New Delhi: It is important and wise to study Chinese expansionism for its own sake and not just in relation to its strategic impact on India which is anyhow considerable. Such strategic and scholarly detachment will provide learning for India’s peaceful rise in far more difficult and constrained circumstances than those that confronted China at the inflection point of its own surge. Rise has become ever more complex and difficult from the earliest modern times that Great Powers came into being and charted their uneven courses and histories. To be obsessed with tactical confrontations is to miss the strategic big picture and become the perennial also-ran and loser, a fate that India is tempting for itself in its current conduct of geopolitics.

China’s first foreign military base being established in a key north-western part of the Indian Ocean in Djibouti is built on a strategic foundation laid by the late, great Deng Xiaoping more than twenty-five years ago. With one of America’s most strategically-minded Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Deng shared distaste for bombast and preferred actions to speak for themselves. Compared to his political rival, Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt often ran ahead of public opinion, which is to say, he couldn’t frequently command a following for his strategic thoughts. But that is not a handicap Deng Xiaoping faced, because he was China’s absolute leader with no public opinion to contend with. But he realized the value of strategic forbearance and patience as much as Roosevelt, Wilson and their predecessors going back to the American founding fathers did, and all of them together, from the Chinese to the earliest American statesmen, understood the priceless significance of strategic isolation/ withdrawal for rise.

The quality, depth and scope of America and China’s strategic isolation at the respective points of their rise were, as is inevitable for events separated by centuries, vastly varied. America had the luxury of having the Western Hemisphere nearly all to itself and was further separated from warring European states by a wide ocean. China, on the other hand, was located in teeming Asia and shared a border with a hostile Great Power, Soviet Russia, and was removed by a narrow sea from its erstwhile occupier and a former Great Power, Japan. Deng’s genius turned disadvantage to asset with no small role played by his own predecessor, the first strongman, Mao Tse Tung, in making China a third player in the Cold War with the United States and the USSR.

In some other ways, however, the rise of the United States and China were similar. They both knew the blunders to avoid. When the United States felt confident to appear on the world stage as a Great Power at the turn of the 19th century, it was more or less certain to eschew the balance of power that kept Europe divided. China, for its part, comprehended early the criticality of economic power to sustain strategic dominance. It knew that Soviet Russia was felled in part by its weak economy. In seeking and acquiring strategic peace for rise, China was also following on the course laid by Otto von Bismarck.

That India and China are strategic competitors is obvious, but that reality is not as central to the Chinese consciousness as it is to India’s which, given India’s comparatively secondary status, is understandable. A similar binary exists between India and Pakistan. The point to make here is this. China is obsessed about other things than India. It is obsessed about world dominion. It desires to replace the United States as the world’s leading power. Whether it happens or not is not the question. China has vast ambitions in which containing India forms a small part of its design. And China’s ambitions are getting added purchase from Donald Trump’s reckless retrenchment of America from global affairs. Djibouti should be seen from that angle and not merely as a containment exercise of India, which it also doubtless is.

Great Powers have almost never sustainedly risen in the swamp of ceaseless strife and war. The ability to keep peace is the hallmark of a Great Power. This was Bismarck’s singular accomplishment in his lifetime which his successors failed to safeguard. Japan’s spectacular rise with the Meiji Restoration was expended with unremitting militarism in the first half of the 20th century. The decline of Russia and the West European powers may all be attributed to this cause. The curse does not escape the United States despite its success of rebounding from strategic reverses in the past. This only serves to emphasize the point that strategic peace is as crucial for rise as to sustain it. The Chinese have learnt at least the first part of the equation, and history presents no different lessons for India.

If India has to rise for no other reason than to give effect to its legitimate national interest, it has to be at peace domestically, whence the economy can grow unbounded, and it has to keep peace at any cost on its land and sea frontiers. This peace has to have a span of at least twenty years for the rise to accelerate and sustain. Hindutva, nationalism, and obsessive and corrosive rancour for China and Pakistan will stall and eventually kill the rise. China has more than enough foundational momentum to become an expansive Great Power. It would be perilous for India to harbour illusions about containing China. Coexistence is the best solution, and Indian diplomacy will have somehow to work this magic. India needs peace and tranquillity to grow and occupy its true and exalted place in the world order. The Indian political establishment should know there is no other way.

Geopolitics cannot be fast-forwarded.