New Delhi: It is reasonable to assume that China knows more about India than India about China. This is partly an outcome of the political systems in either country. Being a democracy with a free press, much less gets hidden in India, although, for that reason, it can also be a victim of gross misperception. For example, China believes in a form of linear thought that India can be divided and broken up along caste, community and regional lines through smart war which anyone who has a slightly deeper understanding of the Indian psyche would promptly dismiss as rubbish. But even the smallest predictions from the Indian side, on the other hand, are nearly impossible to make apropos China, because it is such a closed society, on top of being a totalitarian state. Since China is a great power, however, and wholly inimical to India, a small preview of which has been presented by way of the recent incursion in Ladakh, this blindness vis-a-vis the giant neighbour to the north must be swiftly and comprehensively ended.

China today is not the China of either Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, two of its greatest modern leaders. There was certainly no predictability about Mao and Deng too operated in multiple layers of thinking, the most dynamic of them being the attack on Vietnam (1979) and the understanding with America on Afghanistan after the Soviet intervention, but at least they held China together with their iron rule, and all the institutions were subordinate to them. To be sure, it did not make China manageable for the world but at least the two pre-eminent powers of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, knew who to talk to and, to the extent possible, which was quite less at the best of times, influence.

The situation since Deng’s passing has been steadily downhill for China in one respect, which is that its top leadership does not command the authority and respect that Deng himself and even more Mao commanded. Perhaps Jiang Zemin as emerging from Deng’s direct shadow enjoyed a measure of control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that his successors have less thoroughly obtained, especially Hu Jintao. The intelligence filtering out of China, for what it is worth, suggests that the Ladakh incursion came at the PLA’s behest about which the current Chinese government leadership was not entirely apprised. This has happened in other contexts with third countries, including the US, for it not to be ruled out of hand. But there is no certainty that this explains the Ladakh incident, over and above explicit Chinese interests in the region concerned with its own geo-politics and also in view of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s renewed claims on that country which has tremendous significance for China.

The simple point is that India just doesn’t have enough knowledge about the internal goings-on in China, the individual and institutional rivalries, the power struggles, the machinations, the key determinants of foreign military actions, and so on. There is academic scholarship but it has its limitations, not to speak of its leanings. On a governmental level, the information, intelligence and analytical flows on China are not of an order or sophistication to enable sound predictions about its behaviour. The Ladakh incursion became known after the fact. The Indian military has contacts with the PLA but not of a depth to provide insights about Chinese military behaviour, thinking, attitudes, plans, etc. The People’s Liberation Army has become even more important in the present Chinese power structure because, in a sense, it provides its own leadership, not merely acting, as it once did, on the ideas and ideologies of paramount leaders such as Mao and Deng. Because they are no more, and the generations succeeding them are comparatively pygmies, cutting each other down so that another Mao does not emerge, this has made a unified and disciplined institution like the PLA so much more stronger and dominant. Again, hearsay suggests that in the new government of Xi Jinping, the PLA inserted many of its doughty supporters, which makes it more powerful than ever. Does India reflect this understanding?

Sadly no.

The top China “expert” in the Indian government today is the national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon. The Indian Foreign Service to which he once belonged makes knowledge of Mandarin a pre-requisite for diplomacy with China and Menon reputedly is well-versed in it. He was also the Indian ambassador in Beijing when Atal Behari Vajpayee made his opening to China. Despite all this background, Menon has proved mediocre on China, at least in this writer’s assessment, and as national security advisor, he has brought nothing exceptional to the table. There is, of course, a larger debate which must be provoked of making the office of NSA a preserve of under par Intelligence Bureau chiefs (M.K.Narayanan) and pompous IFS officers (J.N.Dixit and now Menon), but the question of the moment is, what has Shiv Shankar Menon achieved to justify the appellation of “China expert”? Menon wears two hats at the same time, that of NSA and the head of the China Study Group. The consequence of this is that the government gets only one view on China, which is Menon’s, in which the military opinion, whose weight cannot be over-estimated, naturally gets played down. As a China “expert”, Menon ideally should represent only one office, say that of the NSA, whilst someone else, maybe the cabinet secretary or the defence secretary or a retired army chief, ought to head the China Study Group, so that Menon’s biases do not get played up, and become the sole option with the government. In the present structure of the China Study Group, this clash of interest is perhaps inevitable, because the NSA automatically heads it, but if India must have a sensible and doable China policy, Menon’s role must be circumscribed and curtailed.

But Menon with his limitations is only part of the problem. India does not engage with China at a depth where true understanding, if at all, may be obtained. Government-to-government contacts are what they are, but interactions with the Chinese communist party are not of a scale practiced by China’s immediate neighbours. Some of the deepest insights into the People’s Liberation Army may be accessed from Taiwan, which is eager for strengthened relations with India, but sidelined. Vietnam gave an awful punishment to the invading PLA in the late 1970s and is a mine of information on China, but again treated with scorn and disrespect by India. If the present imbalance persists in the knowledge and understanding of China, India will be in more trouble than the incursion in Ladakh, and sooner than expected. China is economically slipping, and it will predictably play the “nationalism card” to overawe and browbeat its citizens. Its bluff must be called.