India must look for ways to acquire influence in areas where China is vulnerable, says Bruno Maçães

Bruno Maçães (pronounced as Maseyes) is a renowned political scientist and a former minister of Portugal. An alumnus of Harvard University, this 46-year-old author and business strategist has lived and worked in China and closely follows the country’s politics and culture. Now a senior fellow at the prestigious Hudson Institute, Washington DC, Maçães is a widely travelled scholar of geopolitics and his stellar books — such as The Dawn of Eurasia and Belt and Road – have earned him a reputation over time as one of the most versatile writers in the subject. He loves India and its democratic credentials, and his commentaries on the country are incisive and sharp as his numerous write-ups in various publications testify. His new book on the United States, History Has Begun, will hit the stands in September. Maçães is currently working on another book on how the COVID-19 pandemic is destined to change the world. He spoke to Open about China, the Indian strategy, the emerging new world and global economic development. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You have lived in China and you understand the Chinese culture and politics very well. What do you think are the main reasons behind China’s vaulting ambitions?

China wants to be the world’s super power. It is a long-term project and it wants to accomplish the task and eventually replace the United States as the leading power by the second half of this century. And what that means is not to be a military power alone, but also to lead the world in technological development. It also wants to project its principles and values on the rest of the world. So, it is a very comprehensive definition of power that China has. And the authorities and the public share the view that it is China’s rightful place, which it believes it had in the past.  Which is why in China you don’t hear much about China’s rise, but about its recovery. The idea they have is that 200 years ago China was the richest country in the world – which, of course, is more than debatable from the historical point of view. But it is the political view in China.

What are the cultural, political and economic changes the world would see if China ever becomes the world’s most powerful nation?  

Over the next few decades, we are definitely going to see clashes. For the time being, we have a clash between different models. I think we see it every day. The recent border dispute China had with India left many people surprised, but others knew that this is the outcome of the lack of transparency (on the part of China). None of these incidents were discussed in the Chinese media. We can ask why. The Chinese public would know nothing about it unless they tried to get past Internet firewalls — which is an increasingly difficult task.

Now, the sense of the collective is something Asian countries share more than Western countries do. What we saw during the pandemic was however slightly different. The individual could be sacrificed if it was in the interest of the collective and there was very little attention to individual rights which, of course, in Europe and the United States made managing the pandemic more difficult. One of the difficulties the West faces is that the individual can do whatever he or she wants. Evidently, lockdowns in China were not comparable to those in Italy. In China, they were much more violent. Individuals were kept at home and people could not leave homes even to buy groceries. In some cases, doors were nailed from outside. So, obviously China has a different political and cultural outlook.

Coming to the Belt and Road Initiative on which you have written a book (titled Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order), do you think countries like India that have declined to join this project are going to miss the next wave of globalisation?

India decided not to join BRI. It is less important whether you participate in the Belt and Road Initiative or not. What is important is that when you participate in BRI or some other framework of relationship with China, you need to have a position of influence over China rather than being dependent on that country (like Pakistan and Sri Lanka). Europe, India and the United States are going to have an economic relationship with China. Again, I don’t think we are going to go back to a world during the Cold War when there was no economic relationship between the US and USSR.

Now, the important thing is the nature of relationship and the balance of power and not whether it is in this framework or that framework. India wants to rebalance the power relationship with China. That is a good policy. Yet, it is surprising that year after year India is not able to address it. You can see it in India’s inability to enter the Chinese market. India is a major producer of pharmaceuticals. China imports and needs large quantities of pharmaceutical products but that country doesn’t import from India. It is not a sustainable situation and Indian authorities, in my opinion, have to address this. If China doesn’t change its policy, then India will have to retaliate in some other way. For me, the important thing is the balance of power and the idea that there cannot be separate rules for China. Europe also faces the very similar problems India confronts. Europe wants to enter the financial services industry in China. I was in the government in 2014-15 and negotiations were on back then. Six years later nothing has been achieved on that front. China continues to close its markets to European financial services companies. This has to change. There is an alignment of views among India, Europe and other places to reformulate their relationships with China.

How different is the cold war of sorts between China and the West compared with the one between the US and the USSR?

There is always competition between big powers, right? There was competition between the Mughals and the Persian Empire and between big colonial powers in Europe. We are going to continue to have that. Big-power competition is not going to go away. There is going to be competition, therefore, between the US and China and India and Japan will be part of that game. But I don’t think we are going to have something like the competition between the US and the Soviet Union, which was not merely a big-power competition. There are two major differences between the current situation and the Cold War of the second half of the last century. Firstly, we are not going to have the same level of economic separation between the blocs. The second difference is that during the Cold War there was a great level of alignment with the blocs. Every country felt the pressure to join one side or the other. Of course, India went ahead with the concept of non-alignment, but it wasn’t that successful. This time around, I don’t think that such things will happen.

This time, even medium-size countries will be able to remain autonomous. The pressure to side with the US or China is much smaller than what it was back then. We have to remember that when the Cold War began, many countries were just coming out of independence, like India and many in Africa, and these countries were fragile and did not have the resources to pursue an independent, sovereign foreign policy. That is not the case anymore.

I have spent a lot of time in Turkey. My wife is Turkish. The idea that Turkey will align with one side or the other is clearly not the case. In fact, Turkey looks for opportunities. Even Europe is starting to realise that it is not going to tie up with the US in a new cold war against China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this the other day very clearly. We are a much more complicated world now and we have many sources of power.

I have been following the debates in India after the Galwan Valley incident in Eastern Ladakh and there are those who say India should create an alliance with the US. But that still doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion. The most popular opinion in the country would be that India should stand for India, not for the US and certainly not for China. And that it should have its own autonomous goals and strive for becoming one of the main poles for power in the world. There would be some five or six such powers in the world and India could be one of them.

Can you explain the current context of the word that you use in your book on China, Tianxia?

Tianxia is essentially the Chinese form of universalism. It is in a sense the equivalent of the term ‘human rights’ as a form of principle upon which the world system should be based on. In China, Tianxia just means that you have a global system that the countries are integrated and depend on each other and that they also need to be led collectively. So, the system of Tianxia historically has the leader at the centre and today China wants to build a global system with Beijing as the centre. It expresses the idea that there is interdependence and that countries should not go alone and that they have to be integrated in a common system. China actually does represent that idea of globalization. At the same time the United States is retreating from that idea. In one sentence, Tianxia is globalization with Chinese characteristics.

What is the philosophical underpinning for Chinese expansionism? Is it more Confucian or is it really Marxist?

It is much more Marxist than it is Confucian. I think the fundamental elements of it are predominance of economics over everything else — what Marx called the means of production; the conquest of nature, which stands for accelerated technological progress led by a strong collective where opposing forces should be eliminated; and the idea that the world’s system is hierarchical. That the global system is a system of power and not of cooperation is a Marxist-Leninist concept. All these factors are part of the Marxist tradition. Marxism, therefore, is more useful in comprehending contemporary China than Confucianism.

What will China, an emerging superpower, do on its eastern side where the US has hundreds of military bases?

Until very recently it seemed that the Chinese strategy was to rely on economic development and expect that they would slowly shift the balance of power. That if it establishes very close links with Australia, with many of the Pacific islands, with Japan, with Korea and so on, these countries would slowly tie their interests with China. In the South China Sea and East China Sea, the main ports in the area are controlled by Chinese companies. If you have trade being conducted by China, if you have Chinese fishermen occupy many of those geographies, then the security question is solved in an indirect way and then you don’t need aircraft carriers. This seemed to be the strategy until recently.

It is true that over the last year China has become aggressive from the military point of view. This is true in relation with India as well as Taiwan and there has been more Chinese activity in the South China Sea. So, analysts are trying to find out whether this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic (which has forced the US to focus on infection containment) or this is, in fact, a significant strategy on the part of Beijing. It is possible that China was waiting for an opportunity when the US was preoccupied. But we will have to wait for a few more months to confirm if this is actually a shift in strategy.

Some critics are of the view that BRI is a ruse for militarisation by China. What are your thoughts?

I think the project is very much about economic power and China takes economic power very seriously. In its relations with Europe, military power will not be a variable at least for several decades. China can obtain a lot from Germany simply as a result of the fact that car manufacturer Volkswagen exports more than 50% of its production to the Chinese market. Very few people know this. In that position you have a lot of power. If China closes its market to German automakers, there is a question whether they can survive. So BRI is about expanding Chinese economic power. There will be a military element, but it will come later and it might not be central, certainly not in its collaborations in Europe. It is different on China’s borders (especially with India) and in the South China Sea where the military element will be more important.

How do you assess the progress of BRI so far?

It started in 2013 and in the first six years the progress was fast and I think it was faster than China had anticipated. So many countries were attracted to the idea. China was able to sign an MoU in this initiative with Italy, a G-7 country and a member of NATO. Authorities were satisfied with the progress. In 2020 COVID-19 changed things a lot. And some people are saying the BRI will take a lot of time to recover and perhaps will not survive because COVID creates obvious problems. Many countries will be in dire straits and won’t be able to repay the loans, including some in Africa and some in Asia. The transport of Chinese workers to sites which is very important for this project will be delayed due to COVID-19. So, this kind of a debate is raging.

But I think in the end, BRI will be a success and China may even benefit from COVID. Why would it benefit? Because economic crises in many countries would bring down the prices for assets and so companies would be cheaper to acquire. China had already benefited when the US was in crisis after 2008. Therefore, I am not convinced that COVID-19 is a serious obstacle for BRI.

How should Indian policymakers deal with China?

As I said before, one has to look for ways to acquire some leverage, influence and power over China rather than looking for ways to separate ourselves and break ourselves economically from China. There have to be ways in which we acquire influence in areas where China is vulnerable. In the case of India, for example, it is obvious that in the long term, it is not the scuffles in the Himalayas that will help India. In the long term, what is going to help India is a $5 trillion economy. China will need India, especially when the Indian market grows at a fast clip. India can be in a more comfortable position with China.

Now, I find India’s reaction so far (including the latest decision to ban 59 Chinese apps) very strategic, focused on economic competition, technology and infrastructure.

Let’s talk about the Chinese communist party, which is the supreme authority in that country. Do you foresee pressure on the Chinese leadership to go for political reforms anytime soon?

I have lived there and I often hear the Chinese talk about reforms much more than they talk about it in the West. But while I expect the economic development to continue and accelerate and economic reforms to happen, I don’t expect reforms in the political system to happen.

Now, what are you working on next?

I just finished a book on America (History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America) and I am working on a book on how the COVID pandemic will change our economies and societies. I think the virus itself might have a temporary impact, but many things will change as a result directly or indirectly. The way we think about politics and economics will change. Ten years from now we won’t even remember that the cause of these changes is the virus. It will have an enormous impact.

First published in Open

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