, coalition-run India does not have any serious means of promoting democracy across the Himalayas. It does, however, have the power of example. The Communist Party of China contends that prosperity can only be achieved by suspending freedom. We can prove it wrong. The Beijing Consensus can be challenged, in China and outside, by fully dismantling the Delhi straitjacket, and implementing second-generation economic reforms.

The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati — The Indian National Interest Review

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First Published: Mon, March 21 2011. 00:51 IST