Home Opinion Why China is the Kautilya of international politics

Why China is the Kautilya of international politics

While the disengagement in Ladakh is apace, China is well placed in the rajamandala to carry on its hostility towards India by means other than war.

File photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping | Bloomberg
File photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping | Bloomberg

The gameplay on the chessboard of global politics continues to cast its shadow on India’s relationships with the United States, China, nations of the sub-continent, and within its own federal units. For the skeptics of Kautilya’s continued relevance, the contemporary geopolitical chessboard underlines the chief tenets of Kautilyan rajamandala, or ‘circle of states’ – a concentric, geopolitical conception of the inter-state realm typifying friend-foe relationships.

Ironically, if there is one country that eminently exemplifies the Kautilyan template in international conduct, it is China – who was till the Ladakh episode, the quintessential madhyama (middle king) of the inter-state realm. A middle king is defined as “one with territory immediately proximate to those of the Ari (enemy) and the conqueror (hypothetically Pakistan and India respectively), capable of helping them when they are united or disunited and of suppressing them when they are disunited.” True to this definition, China had skilfully calibrated its dynamics with Pakistan and India. It had entered into a negotiated agreement (samdhi) with India (roughly co-equal then) through the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 and several other agreements of 1996, 2003 and 2012, at a time when a stable neighbourhood was vital for its economic growth.

Creating confidence by means of peace, it has enticed countries away from India’s circle of allies and has created hostility, potentially ruining the success of India’s undertakings. After Ladakh, China seems to fit the role of the Ari.

China’s playbook has been an ode to Kautilya.

Also read: New book details how China is eyeing Ladakh for its ‘new silk road’ — the CPEC

India’s internal balance

After more than two decades of consolidation, China has leveraged its strategic advantage and has potentially moved away from samdhi to samdhiyayana (marching after entering into peace pact) with its Ladakh escapade. With India successfully countering China’s aggressive moves, it may, perhaps, settle with what qualifies as asana – a transient phase of remaining quiet when the conqueror and the enemy are unable to outdo each other. While the disengagement apace is mutually beneficial, China is well placed in the rajamandala to carry on its hostility towards India by means other than war. The authoritarian regimes in Pakistan, and now Myanmar, flanking India on its western and eastern borders, a seemingly pro-China government in Sri Lanka to its south, perhaps, are calculated attempts to offset India’s centrality in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) – the one area where India has had an upper hand.

India’s twin goals of raksha (security) and palana (welfare) guide its international conduct. As ninety per cent of India’s international trade passes through waters of the Indo-Pacific ocean system, the region is critical for India’s prosperity and by extension, its security. So what are the options for India?

The most preferred Kautilyan policy measure is to maintain balance internally. Good health of the first six prakritis (state factors) i.e. ruler, ministers, territory and population, fort, treasury, and armed might is the surest way to guard one’s interests in the rajamandala. Realistically, while attempts at internal balancing are underway, the treasury, which represents the economy, may take considerable time to recoup its growth and may consequently deepen the internal socio-economic fissures. The legacy of these fissures could outlast the return to a stable economic growth path. The pace of military modernisation could be slowed down unless fiscal allocation is reprioritised. Internal balancing, though necessary, may not be feasible to cope with the pace at which pieces are currently moving on the global and regional geopolitical and geoeconomic chessboard.

Also read: Don’t rush to give clean chit to China. Mumbai power grid failure is a strong warning

The bigger picture

In the wake of a less optimised state capacity, securing allies is the prescribed way for outwitting (atisamdhana) the enemy. This, however, has to be done with caution. On the one hand, strategic partnerships (samavaya) provide enhanced opportunities to weaker states to balance the rise of an enemy, and on the other, they can be used as a nuanced tool for political domination and manipulation. Strength and reliability are key parameters to finding the right partners, and negotiation skills are given a premium in striking partnerships. With the rise of China, the US has been explicit in making efforts towards getting India to be its partner, with a view to counter China’s increasing influence in the international system. India has been hedging on this issue for long and it is still difficult to discern the impact of the Ladakh episode on altering its fundamental stance in any profound manner. India’s stance on the Quad could be an indicator. However, the February meeting at the foreign ministers level and India’s subsequent Minister of External Affairs (MEA) statement is anodyne with the repetition of homilies. However, recent reports indicate that a meeting of QUAD leaders is on the cards. If so, it is perhaps reflective of India moving away from the reservations of being seen as ‘ganging up’ against China in the maritime domain where it has leverage. The hesitancy could also be fuelled by apprehensions of being drawn into conflicts and confrontations that may serve purely the interests of the US.

Kautilya’s advice in dealing with such situations is revealing. Kautilya prescribes the dual policy of dvaidhibhava, which means making peace with one to fight war with another — alternatively interpreted as diplomatic duplicity, which advises a concurrent pursuance of contestation and competition with one country. Kautilyan prudence also prescribes a nuanced approach through the dual policy. This employment of a mix of policies is reminiscent of the four upayas – sama (conciliation), dana (compensation), bheda (dissension) and danda (force), a vibrant theme in the text. Importantly, its tactful application allows simultaneous pursuance of all policies stated above.

The big picture of the complexity in the global political landscape must not be allowed to shroud the perspective of India’s internal trajectory. Internal geopolitics has generated a stream of social polarisation and economic weakening that mitigates against agendas that promote what Kautilya refers to as yogakshema, or the welfare of the people, as the ultimate goal of governance. The imperative is to manage the domestic geoeconomic agenda while casting aside socially divisive ideological pursuits.

The moot question is whether India’s contemporary democratic polity will be able to reinvent and realign domestic priorities even as it grapples with its external challenges. Kautilya would have spotlighted the domestic agenda, even if it means casting aside for the short and medium term, contested ideological persuasions that drain energies and detract from the pursuit of Yogakshema.

Lt Gen Prakash Menon, is Director, Strategic Studies Program, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former, Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Dr Kajari Kamal is Research Faculty at Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.