New Delhi: It is unbelievable how much the ministry of external affairs and the Indian Foreign Service are disconnected from the realities of geopolitics. They especially fail in regard to understanding and influencing Chinese behaviour, and they have misled present and previous governments into embarrassing and damaging cul-de-sacs. Since Narendra Modi has scant understanding of geopolitics, reads even less about it, and for most of his political life has been a party functionary or chief minister of a relatively minor state, the foreign policy establishment is able to pull the wool over his eyes time and again about the richness of Sino-Indian relations and the imminent gold that would be struck there. Now the ex-foreign secretary who has joined the Tata group, the overrated S. Jaishankar, has entered the dissimulation circuit, selling the lolly that relations with China have reached high levels where India’s NSG entry is close to getting Chinese approval. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The more India presses China on NSG, the more adamant it will become not to give in. China will not step back on any of its expansions perceived to be harmful to Indian interests. This includes, inter alia, Doklam and the frontier land swap negotiations with Bhutan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), proscription of Pakistani terrorists, and the string-of-pearls programme involving Sri Lanka, Maldives and other Indian Ocean states. To beat China at its game, its own strength must be employed against it. This is, in any case, the essence of Chinese martial arts.

In the heyday of Stalinist Russia, few betted on things going awfully wrong as they eventually did decades later. The exception was George F. Kennan who had seen through the Soviet Union and was convinced that its ideological vigour would not last. He based his faith on two things. One of them was the average Russian. He believed the Russian detested communism and would eventually rise and overthrow it. Kennan knew Russia perhaps almost as well as Russians themselves. The second factor was Soviet expansion to become an imperium. Kennan knew from his readings of Roman history, especially Edward Gibbon’s opus, that the more an empire expanded the greater the certainty that it was encouraging fissiparous tendencies. At some point, the contradictions would undo the empire. Kennan intuitively knew Soviet Russia was headed in that direction. The hubris of expansion, the certitude of never being ideologically wrong, the fanaticism of it all, would undermine it one day. That process could be accelerated with containment. The United States would have to counter Soviet expansion everywhere with force in the last resort and other means till American opposition became unbearable for the Kremlin. Since Kennan became more influential than he cared to be in his lifetime, the element of force that he secondarily prescribed as a part of containment doctrine became over-emphasized, leading to the arms race, proxy wars, and so on, which he did not truly advocate.

Nevertheless, the core of containment doctrine as he had enunciated stood the test of time. In a sense, Kennan had carried the history of a particular epoch forward, the Roman one in his case, and applied it to the Cold War. In the post-Cold War era, China is an equally fit case for containment. China is displaying the same hubris as declined powers did in glory and the way to contain it is both to encourage its hubris and to simultaneously smartly undercut it. China or rather Xi Jinping’s flagship programme, the Belt and Road Initiative, has gained worldwide notoriety for landing targeted countries in a debt trap. Sri Lanka is mired in one, having had to cede a strategic port to China as debt settlement. Malaysia has wisely bailed out of BRI and Chinese blandishments have had no effect on its strongman, Mahathir Mohammed. The test case is really Pakistan where China is spending close to $65 billion on CPEC and its peripherals to provide a back-link to Beijing to Middle East oil and gas in case of sea denial in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. CPEC’s importance to China cannot be overstated and unsurprisingly India’s objection to CPEC’s passage through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has fallen on deaf ears. It also stands to reason that China will station the PLA in growing numbers in Pakistan given that CPEC has become a strategic backbone for China. Again, Indian objections to the PLA in PoK would be like water off a duck’s back.

Is the CPEC of equal importance to Pakistan? This is a troublesome question which no one in Pakistan desires to truthfully answer. The reality is complex. Pakistan is in the world’s doghouse. Even the United States has run out of patience of its double dealings in Afghanistan to the extent it is ready to block Pakistan’s loan application to the IMF for $12 billion. Pakistan is broke and heavily indebted to China and the CPEC will further draw it into the bog. The closure of external finance and the rivalry with India are compelling Pakistan to swallow the bitter pills of Chinese conditional loans and the CPEC. CPEC is not all bad but China will gain at the expense of Pakistan. Pakistan will be colonized in the process. A gated Chinese colony is already on the cards in CPEC’s Arabian Sea endpoint in Gwadar. God knows what else is in the pipeline. The point to ponder is how long Pakistanis will stand pauperization at the hands of the Chinese. The Pakistan army cannot let go of the Chinese and its puppet elected governments, like Imran Khan’s, will sing hosannas to Beijing. But for how long? Can the army stay pro-Beijing in the face of mass upsurge against China? Unrelenting worldwide propaganda against BRI and CPEC and actions like Donald Trump’s trade war with China have to be the new tools to contain Chinese expansion. Don’t bet on China going down soon but its glory days are over. Meanwhile, India, the ministry of external affairs and the IFS have to wake up to the dangers of appeasing China. Containing China will take years of toil but a beginning has to be made sometime and somewhere.