Geostrategic analyses which argue that it would be advantageous for India to take part in China’s mega-project—the Belt and Road Initiative—overlook multiple factors that make such a scenario unlikely. These factors include the complexity of the historical conflicts between the two nations, the sociopsychological phenomenon of group narcissism in Hindu Nationalist India, and the symbolic imbalance of power between India and China.
In mid-July 2020, relations between India and China reached a frosty low point. After months of growing tension between the two countries, deadly skirmishes erupted in the Galwan Valley, in the western Himalayas. Ten Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers lost their lives in the conflict, which lasted several days. As the valley, which borders the Indian union territory Ladakh, is a demilitarized zone, the battles were fought with stones and clubs with nails in them.
Aurel Eschmann is a former Project Manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s South Asia Programme and researches authoritarian transformations in India and China.
Tensions are not unusual along the approximately 3,500-kilometre border between India and China. The border line, which runs along the Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and the Ladakh region, has been disputed since the Indo-Chinese war in 1962 and is not regulated by international law. However, the conflicts this summer were the first time since 1975 that the border disputes became deadly. Both countries reacted strongly and hurled accusations at the opposing side. In India, anti-Chinese demonstrations and calls to boycott Chinese goods flared up across the country. This ultimately culminated in a series of economic sanctions resulting in a ban on over 200 Chinese apps, including the social-media platform TikTok. According to commentators however, these sanctions could be more detrimental to India’s economy than China’s.
The border in the Himalayas is certainly not the only place where the deterioration of political relations between the two nuclear powers can be seen. Another is China’s mega-project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road. The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi refuses to participate in the gigantic geostrategic infrastructure and development initiative, which aims to increase networking within Asia, among other things. All of India’s neighbouring countries, with the exception of Bhutan, are part of the billion-dollar programme. However, India did not participate in the “Belt and Road Forum” in Beijing in 2017, nor in any of the subsequent BRI summits. Concurrently, India is suspicious of China’s self-confident appearance in regions that it has traditionally been influential in.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, these tensions looked different. A steady growth of benevolent dialogue between the two nations around foreign policy was accompanied by the strong growth of economic interdependencies. Many commentators saw this as the beginning of an Asian century, in which India and China would return to prominence in the world economy after a 200 year Western imperial intermezzo, resulting in an improvement of working relations between the two nations.
In an excellent analysis of the New Silk Road from an Indian Perspective, Subir Bhaumik argues that despite or perhaps because of geostrategic concerns, it would be beneficial for India to cooperate more with China and work with them on the BRI. His analysis focuses particularly on India’s own ambitions to develop and increase connectivity within its North-Eastern region. Bhaumik’s central claim can be summarized as such: India and China must overcome their strategic competition and recognize that political cooperation would be advantageous for both countries. In doing so, India should neither lose sight of its own strategic interests nor the dangers that come with cooperating with a more powerful partner.
While the material and strategic considerations behind this claim may be correct, Bhaumik’s argument underestimates a number of symbolic and sociopsychological factors that would make such a rapprochement between India and China considerably more difficult. Recognizing the dangers of working with the People’s Republic of China requires the conscious formulation of some extremely uncomfortable insights for India. These concern the complexity of the historical conflict, the fact that India lacks its own foreign policy narrative, and its immense economic and military inferiority in comparison to its northern neighbour.
The Depth of the Historical Conflict
As early as the 1950s, shortly after Indian independence and the end of the Chinese civil war, relations between the two countries were characterized by mutual interest and solidarity. This was evident not only in the founding of friendship organisations and exchange programmes, but also in the meeting between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong in Beijingin 1954. At the meeting, the two country’s leaders recognized not only India’s economic advantage over China, but also the necessity of working together against the imperial West. The slogan Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (“India and China are brothers”) formed the premise of foreign policy and circulated widely throughout India at the time. This goodwill was followed by action: in 1954 Nehru and the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai signed the Panchsheel Treaty, which not only established peaceful coexistence and cooperation but also Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
Nehru was ready to make large concessions in order to preserve a good relationship with the People’s Republic. The reason for this was probably that his real goal was the creation of a global South-South alliance led by India. China also took part in the founding conference of this anti-colonial movement in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, which included many Asian and African states.
However, with the Tibetan uprising of 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent exile to India, relations between India and China deteriorated drastically. In India, disillusionment with their Communist neighbour spread due to the invasion of Tibet. Dissenting voices grew louder, accusing Nehru of disregarding Indian interests in treaties with China. Conversely, Indian support for Tibet increased Chinese resentment over the unresolved border issues in the Himalayas. As late as 1960, Nehru, who did not even consider the possibility of a Chinese attack, categorically rejected Zhou Enlai’s proposal for a compromise to demarcate the border. Finally, the month-long border war broke out in 1962, in which China succeeded in pushing the Indian armed forces far back into Indian territory. This humiliation is still felt today. Jawaharlal Nehru considered it to be a deep betrayal of the idea of both Indo-Chinese brotherhood and the principles agreed upon in the Panchsheel Treaty. This marked the end of the solidarity between the two nations and the South-South alliance. In 1988, only a quarter of a century later, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi again initiated a careful but pragmatic rapprochement between the two countries.
Even if the anti-colonial South-South solidarity had failed with the 1962 conflict as a regional strategy, this framework remained India’s most powerful foreign policy narrative until the end of the Cold War. Unlike China, India did not succeed in finding a foreign policy narrative that was adapted to the new geopolitical and economic realities.
The India that led and held the Non-Aligned Movement together offered nothing less than an alternative world order. Today, however, it is completely unclear how this emerging superpower intends to shape the world. China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers a narrative of global peace and prosperity under Chinese leadership. India, on the other hand, in the absence of any idealistic offers to other countries, often relies on its sheer size and regional superiority to achieve cooperation. It is precisely because China’s growing presence offers a way out of this inevitability of Indian dominance that India’s neighbouring states are so willing to show interest in the New Silk Road.
International Relations, Nationalism, and Group Narcissism
Foreign policy cannot be conceived of in terms of a purely rational strategic cost-benefit analysis; it is driven by discursive dynamics which are in turn determined not only by existing social structures, but also by collective psychological mechanisms. This is due to the fact that political discourses always fulfil identity-forming and psychological functions.
Since Erich Fromm, social psychologists have observed that group narcissism is a particularly important sociopsychological mechanism for authoritarian nationalist movements. Narcissism is a psychological defence mechanism for situations in which one’s own position in the world, with all its dependencies and complex power relations, is unbearable for the individual. As a reaction, the actual situation is repressed and replaced by imaginary states which fluctuate between feelings of total power or total powerlessness. Social norms limit narcissistic mechanisms in the individual, causing them to withdraw deep into the subconscious. However, if narcissism is related to a group and is shared within that group, then no limits are placed on it. Since the election victory of the National People’s Party (Bhartiya Janata Party, BJP) in May 2014, India has been ruled by Hindu nationalists who, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are driving the gradual transformation of a pluralistic and multi-religious India into a Hindu-dominated and increasingly totalitarian society. Their narrative is founded on the idea of a return to a “Hindu greatness”, cleansed of all Muslim influences.
These fantasies of “Hindu greatness” and the “resurgence of Hinduism” are manifestations of group narcissism. The feelings of greatness are created through performance and are not based on material factors. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, India was already in the midst of a serious economic crisis, which the poorest sections of the population bear the brunt of. Simultaneously, the government is constantly celebrating Indian fantasies of greatness, be it through a space programme, the construction of gigantic religious and political statues, or pseudoscientific claims that airplanes and the Internet already existed in ancient India. Objections to the collectively generated narcissistic self-perception are answered with direct aggression. In India, this is often unleashed through mob violence against allegedly “anti-national” left-wing students and intellectuals, or through “disrespectful” behaviour towards cows by Muslims.
The threat of criticism is felt so strongly because narcissism is also always characterized by the fear that the repressed situation of dependence or weakness will return to consciousness. However, for India to participate in the New Silk Road while acknowledging its strategic position, as proposed by Subir Bhaumik, requires the conscious recognition of exactly such a situation. When tensions between India and China eased in 1988, the two countries were economically and militarily on an equal footing. China’s GDP has since grown to five times that of India. Today, India is one of the 124 countries which considers the People’s Republic of China its most important trading partner (as of 2018), while India ranks eleventh for China. Similarly, China clearly surpasses India in terms of military spending and its success in reducing poverty.
Coming to terms with these inferiorities is much more painful for India when they relate to the People’s Republic of China as opposed to the old imperial powers of the Global North. The latter can be more easily integrated into the group narcissistic world view because they started out from completely different historical conditions, and can now in turn be construed either as superior colonial powers or as inferior, declining great powers, and thus integrated into narcissistic dualism. China, however, which started out from very similar conditions, demonstrates the weaknesses and failures of India in a way that presents a uniquely potent threat to India’s nationalist imagination. In order not to endanger this imagination, from an Indian perspective, any situation that reveals the actual balance of power must be avoided. India’s participation in BRI would be one such situation.
The sanctions and app bans against China also make sense from this perspective, even if they are more detrimental to the Indian economy than the Chinese economy in the end. Such actions performatively reverse the balance of power and suggest that the Chinese economy is dependent on India. In this way, the nationalists create a sense of agency and superiority over China.
These group narcissistic imaginations become dangerous once they are threatened to such an extent that they provoke aggressive defences, which could easily end in a very real international conflict. Whether the next decade will be characterized by a resurgent Pan-Asian solidarity or by competition and military conflict, depends on how much authoritarian nationalism and group narcissism can be challenged by both nations.