On Democratic Space and Aggressive Foreign Policy

Indian analysts and officials frequently differentiate their country from China on the basis of the political systems of the two countries. It is seen as positive that India is a democracy despite the poverty, superstitions and lack of education of a large number of its people. China however is looked down upon despite its many achievements in living standards and social indicators because it is an authoritarian state.

Nevertheless, it is also common to find among sections of Indian elites an admiration for China’s ‘tough’ ways; for the ‘discipline’ of its people. It is often proposed that India, too, needs a tough leader with authority to ensure that corruption and other ills are eliminated and the country reaches the front rank of nations, which it deserves. A question left unaddressed is whether the objective of becoming a world power is an end in itself or designed to help India to the means to improve its domestic conditions. One would conclude from messages on WhatsApp or Facebook in India that for them it is the country’s status internationally and their interests domestically that are paramount.

Indeed, this is how Chinese elites monopolised the fruits of China’s reforms, calling for social and political sacrifices in the interest of the country’s rise when in effect it led to widening economic inequality between people, between regions and between city and countryside. The Communist Party of China accepts rich entrepreneurs as members – the ‘red capitalists’ – while the intellectual class provides the supporting narrative for the Party’s economic policies and continued monopoly on power.

With Xi Jinping’s arrival as CPC General Secretary, the Party has attempted to solidify itself at the centre of life in China through a mix of propaganda and political uses of technology for surveillance and punishment. Xi has assumed enormous personal authority and this is justified as being necessary to pull China out of many problems including an economic slowdown, corruption and poverty.

As the space for domestic openness shrinks, so also does the tendency increase for a more aggressive foreign stance that is evident in Chinese foreign policy under Xi. This focuses on real and imagined past victimhood to make territorial and other claims on the global community and its institutions. When China’s dreams of becoming a global superpower face opposition, the people are expected to make sacrifices of personal rights and aspirations for the larger national good. Xi wishes to normalise the belief that it is only the CPC that can help China achieve both prosperity and great power status. There is no discussion of whether China’s domestic problems can be solved not just through more economic reform and a crackdown on corruption but also by political reform.

In India we must ask if we too are in a similar situation, where leaders and officials attribute long-standing political, economic and social problems of corruption, and lack of access to basic necessities, to the fault of others, foreign and domestic. Today technology (Aadhaar and cashless economy) and bureaucratic efficiency (anti-corruption efforts and greater centralization) are regarded as solutions rather than political and social reforms, including both greater federalism and political pluralism.

Twentieth century history shows how such nativist and/or efficiency-based arguments led to aggressive, ultimately self-destructive, foreign policies, as in Japan and Germany before the Second World War. In both, their leaderships made a case for foreign policy assertion based on a sense of victimhood and desire to seek an imagined rightful status in international affairs, and these objectives were accompanied by targeting minorities and domestic political opposition.

Today, there is a clear connection between clampdown on freedoms within China and increasing emphasis on the centrality of the CPC on one hand and foreign policy assertiveness and willingness to undermine current international order on the other.

India has criticised Chinese foreign policy of the past few years for seeking to undermine the same international order that enabled its rise, but at home sections of our elites who benefitted from democratic institutions and processes are now wishing these assets to be precluded to others. The challenge to the Indian Constitution poses questions about the direction of Indian foreign policy and its sincerity in seeking a democratic world order. Such contradictions can seldom be explained away and will often meet forceful opposition. While there is much in China’s economic and technological advances that is worthy of emulation, Indians must guard against both decline of domestic democratic space and aggressive, parochial narratives driving our external relations.

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Domestic Political Space and Foreign Policy: What India Should Not Learn From China’, Values & Foreign Policy, 6 February 2019.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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