Deconstructing China’s “Assertiveness”: A Psychological Science Perspective
Report of Discussion held at the IPCS Conference Room on 22 February 2012
Speaker: Ravi Bhoothalingam, Distinguished Fellow, IPCS
Psychology is not a new tool for analysis by strategists and policy makers. It was well advocated by thinkers like Plato, Kautilya and others long back. But psychology has re-emerged as an alternative to economic and IR theories due to their failure in interpreting important issues. There has been a demand for multidisciplinary science model with Psychology as the key to study the issues of multi-causality.
Psychology as a discipline has opened new vistas of thought which can be used to trace the behaviour of rational actors in international relations, which are:
• Reasons and emotions are not separated rather they are interlinked.
• Psychology distinguishes between reality and what is perceived.
• An important notion in psychology is projection, where behaviour or a course of action of an actor can be projected on someone else.
In this background, an alternative way of looking at China’s assertiveness and deconstructing it can be adjudged from the lacuna of Psychological Science perspective in international relations. Emphasis on the importance of psychology over the basic scientific and IR theories brings behavioral economics to the fore. Assertion, by definition, means confident and direct in claiming one’s right. But in actual practice it has an underlined tone of power and appropriateness of claims and often is not used in a positive or in a neutral sense.
The question that arises further is that to what degree are China and India assertive in each other’s perspective. This can be gauged from various dimensions: comparing China and India’s international behaviour, a time bound analysis of an assertive China, Chinese muscle flexing in the South China Sea, Chinese vulnerability on the issue of Tibet and the strategy and some inferences on India regarding deconstruction of its assertiveness.
The perception of China being assertive is seen by India from an exhaustive list of confrontational areas: the ‘Airavat’ affair, Arunachal Pradesh dispute, Tibet dispute, border issues, river water diversions, China’s String of Pearls strategy, the Pakistan nexus, Stapled visas and Dalai Lama and so on. At the same time China’s perception is a mirror reflection of these very areas proving India’s assertiveness. Thus psychology tries to see things from different angles to project a better report.
Another major determinant is the relationship between the already established ‘super power’ status of the US and the ‘emerging supremacy’ of China and India. While dealing with the so called problematic states it has been seen that the US takes the way of either ‘attacking’ or ‘staying in isolation’ vis-à-vis its relations with countries like, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea. On the other hand, China and India generally converge in their approach to take the route of engagement.
The time bound framework can also prove another way of changing perceptions. Dividing the time frame from 1989-2011, it could be seen that from 1989-2001- in the era of Post Soviet Union collapse with sole super power dominating the world scenario, China was seen as vulnerable by theoreticians. It was even predicted that it will collapse by 2011. But the scenario changed with 9/11, where after the US remained occupied with Iraq and this time was used by China to build its strength and rise on the international stage. In the South China Sea China has projected an assertive role and its position there has not changed. This is evident from multiple national instances observed by sinologists all across the world. There are many theories describing this assertiveness. But if one was to look at it from the psychological science perspective, avoidance behavior would be more apt to describe the approach.
How Assertive is China?
Assertion and aggression are not the opposite sides of the same coin; even aggression does not precede attack. Rather aggression reveals vulnerability. So what comes to dominate the scene is a rising but vulnerable China. China is especially vulnerable in case of Tibet. China’s next generation leaders should take care of Tibet problem otherwise the problem will continue to persist.
The Tibet Dilemma
The word crisis in the Chinese script has two connotations: it brings with it both the meaning of “danger and opportunity.” In that sense Tibet brings for China both opportunity and danger though India is maintaining a neutral position in the border issues. But there can be a third option of common national interest also despite the contradictions. There are common concerns like climate, trade, terrorism and also complementary relations in the case of society, economy, industry, global economic growth and civilizational continuity.
Implications of China’s Assertive Strategy for India
There are dialectics in the relation of China and India as there are both contradictory and complementary aspects of it. Thus while dealing with the India-China relations these dialectics of opposites like the yin yan should be taken to consideration. India should focus more on the complementary relations between the two and have a different perception of the assertion of China, especially in the areas of better economic ties and enhancement of people-to-people contacts. At the same time India and China should avoid being paralyzed by border issue like Japan and ASEAN countries. Management of short term contradiction is what should be taken care of. Along with that, surpassing the conventional trade relations it should take forward some grand projects. Both, being mature civilizations, should look beyond immediate areas of interest and take the professional engagement to different level.
• Quantum physics and psychology can be used to interpret the yin-yan situation of India-China relations.
• In case of perceptions contradictory ideas can coexist. There should be correct handling of contradictions as quoted by Mao Zedong in case of China.
• Dimensional changes are important which should be taken care of in International Relations.
• In case of the Chinese beliefs, Confucianism does not propound reciprocity, so there can be unequal treatment for equal results for certain issues.
• The cultural connectivity which was there from the older days should be revived. Cultural endowment should be used to deal with black swans (surprise situations).
• The Tibet crisis was dealt in a diffused way in the older times, which is dealt in a rigid way now. Tibet, which is so important from geo-political and cultural latitudes, should be handed with skill and able leadership.
Report Prepared by Priyanka Dutta Chowdhury, Research Intern, IPCS