Grand Tamasha

Ananth Krishnan on What China’s Rise Means for India

Episode Summary

This week on the podcast, Ananth talks with Milan about his new book, “India’s China Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What It Means for India.”

Episode Notes

In the summer of 2008, the journalist Ananth Krishnan moved to Beijing to pick up some Mandarin. Little did he know that this fateful decision would kick off a decade-long immersion in Chinese politics, economics, foreign policy, and culture. 


This week on the podcast, Ananth talks with Milan about his new book, “India’s China Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What It Means for India.” Ananth, the China correspondent for the The Hindu, talks to Milan about India’s underinvestment in understanding Chinese domestic affairs, the lessons India should learn from China’s economic miracle, and the status of current border tensions between the two neighbors. Plus, the two discuss how India can respond to the economic and political challenge that China poses.


Episode notes:

  1. Grand Tamasha with Ashley J. Tellis on “India’s China Conundrum” 
  2. Ashley J. Tellis, “Hustling in the Himalayas: The Sino-Indian Border Confrontation

Episode Transcription

Milan  00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. In the summer of 2008, the journalist Ananth Krishnan moved to Beijing to pick up some Mandarin. Little did he know that this fateful decision would kick off a decade-long immersion in Chinese politics, economics, foreign policy, and culture. The result of that long immersion is a new book published by HarperCollins India in September 2020, India's China Challenge: A Journey Through China's Rise and What It Means for India. Ananth is the China correspondent for The Hindu, and he joins me on the phone today from some remote mountain location. Ananth, congratulations on the book and thanks for coming on the show.


Ananth  00:49

Thanks so much, Milan, for having me. Pleasure to be here. 


Milan  00:52

So where are you, exactly? 


Ananth  00:54

I'm just actually in Ooty, in the Nilgiris district in my home state of Tamil Nadu. So, I've been working from Chennai since January, since I'm actually waiting on a visa to go back to Beijing to report for The Hindu. So, hopefully that'll happen sometime this year. And, of course, everything has been kind of up in the air because of COVID and China suspending all visas. So, yeah, I've been working from my home state since January of this year.


Milan  01:20

Fingers crossed that the visa comes through soon. Let me start, perhaps - rather than going back to the beginning, in 2008, when you stepped foot in Beijing for what ended up being a rather prolonged stay, not perhaps what you anticipated - let me instead start by asking you about your departure. When you left China, you said you weren't going to write a book about China. But then once you stepped foot back in India, got back home, it seems like you changed your mind because, as you put it in the book, the China that you encountered in numerous conversations with other Indians was so disconnected from the China that you came to know that you felt that you wanted to put pen to paper. Tell us about that disconnect.


Ananth  02:04

Right. So, as you said, I never thought I would write a book, I think for two reasons. One is, I just felt that things were changing so fast in China, and in the China-India relationship - as I would discover this year with the events that happened right as the book was going to press - and the other reluctance that I had was, I just was so overwhelmed with everything that I experienced over the last 10, 15 years there that I just felt I didn't have an easy argument to kind of explain everything and capture everything. So, that kind of left me very reluctant to write. But I think that after being away from India for so long, it really came as a surprise to me to find, even though I was visiting often, once or twice a year, that the coverage of China and the conversations on China that I experienced in day-to-day life was so far removed from the reality that I experienced there. I felt that there could be a good reason to just try and explain China's political system, its economy, the India-China relationship. And that's why I made it a point to write not for the journalist crowd or the IR crowd - I want to write for anyone in India, actually, who would have any passing interest in China. So that's what kind of motivated me to work on this over the last two years. 


Milan  03:26

When you think about the dimensions of this "disconnect," as you as you call it - early in the book, you make the observation that India grossly underinvests in trying to understand its most important neighbor. And, on the one hand, this seems like a really obvious statement when you look around the landscape. Yet it's also deeply puzzling, on the other hand, given the economic diplomatic defense stakes at play - and we're seeing that in real time right now, as we record this conversation. Why do you think it is that the Indian establishment is so underinvested in China?


Ananth  03:59

Now, that's a great question. If I can just use the media as an example, as someone who's part of the Indian media - I have been genuinely puzzled, just as you are, that throughout this year, when you've had this pandemic and this boundary crisis that we haven't seen since 1962, we have two Indian permanent reporters based in China, which kind of gives you a sense of how the media is, as an example, underinvested in trying to understand the place. Where the media is concerned, I think it's many, many reasons. A lot of it, I think, is commercial reasons - I guess listeners in the U.S. might identify with the fact that the media is so domestic-driven and inward-looking, foreign coverage doesn't - at least, the thinking among editors is - foreign coverage, especially for TV, doesn't really sell, and I think that it's part of this broader trend in the Indian media where we actually aren't spending much on reporters, even domestically. I think if you've watched any Indian television channel, you know that the formula they've kind of come to is to stick different people in the studio with differing viewpoints and have them just, you know, go at each other, rather than send reporters out into the field. That's something that's happening domestically, and I think definitely where foreign coverage is concerned. And that's something that really worried me, being in China, only because I can't think of a more important country for India to cover whether or not the relationship is going to go in a good way or a bad way. I think it's absolutely clear that we have to know what's happening there and look at it from our own lens rather than rely on, you know, Western media coverage or Chinese media coverage of China. So, I've been puzzled by that as well. But I think it's part of a broader reflection of how we have been covering our own countries, if that makes sense.


Milan  05:57

I mean, there's an interesting parallel with the United States - there are several media outlets, including our own, which have correspondents based in Washington, DC, and have for a long time, but if you think about the broader academic and research ecosystem, I would be hard-pressed to name one individual in India who is a scholar of U.S. politics. There are many people who are well-versed and who follow it, but in terms of actually doing original research on the United States, which is this supposedly significant partner of India's, it's really hard to think of one. So, I think it probably goes beyond just China itself. But do you think a main impediment is the language issue? I mean, proximity obviously isn't, and the interest, I would think, in India on China issues is pretty significant, isn't it? Is it a language barrier?


Ananth  06:54

I think partly, you're right, and I think that your parallel is absolutely right. I don't think it's a China problem at all. As I said, I think these deficiencies of investing in resources - for example, reporters - apply to Indian coverage of India as well. But I think with China, the problem is just magnified because of the language barrier, unlike with the US or our coverage of Europe, so we end up relying on sources, such as the Global Times or China Daily, that really aren't the best sources, I think, to make sense of the place. So, I think the language problem really does compound this issue. And I think that, frankly, it isn't only a media problem - I think that it's Indian businesses, as well, which do complain a lot about market access problems in China, especially IT and pharmaceutical companies, but I can tell you, the other side of the story is, many of them don't invest even in having big teams in China or having - for example, pharma companies - having lawyers in China to make sense of the regulatory landscape. So, I think it's a systemic problem. And partly because I suppose we've been looking at the West more than the East. And I think perhaps it's natural, because - I mean, when I was growing up in India in the 1990s and the early 2000s as well, everyone wanted to go to the West to study. And I think it's inevitable that it would turn out that way. But I think the argument that I make is, I think it's time for us to start paying attention - like, yesterday - especially because I think the relationship is really entering into a very, very uncertain period. And I think it's more important than ever that we carefully look at what's happening across the border.


Milan  08:33

So, I'm going to get into some of the domestic politics in China. In the book, you recount this conversation with a friend in Beijing who remarked that one of the greatest tricks the Communist Party has ever pulled was to convince the world of its irrelevance - or, at least, of the irrelevance of ideology in Chinese politics today. And, you know, this immediately brought about a question, which is, why do you believe it's in the interests of the regime to minimize that role of communist ideology? Because, you know, those of us in the West often think that this is part of their modus operandi, right, this is their central brand, so why do they seem to be downplaying it?


Ananth  09:13

I should qualify, Milan, that this was said before Xi Jinping took over, and one service that Xi Jinping has done, I think, to anyone following China, is that he's more unabashed about the ideology aspect of it, which I talked about in the book as well. And I think that why I found that comment striking is that I would meet a stream of visitors from all over the world in Beijing, especially from India, who would be flabbergasted by the China model. And they would, in their visits to Beijing and Shanghai, just see another Singapore, and I think that they would see on the surface something that look like our own government, with the parliament and the president and all these institutions - Supreme Courts and High Courts, all these institutes - that we are familiar with. But I think behind the scenes, of course, of all of that, you have this huge organization that's pulling the strings that often isn't immediately observable to someone who just visits China. Though, of course, domestically, it's quite interesting that the party is everywhere. And another interesting comment that someone told me that I mentioned in the book is, pay attention to what China's leaders say in their speeches at home, especially when they don't say those things abroad. You'll find very, very different messages even as far as Xi Jinping is concerned. And I spent quite a bit of time looking at everything that he said over the last 15, 20 years. He speaks about, you know, this life or death struggle, an ideological battle between Western civilization and China, which right now is a very controversial thing to say, and it's a big debate even among people in the U.S. But here, Xi Jinping says it to people in the party, to higher officials. It's something that they're so open about when they speak at home, domestically. So I think it's a different image of China that they want to project externally, and this was an image of these technocratic leaders who were supposedly chosen by meritocracy, and this being, you know, the leadership model of the future, and something that's such a stark contrast from countries like India, which are trying to be democracies, in Chinese eyes, but are failing at being efficient government. So, I think this was the kind of image that they wanted to portray. But I think it's becoming increasingly harder for them to do that in the Xi Jinping era.


Milan  11:30

I want to ask you a little bit more about the character of Xi Jinping. You write that, within five years of his taking power, Xi basically established himself as the party's third Great Leader after Mao and Dang. And so, for the uninitiated, tell us a little bit about the man. How does he picture his legacy within the grander sweep of Chinese history?


Ananth  11:55

Well, I think for me, Milan, when I look back at the 10 years that I spent looking at China and reporting from there, I keep looking at November 2012, which is when Xi Jinping took over his party General Secretary, as really being this inflection point in my own experience. And I'm sure that most journalists, reporters, civil servant people in China as well, looking back at the last 10 years, would see that moment is being transformative. And the funniest thing is none of us realized that at the time when he took over. We didn't know anything about him besides the fact of his well-publicized family history of his father being one of the towering communist revolutionary leaders, the so-called "Eight Immortals," who helped found the People's Republic of China in 1949. Of course, it was a family story that people found captivating because his father was this big figure who then fell out with Mao during the Cultural Revolution. He went through humiliating public struggle sessions where he was paraded with signs that he had to carry on his neck, his mother had to publicly denounce her husband, his sister would take her own life because of the stimulation that the family went through, and all of this. And then you would subsequently be rehabilitated and will become a vice premier of China. And Xi Jinping, of course, was born into this very unique family history, that's all we knew. But no one really expected him to do everything that he did. And I think that one really interesting thing that Zhang Lifan - a historian in Beijing who follows Chinese elite politics very closely - told me was that, in many ways, he was the right man at the right place at the right time, because there was this sense of crisis within the Communist Party of the year that he took over. And, of course, without getting into details, you had this big public scandal with the Politburo member Bo Xilai supposedly making a power grab - we still don't know the extent of the split in within the party, but we do know that there was a sense of crisis. There was a feeling, over the previous 10 years under Hu Jintao, that there was a sense of drift, that there was a growing gulf between the party and the people, and it really needed to reassert itself ideologically. And so that was the kind of atmosphere in which Xi Jinping took over. And, obviously, I think his taking control of the anti-corruption apparatus was the hard tool that enabled him to kind of sweep away his rivals and ensure that he had such strict control over almost every aspect of government. But I think that the speed with which he did it was something that I think we're still digesting - how he managed to do everything that he did within five years, especially now that we're looking to 2021, when the party turns 100, and 2022, when Xi completes 10 years at the helm. My reading, Milan, is that everything that we've seen over the last five years is probably going to portend in the next five as well this huge trend toward centralization of power and, in a very strange way, completely relegating everything that China achieved over the last 20 years to have a very stable system of governance.


Milan  15:09

So, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is when you interrogate the Chinese economic model and you conclude in the end that, you know, the secret to China's success was not top-down centralization, it was really greater decentralization and bottom up economic initiative. And this, in turn, was fueled by two things: human capital and local experimentation - sort of trial and error. Now, you know, if you go back to India, there's a lot of talk about how it can learn from the successes of the East Asian economies, including China. Do you get the sense that the powers that be in Delhi fully understand the ingredients that powered Chinese growth for four decades?


Ananth  15:50

I think it's quite interesting that when we look at China's success story, you tend to focus on everything that happened in the 2000s - at least, people in India focus on the Special Economic Zones, on the skyscrapers, on the huge investment in infrastructure projects. And I found the work of some economists like Huang Yasheng at MIT to be really compelling in the sense that the biggest phase of poverty reduction in China, as he points out in his research, happened in the decade before that, and a lot of it was based on investments in human capital that allowed China to take advantage of the right conditions in the '90s and 2000s. I think that we tend to forget, especially in India, where, you know more than I do, investments in health and education haven't always taken precedence and priority. And so I found it really striking when someone like Huang Yasheng makes the case that it was China's investments in human capital that allowed it to make this huge leap forward later in the '80s and '90s and especially in the 2000s. So, I think if you look at the first part of China's reforms post-1978, I think you come away with a very different picture of what allowed China to do what it did than if you only focus on, say, starting late '90s and early 2000s. So, I think you have to look at the whole picture. This is not to say that you don't need the investments in infrastructure and the like, but it's to say that it's a complete picture, it's a complete package, and you can't just pick and choose. And I think that the biggest Indian misreading, perhaps, of China's economic experience and stories is the fact that we haven't paid attention to the supposedly "soft factors," we can call it - investments in rural health clinics, in rural education, making education compulsory for nine years - these things, I think, are completely out of the frame of reference in India, and especially among Indian elites who come to China and see the big cities, the high-speed rail, and the skyscrapers. So, that was the kind of thing that I was reacting against when writing that chapter.


Milan  18:00

What's interesting is that earlier literature on the East Asian Tigers very much emphasizes those human capital investments, right? It was really the investments that countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and others made in primary education and health that was seen as a central ingredient. But I agree with you - that sometimes gets lost or glossed over because of the emphasis on heavy infrastructure and centralization of power and so on. And when we talk about the Chinese model, I was struck by your observation that Xi is doing what previous Chinese leaders had not done, which is speaking of the "China model" as a solution for other countries abroad. And I'm wondering, in 2020 - it's a snapshot, obviously - do you think the attractiveness of that so-called "China model" is on the rise in the periphery, particularly in South Asia? Or do you think it has kind of reached or passed its sell-by date, that people are starting to understand that the attractiveness of that model actually has been far overstated?


Ananth  19:01

Well, it's a great question. What I found interesting was that when I first moved to China, I think there was a lot of defensiveness among Chinese officials when you spoke about the Chinese political system, and the go-to line would be that there isn't one perfect system and every country has to choose its own path. And obviously, there's a very deep sort of belief among Chinese officials that reacts against the notion of universal values and things like that. But I think that that defensiveness is gone, and I think that that has perhaps been reinforced by the sense, post-2009, where among at least some Chinese elites, there was a feeling that the West was in a state of decline, and that this was a time for China. And I think that, especially over the last few years,  post-rise of populism in the West, I think that if you follow Chinese writings, you'll see that they are sort of far more confident about saying that, beyond the West - for Africa, for developing countries, even for countries in India's periphery - China has lessons to offer. That's something they never said before. And I think that they're very... the Belt and Road Initiative, for me, it's so fascinating. I devote a chapter to that precisely because I find it interesting because I don't think it's just about money and about Chinese companies investing abroad. I think it's also about an idea about China's development experience and selling China as a model. I think perhaps it's a hard sell where you are sitting right now. In India, I don't quite know - I mean, on the one hand, there is this aversion to China, obviously, and to Xi Jinping, because of the pandemic, and more than that, because of the current boundary crisis. But then on the other hand - perhaps, again, here you know more than I - if you look at many of the supporters of the present Indian government, so many things that I hear in debates in India strike me as things that find parallels in what Chinese intellectuals and elites are saying, whether it's dealing with minorities or whether it's dealing with criticism and dealing with public debate and the way they deal with, say, academia and intellectuals. I see so many parallels, even though people in India might sort of gag at the thought of their, you know, aping or reflecting what's been happening in China. I think that perhaps beyond the West, I would see many countries looking at what China is doing - especially if you are of the authoritarian bent, it seems, I don't think it's lost its sheen, unfortunately.


Milan  21:49

You know, this is a nice segue to asking you about how the Chinese view India. At one point, you kind of utter this hard truth that while India sees China as an equal, Chinese strategic thinkers resent that notion, they clearly do not see this as a relationship between equals, which begs the question, how do they view India? How would you characterize how Beijing views India's role in the world if not as equals?


Ananth  22:15

I think that throughout the 2000s, one reason why the India-China relationship had been relatively stable - even though you had bilateral problems like the boundary and legacy issues like Tibet or China-Pakistan relations, I think that they did find common ground on many global issues and had somewhat of a shared sense of their place in the world. And by that, I mean working together on climate change or to reform global institutions to give developing countries a greater say and a greater voice. But I think the point that I make is, in the last few years, I think this shared sense has been diluting rapidly. And I think that that's going to have a huge consequences for the relationship. And that's because I think that China doesn't see itself in, or doesn't want to see itself in, the league of being just another big developing country. Perhaps it suited China's interest to say that 10 years ago, but I think now, looking at their broader global agenda, it's very clear that they see themselves in a group of two. I think everything that they do, everything that they say, is geared toward America as a benchmark. I think they obsess about America in the way that perhaps we in India obsess about China. So I think they find it - I mean, if I'm going to be harsh - I'd say they find it insulting when people equate India and China. And they say, well, it's only because we're another billion-plus country that happens to be in the same neighborhood. And I make the point that this sense of general resentment, this sense of parity was diminished throughout the 90s and 2000s, and one reason perhaps is because up until the late 1980s, India and China were in a similar boat. I think it goes back longer than that, and I draw from Rabindranath Tagore's 1924 visit just as one manifestation of that, when a lot of Chinese were welcoming him as this great Indian sage and some of the leading Chinese intellectuals of the time were disgusted at this. They were saying, "Why are we giving the red carpet to a guy who is preaching Eastern civilization when his country is currently under the boots of the British?" So Chen Duxiu, a leading Chinese intellectual and one of the founders of the Communist Party, said that at all costs, we mustn't let our youth be corrupted by these ideas unless we want to end up as a colonized country as well. So, I think that if they felt that India was a British colony, then I think now you'd find in the daily pages of the Global Times India being referred to as a US puppet. So, I think that there's a sense that they don't want to deal with India on its own right, but they look at India as this, increasingly as part of a broader equation of relations with the US.


Milan  25:13

It's funny - just as a completely tangential aside, it reminded me of my undergraduate days. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, and we used to consider Princeton as our great rival. And the people at Princeton would say, "Are you kidding me? You guys are the safety school. People go to Penn when they can't get into Princeton because they're not smart enough." So, there's this complete power imbalance on the two sides. You know, I'd be remiss, obviously, if I didn't ask you about the recent contestation along the China-India border. In the foreign policy section of the book, you note that, look, the obvious solution to this issue is to clarify the Line of Actual Control and to ensure that both sides, China and India, know where the other's claim lies. My question to you, as somebody who is an amateur when it comes to China-India, is it seems to me that China profits enormously from the current ambiguity. In other words, by leaving things ambiguous and unspecified, can't it deny that it is doing anything whatsoever to change the status quo on the ground?


Ananth  26:19

I think that's exactly what China is doing. And I think my statement that clarifying the LSE was the best guarantee to peace, I guess, was predicated on the assumption that China wanted peace on the boundary, and I think that that was the assumption that Indian officials have had since 1993, since the first border agreement. Funnily enough, until today, you still see former Indian officials writing op-eds saying, "let's clarify the LAC, let's clarify the LAC." But I think that, to me and others, perhaps this summer's events have been a real eye-opener as to why we really haven't had a straight answer from China since 2002, when this process was abandoned. Why do they not want to clarify it? I think now we have the answer in the clearest terms, which is that I think that they felt that they did not want to legitimize any alternative alignment of the LAC that wasn't their alignment. And for whatever reason - and we'll come to that, I guess, later in this conversation - for whatever reason, they decided in the summer of 2020 to unilaterally force their perception of the LAC, which is a departure from how both sides managed the boundary since 1993, and perhaps even before that, since the end of the '62 War where there was a mutual recognition of different LAC claims. That seems to have changed. And I think that, honestly - in the book, I make the case not just for clarifying the LAC, but for why settling the boundary is the only way that both sides can have a forward-looking relationship. I wrote this before everything that happened in May, in June, though I finished the final draft of the book only in August. And to me, honestly, the events of the summer only reinforced my belief that I've always had that the boundary is not something that can be kept in a box, and that if both sides want a forward-looking relationship, they need to settle it. But unfortunately, in my view, the biggest obstacle to that is, I think, the Chinese perception that there's more to be gained from keeping India off-balance, from using an unsettled boundary and using a fuzzy LAC as leverage. And I think that as long as they believe that, and they feel that there's nothing to be gained from a permanent settlement, I think that, unfortunately, this period of tension is only going to continue. 


Milan  28:49

You know, some observers have made the point, Ananth, that what India has experienced over the summer is the single biggest loss of Indian territory to China since the 1962 War. I understand the haziness and ambiguity around what exactly is happening - even observers seem to disagree, looking at satellite imagery, about what's going on - but is that bold claim about the Indian loss of territory a fair characterization of the situation on the ground, as you see it? 


Ananth  29:21

In my view, it is a fair characterization, only because India doesn't have access to this huge amount of territory that it had pre-2020. So, in that sense, even if China is not physically occupying every bit of it, the fact that it's denying India access to it - to me, I think it's a fair characterization to say that India has lost this territory. Of course, that can be reversed, and of course, the Indian Government is saying that they aren't going to disengage until there's a return to the previous status quo. Whether or not that happens, I frankly don't know. But I think it is fair to say that this has been the biggest change in status of the Line of Control since 1962. To me, there's no question about that, only because it isn't just in Galwan Valley, which made the news all over the world, where there were incidents, but China is now denying access in the north bank of Pangong Lake and the Depsang Plains, and it is a not insignificant amount of territory. And this has never happened before. Of course, there were many standoff incidents in the past, then in 2013, 2014, that I report on in the book, but these were temporary, and these were very quickly resolved. There wasn't any permanent loss of access for India, even if there was temporary loss of access. So, in that sense, as of now, five, six months after all of this began, I think it's a very clear fact that it is the biggest change since '62. But having said that, Milan, of course, it is possible that this could be reversed. Though I'm a bit skeptical. I will be deeply puzzled if China just decided to withdraw from all the areas that it went into in early May, because that would beg the question, why did they even do this in the first place?


Milan  31:09

Something we glossed over that I want to come back to quickly and that you talk about in your book: there was the seminal visit when Xi Jinping came to India shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister and Modi hosted him in his home state of Gujarat, and it was during that visit, which was seen as a landmark visit - remember, Narendra Modi had some credentials in China, he had visited as Chief Minister, he was thought to have a good equation. It was during that visit that the PLA made several incursions into territory India claimed or, at least, you could say it was disputed territory. Why shouldn't that have been a warning sign, perhaps, that even on this great, festive occasion of these two leaders meeting for the first time in their respective positions, that China was seeking to revise its claim lines?


Ananth  32:03

I think, Milan, the incident in 2014 that you referred to, in many ways, can't be compared to the current state of affairs on the boundary only because I think it was probably very reasonable to look at what happened in 2014 as being part of the usual sort of jostling that happened along the LSE. And from my memory of what happened in 2014, it wasn't something that happened like in May this year, where the PLA just deployed in huge numbers and intruded across the LSE - it was actually a situation on the ground in one specific area where India was doing some constructions and the Chinese were responding and doing constructions. So, there was a back and forth was happening even before Xi Jinping was supposed to come to India, and I think the fact that he ended up visiting magnified the situation even though, in many ways, I think it was part of the normal kind of give-and-take that you see on the LSE. So, in that sense, I think it's fair to say that I wouldn't be too harsh on the Indian establishment in perhaps not reading the signs because from the way I saw it, Milan - I write about the 2017 Doklam standoff as being perhaps the worst period in the relationship of the last 10, 15 years, and even to my eyes, I thought that the two years that followed Doklam, with the informal summits in Wuhan and then in Chennai, I genuinely thought that both sides decided that they didn't want something like that to repeat. And even though a lot of Indian commentators are saying that the summer's events were pretty much expected, I did not see them coming. And I think that it's fair to say that what happened in 2014 during Xi's visit was much, much smaller in scale, and I would say not as unusual as what we've seen this summer.


Milan  33:54

So, I want to ask you the question that I put to Ashley Tellis a couple of weeks ago on the program, which has made some waves in other places. Ashley argued that the Chinese fundamentally misperceived India's decision to abrogate Article 370 as part of a larger revisionism regarding India's external borders. Unlike what some people have said on Twitter, Ashley was not blaming India for what China did, but rather trying to see things from Beijing's perspective, to say that this could actually be usefully separated somewhat from Chinese aggression across the board, whether it's in the South Asia region or the South China Sea and so on and so forth. So, I guess my question to you is whether you think there is any evidence that the recent uptick in border tensions can be in some way linked back to those fateful events of August 5, 2019.


Ananth  34:55

From my view, Milan - and this is something that's been discussed in the Indian press since the boundary tensions happened - from my view, I'm somewhat skeptical of the abrogation of Article 370 being a dominant reason for this plunge in India-China relations, mainly because I think you and I know that they were upset about it when it happened, and they had to object because the new map of Ladakh includes Aksai Chin even though India's external boundaries didn't change, but if you go back to what happened in August and September of 2019, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar went to Beijing pretty much to make this point - I think he did get the same line from Wang Yi that China was upset that India was trying to change the status quo, but I think he disabused them of any concerns of regarding India's boundary claims changing. And I think for me, the biggest reason why I don't think this was a huge reason for the plunge in ties was because I covered Xi Jinping's October visit to Chennai, and from my memory of everything that was said from officials from both sides, I don't think it even figured in the Modi-Xi talks. I think Xi did make a point about India-Pakistan relations needing to improve, mentioning Kashmir in that context. But I think that, to me, it seemed that China had made a noise about Article 370 because it had to, and I think that they had sort of made their peace with it by the time Xi came to India in October. So, to me, the fact that Chinese scholars have been mentioning it is perhaps more likely a good post facto explanation for why they're doing what they're doing. But, at the same time, I would agree with Ashley to the point that it may have [become] a reason for the PLA to say, "We need to send India a message in Ladakh." I'd say perhaps less so Article 370, more so because of India's infrastructure - I think the opening of the road was something that perhaps they felt they needed to respond to. And I am speculating here, and I always make the point that it's a fool's errand to say with certainty what Chinese motivations are. We're still debating what led to the attack in 1962 - some would tell you it was the fault of our policy, some would tell you it was Mao's insecurities about Tibet. So, from my point of view, anyone who says with huge certainty that China did this because of a particular reason, I usually take that with huge tubs of salt. But I would say that it's very possible that there was a multitude of reasons. I would say that this is a plausible one; I would say India's infrastructure developments in Ladakh are another plausible reason. China's sense of vulnerability post-COVID-19 that led to muscle flexing in all its theaters is another reason. And I'd say another reason that I would add to that list is something that Chinese experts have been saying in the last few weeks, which is they felt that there was less incentive for China to preserve the India-China relationship only because they felt that India's drifting away from China toward a de facto US alliance was an inevitability, so there's less reason for them to play nice. So, I would say perhaps is a multitude of all of these factors. But I will disappoint you by not giving a very clear answer saying that it was X, Y, or Z that led to it.


Milan  38:20

I mean, you know, it's funny, it reminds me that there's a fair amount of opacity or lack of transparency in Indian decision-making too, sometimes. I'm reminded this week that the PTI put out a story with the headline, something along the lines of, "Amit Shah Holding Meeting with Top Leaders to Discuss Important Issues." The sub caption was, "It is not known at this time with which leaders or on what issues," which I thought was one of the less useful newsbreaks.


Ananth  38:52

Milan, now that you mention Amit Shah, I should add that beyond the Article 370 abrogation, what I strongly believe did not help assuage Chinese anxieties was Amit Shah's statement in Parliament, which I think was entirely needless, saying that India would die to get Aksai Chin back. And I think that even if that didn't really worry Chinese leaders, it give them a great reason to do something to send a message to India, and I think it really was counterproductive in terms of going completely against everything that External Minister Jaishankar said on his trip. Som I should mention on the Amit Shah comment, I think that was very important as well in the context of assessing what happened last year.


Milan  39:31

no, it's an excellent point. Let me end this conversation by asking you about India's options going forward. The book argues that New Delhi can try and score public relations victories as much as it wants to, but the main challenge at the end of the day, where the rubber meets the road, is in constructing some kind of concrete response to rising Chinese influence in India's own backyard and pivoting and then offering some kind of credible alternative. So, as you look out into the future, what are the kinds of things that you think India needs to be doing that it hasn't been doing in order to construct exactly the kind of concrete response you think is lacking?


Ananth  40:15

I think that one thing that I always find striking is that as much as we love to beat up on the Belt and Road Initiative, one thing that I think it did right was sell an idea, sell a kind of vision of what China meant, and what its model meant. And I think that a good place for India to start would be to ask, what are India's values? What is India's vision for the world? If India does want to offer an alternative, I think we need to begin by resolving these own internal contradictions that we have. On the one hand, we want to position ourselves as a democratic alternative, but then on the other hand, India bristles at any external questioning of, say, what's happening internally in Kashmir. So, I think there's so many internal contradictions that we need to have a conversation with and resolve if we want to offer an alternative - obviously, that's what the thinking in Delhi is. I think the other obvious thing would be regarding India's approach to the neighborhood. And I think that's something that gets a lot of attention only because there's this constant debate and anxiety in India about losing the neighborhood to China. But I think that one thing that perhaps India is revisiting is the sense of reciprocity, of demanding reciprocity in the way it deals with smaller neighbors - "smaller" in quotes, purely referring to geography. I think that looking at the neighborhood in a very different way would be a place to start. But beyond that, if I had to say, in a very brief way, I think it would be first coming up with a sense of what exactly we stand for in the world. I think that would be a good place to start.


Milan  41:54

My guest on the show today is Ananth Krishnan. Ananth is the China correspondent for The Hindu, and he joins me on the phone from India. His new book is called India's China Challenge: A Journey Through China's Rise and What It Means for India. And congratulations on a fabulous book. When we were talking offline earlier, I just thought, particularly for the non-expert community - and I put myself in that category - this was such a lively and readable introduction to how China thinks both about its own political system, its economy, its foreign policy and about India. I hope it is widely read and widely shared. Thank you for taking the time. I mean, if you are a China watcher, this is perhaps the busiest time in recent memory, with the border challenges, with COVID, with other tensions, so thank you for taking the time out for coming on the show.


Ananth  42:42

Thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure to talk to you. Thanks again.