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Published Twice a Month
November 14, 2018 – November 27, 2018

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy


Guest Column

The Vishwaguru, the Middle Kingdom, and the Shining City upon a Hill:
The divergences of Indian, Chinese and American exceptionalism

By Kashish Parpiani    


CIB_127_1200x800Photo by Iliyan Gochev on flickr.com

In underscoring the importance of India’s upcoming elections, Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), deemed the “aim of making India a great nation and Mother India a vishwaguru (world leader)” to be at stake. Similarly, last year, speaking at the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted a rise in India’s standing at the world stage to be a step in the realization of India becoming the “guru of the world”. Recently, in arguing for India to reclaim its place as the leader in the realm of education and ideas, India’s Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu even penned an op-ed titled ‘Make India Vishwaguru Again’.

Such invocations of India’s rise to preeminence are not unique, as history stands replete with examples of ascendant nations presenting themselves at the centre of the international system. Instances of such solipsist views range from the Roman Empire’s self-adulating civis romanus sum to Imperial Japan’s grand strategic project of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even the British Empire’s claim for a territorially expansive –– yet purportedly stability-infusing –– imperium of Pax Britannicamay be invoked as an example.

Beyond hard power metrics however, scholars have argued that such “ambition to power and influence, not actual capacity” lead discourses on a nation’s purpose in the world — to ultimately inform its foreign and security policy decision-making. Such a “driving vision, an outward-thrusting nature backed by strong conviction and sense of national identity and matching purpose” of one’s role in the world — as Bharat Karnad argues – also distinguishes established great powers and would-be great powers from the rest.

A standard case-study in such solipsist renderings is the United States (U.S.) owing to its outsized role well into the twenty-first century –– as the world’s preeminent economic and military superpower aided by unparalleled soft power.

The idea of American ‘exceptionalism’ — defined as “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States” — has long featured in American political discourse. Bed-rocking a worldview that the U.S. is the world’s sole “indispensable nation” with a “special role to play in human history”, in the post-Cold War world, this rendering has been rigorously invoked by U.S. foreign policy elites. American legislators, commentators and academicians often invoke the imperatives of the U.S. being the indispensable nation to argue for the maintenance of U.S. global power projection consisting of nearly 800 bases around the world and security partnerships and alliances with over 60 nations. Chiefly, the belief in American exceptionalism informs U.S. foreign policy’s enduring tenet of democracy promotion and furtherance of liberal Wilsonian values around the world –– owing to the Reaganesque notion of the U.S. being the “shining city upon a hill”.

Similarly, the idea of India becoming the vishwaguru portrays India as an exemplar of liberal democratic values. Borrowing the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam(the world is one family), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘Resolution on Foreign Policy’ released at its National Executive in 2015 pronounced all nations to have “sovereign equality”. However, it presented a distinctly elevated role for India owing to its stature as the world’s largest democracy. Deeming Prime Minister Modi’s addresses to various countries’ democratic institutions as “Bharat’s (India) unequivocal commitment to democratic values”, the resolution hailed India’s emergence as the “Pole Star – Dhruv Tara – of the democratic world."

Further, this elevated role for India as an exemplar for democracies, signifies a sense of centrality that offers a break from the past.

In deciphering the worldview that informs Indian foreign policy, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Sarandraws on ancient Indian cosmology. In his book How India Sees The World, Sarandraws on the ancient Indian conception of the cosmos as a “vast circle of seven concentric oceans separating six regions or varshas, each with its own mountains and river systems.

At the centre of which “lies the Jambudvipa” –– a four-petalled lotus island, with “our own varsha, Bharata, defined by the Southern petal.” Interestingly, Bharata or India is not accorded “centrality and superiority” under this rendering. Instead, its peripherality positions it as “only one among the lotus petals that make up our universe.

Some scholars have referenced this non-centrality to have spurred an “inward-turned New Delhi pursuing prosperity at the expense of exercising ‘power’.” Furthermore, in deciphering a “typified” Indian foreign policy of “insularity and inaction”, scholars have also attributed this non-centrality to have informed a sense of ‘Indian Exceptionalism’ — the belief in India destined to return to its due “rightful place” owing to a perceived moral authority or civilisational imperative.

In contrast, scholars point to the Chinese worldview –– wherein China is deemed to be the “center of the universe.” Similar to Indian cosmology’s Jambudvipa ordering of the system in concentric circles, the Chinese idea of Tianxia –– which translates to ‘All Under Heaven’ –– imagines an all-inclusive system of concentric circles. However, this system, at times referred to as ‘the tribute system,’ functions on a clear hierarchy with China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ –– the perceived “civilised imperial capital at the center flowing out to embrace the various “barbaric” peoples at the periphery.

In contemporary times, the relevance of this centrality-based worldview seems apparent as China moves away from the erstwhile Deng Xiaoping doctrine of “keep our light hidden and bide our time”. As China assumed the second spot in the global economic pecking order, its foreign policy took a turn towards revisionism. From employing its economic levers to influence smaller nations, to guarding a regional sphere of influence with a massive build-up of anti-access/area-denial capabilities, China today seems to be elbowing its way to the ‘Middle Kingdom’ status.

Whereas, the centrality offered by the Dhruv Tara (Pole Star)aspiration has not only led to the shedding of “the traditional Indian reluctance to speak about its democratic values”, it has also lent focus to India’s “responsibilities” towards global governance.

For instance, the earlier referenced BJP foreign policy resolution aimed for the vishwaguru role for India — in terms of “an anchor of the global economy and as a leader in advancing peace and prosperity across the world” — by primarily fulfilling India’s “global responsibilities as the world’s most populous youth nation and largest democracy.” The relevance of this aim seems apparent with the Modi government presenting India to be “ready, as a responsible regional power and an emerging global actor” with an agenda-shaping role at multilateral institutions.

Consider the instance of the Paris Agreement. With French Prime Minister François Hollande, Prime Minister Modi announced the International Solar Alliance(ISA) to break the developed-developing nations’ impasse. Prime Minister Modi has characterized this as India’s leadership role in driving the once-insurmountable agenda of cobbling a global alliance to tackle climate change. Further, at the founding conference of the ISA in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj referred to India’s $27 million support towards hosting the ISA Secretariat as India’s “responsibility” in proving to the world that “economic growth and sustainable development are not mutually exclusive but reinforce each other.

Similarly, at other multilateral platforms, India has sought an agenda-shaping role. Some examples include, the push at the G20 summit in Brisbane for the inclusion of the Base Erosion and Profit Sharing (BEPS) Action Plan as part of the G-20 declaration to combat the global challenge of black money repatriation; the temporary hold-out on the Trade Facilitation Agreement for the inclusion of “slightly tighter language on the agreement not to challenge public stockholding in developing countries”; and the push for counter-terrorism cooperation at fora like the BRICS summit as a precursor to India’s broader push for the UN General Assembly to adopt the critical Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

In summation, the Vishwaguru aspirations of the Modi government bears some interesting parallels to the centrality espoused by China’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ worldview and the liberal democratic orientation of the ‘Shining City upon a Hill’ rendering of American exceptionalism. As India heads to the polls next year, it remains to be seen if this conception of Indian aspirations constitutes a lasting shift in India’s conduct of its foreign policy or merely a temporary shift under the Modi dispensation.

Perhaps the odds favour the former as Indian foreign policy — as former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Dr. Alyssa Ayres argues – seems poised to step “forward with a problem-solving disposition” on multilateral platforms..

 

The author is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai. His research interests are US Grand Strategy, US Civil-Military Relations, and US Foreign Policy in the Indo-Pacific. His twitter handle is @KParpiani .


The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.



News Reports

Bilateral relations

China and India agree to boost trade and lower the temperature on shared border
South China Morning Post, November 26

China and India have vowed to boost their border trade and keep their troops in restraint to minimise the risk of conflicts, in Beijing’s latest move to consolidate ties with its neighbours amid rising tensions with the United States.

Chinese TV show entire Jammu & Kashmir as part of India
The Economic Times, November 26

China's state-run television CGTN in a significant move has portrayed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as part of original map of Jammu and Kashmir which has been a long standing demand by India for decades.

Wang Yi: Sino-Indian relationship is showing all-around improvement momentum
CGTN, November 24, 2018

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday (November 24) that Sino-Indian relationship is showing an all-round improvement and development momentum.

PM Modi calls for ‘great wall of trust’ with China
Hindustan Times, November 17

Ahead of his meeting with President Xi Jinping on the margins of the G20 Summit in Argentina this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday (November 16) spoke of the need for contacts between India and China to build a “Great Wall of Trust and Cooperation”.

China-India youth dialogue held in Delhi to promote exchanges, ties
Xinhua, November 17

The China-India Youth Dialogue 2018 was held in the Indian capital in an effort to promote the people-to-people and cultural exchanges and relations between the two countries.

India, China should boost military exchanges: Chinese defence minister
The Economic Times, November 16

India and China should boost military exchanges and improve mutual trust and properly manage and control any "disparities", Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister Gen Wei Fenghe has said.

News Reports

China and India in the Region

India our best friend: Maldives foreign minister’s message to China
Hindustan Times, November 26

“India is our best friend. India has been there for us at all hours of need” said Maldives foreign minister Abdulla Shahid on Monday (November 26) during the first high-level visit after the new government took office earlier this month.

Pakistan points to India after attack on Chinese consulate in Karachi
South China Morning Post, November 25

The suicide bomber that targeted the Chinese consulate in Karachi used a foreign-made C4 plastic explosive, said Pakistani police, who suggested that the attack was orchestrated in India.

Beijing has oversold benefits of US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, expert says
South China Morning Post, November 24

The economic and energy security benefits of a Beijing-funded investment scheme in Pakistan have been overestimated, and China’s lack of transparency about the scheme has raised tensions with India, a leading geopolitical scholar in China warned.

China and India stage investment showdown in Rwanda
Nikkei Asian Review, November 24

China and India are locked in a game of one-upmanship deep in the heart of Africa. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rwanda, which is drawing big investments from the two emerging powers and welcomed both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this past summer.

Vietnam Offers India Chance to Get Tougher Against Maritime Rival China
Voice of America, November 20

Advances in relations between Vietnam and India will help both countries resist Chinese expansion in Asia including the contested South China Sea, Asia scholars say.

China, India begin phase II of training programme of Afghan diplomats
DNA, November 19

The second phase of training programme of 10 Afghan diplomats in Beijing began on Monday (November 19) as part of the joint project by India and China. In the 1st phase the Afghan diplomats were trained at the Foreign Service Institute in Delhi from 15th to 26th October.

News Reports

Trade and Economy

India-China Amend Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty
Bloomberg Quint, November 26

India and China have amended the bilateral tax treaty which will help prevent tax evasion by allowing exchange of information, the Finance Ministry said today (November 26).

India Eyes Bigger Share in Global Trade Amid U.S.-China Tensions
Bloomberg, November 26

India will focus on boosting its exports to the U.S. and other global markets as Chinese shipments become unattractive amid a trade war between the world’s biggest economies, the country’s trade minister said.

Souring US ties prompt China to seek sweeter trade with India
The Times of India, November 26

China’s refiners are considering the purchase of unprecedented amounts of Indian raw sugar, with a delegation visiting the South Asian nation next month to meet mill officials and inspect logistics infrastructure, according to an Indian official.

China hopes new Maldives government will not pull out of free trade agreement
The Economic Times, November 20

China has said it has a "firm and clear cut will" to maintain good ties with the Maldives as it played down reports of a pro-India tilt by the new Maldivian government and hoped that Male would make the "right choice" and not pull out of a free trade deal with Beijing.

ASEAN-led free trade deal pushed back to 2019
The Straits Times, November 13

An ASEAN-led bid to complete the world's largest trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - without the United States - was pushed back to 2019 after Asia-Pacific trade ministers failed to agree on key terms at a Singapore summit.


News Reports

Energy and Environment

China's renewable energy surges after state backing
Nikkei Asian Review, November 21

Thanks to generous state backing, China now leads the world in growth of renewable energy, with over 600 GW of renewable generation capacity. China accounted for nearly half of all new global capacity in 2017, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Shut out of China, US coal exporters find favour in India, for now
ET Energy World, November 20

US coal exporters have effectively lost a promising market in China since the imposition of tariffs as part of the ongoing trade dispute, but so far they have managed to find other buyers in Asia, chiefly India.

Delhi's Air Quality In 2016 Reduced Life Expectancy By 10 Years: Study
NDTV, November 20

During the past two decades, Delhi's air quality was the "most deadly" in 2016 as it reduced the life expectancy of a resident by more than 10 years, a new study said Monday (November 19), asserting that the national capital was the second among 50 most polluted areas of the country.

Xi's Gain Is Prince Mohammed's Pain: Oil Rout Winners and Losers
Bloomberg Quint, November 16

Donald Trump wants Saudi Arabia and other oil producers to stay out of the way as oil prices plunge. But the U.S. president isn’t the only leader watching the crude market, as the longest losing streak on record hits economies and tilts political battles around the world. China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan are among those who’ll benefit most from lower prices.

As India fails to clean up its air, China is winning war on pollution
The Economic Times, November 15

While New Delhi and other Indian cities choke amid worsening air conditions and half-hearted government measures, neighbouring China -- the world's largest polluter -- is slowly winning its war against pollution.


Analyses

Maldives has to walk China-India tightrope
The Global Times, November 25

By Liu Zongyi, Senior Fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS); Visiting Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China; and a Distinguished Fellow of the China (Kunming) South Asia & Southeast Asia Institute.

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was sworn in president of the Maldives on November 17 with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi being the highest-ranking foreign leader present. For India, Solih's win is a good opportunity to revive damaged relations with the Maldives. But some Indian media outlets were upbeat that Modi's attendance signaled India had regained influence over the archipelago nation.

South Asia geopolitics: Contain China with the Quad
The Economic Times, November 24

By Yusuf T Unjhawala, Editor, Defence Forum India

There’s good news for India from the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives. And it comes primarily in the form of its new president, Ibrahim Solih, being sworn in last Saturday after defeating the incumbent, Abdulla Yameen, against all odds. Solih, upon taking up presidentship, almost immediately sought a review of China-backed projects in the archipelago nation.

By reaching out to Japan and reassuring India, China can stop the Quad before it even starts
South China Morning Post, November 23

By Vasilis Trigkas, Onassis Scholar and Research Fellow at the Belt and Road Strategy Centre, Tsinghua University

The recent war of words between China and the US at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea stunned geopolitical pundits around the world and attests to the ominous dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. As the two nations increasingly see issues in terms of security, there is a real danger of matters escalating into a strategic competition for regional alliances.

Will an ambitious Chinese-built rail line through the Himalayas lead to a debt trap for Nepal?
The Conversation, November 16

By Jagannath Adhikari, Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Design and the Built Environment, Curtin University

Despite the purported benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative, questions have been raised about China’s motivations, and whether Beijing can afford the US$1 trillion it has committed to infrastructure projects and its partners can afford the debt they are taking on. Some fear BRI could be a Trojan horse for global domination through debt traps.

China as Sri Lanka’s ‘friendly neighbor’ is bad news for India
Money Control, November 14

By Jabin T Jacob, Adjunct Research Fellow, National Maritime Foundation

A major political crisis is underway in Sri Lanka following President Maithripala Sirisena sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and finally the dissolution of parliament. Multiple petitions were filed before the country’s Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of Sirisena’s actions. On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s apex court overturned Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament.


Books and Journals

India–China Stand-off in Doklam: Aligning Realism with National Characteristics
The Round Table 107, no. 5, 2018, 613-625 

By Dalbir Ahlawat and Lindsay Hughes

Dr. Dalbir Ahlawat is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University; Lindsay Hughes is from Curtin University. 

India and China, rising almost simultaneously as major powers, share a disputed border. In the 1950s, India aspired to a joint leadership for Asia’s revival but Nehru’s idealism and Mao’s realism triggered the Sino-Indian War of 1962. It took India three decades to come to terms with Chinese political realism and initiate confidence-building measures. Nevertheless, bilateral trade interests converged while security interests diverged. Beijing adopted offensive realism while New Delhi followed defensive realism. When both confronted a 73-day military stand-off in Doklam, unexpectedly India demonstrated a miscellany of offensive realism whereas China constrained itself to defensive realism. Analysis establishes that they permeated their national characteristics while pursuing respective forms of realism. This article traces the trajectory of idealist versus realist perspectives that India has initiated to counter Chinese realism, analyses the two countries’ offensive–defensive postures during the Doklam stand-off, and examines the specific national characteristics that both countries brought to realism.


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