It is not just that seeking to placate the public at home with braggadocio overseas will make it harder still for China to garner allies and respect. There is a deeper problem. Many countries around the world admire, and would like to emulate, the undemocratic but effective way that China has managed its decades of growth. If China’s domestic politics look less stable, some of that admiration will wane. And even if things can be held together, for the time being, admiration for China does not translate into affection for it, or into a sense of common cause. Economically and militarily, China has come a long way towards regaining the centrality in Asia it enjoyed through much of history. Intellectually and morally, it has not. In the old days it held a “soft power” so strong, according to William Kirby of Harvard University, that “neighbours converted themselves” to it. Now, Mr Xi may know how to assert himself and how to be feared, at home and abroad. But without the ability to exert a greater power of attraction, too, such strength will always tend to destabilise.
This serves no one except radicals on both sides. With rabid 24-hour satellite channels seizing upon every cross-border attack or perceived diplomatic affront, jingoism is on the rise. Indian strategists talk loosely of striking across the border in the event of another Mumbai-style terrorist attack; Pakistani officials speak with disturbing ease of responding with tactical nuclear weapons. From their safe havens in Pakistan meanwhile, the Taliban have launched one of the bloodiest spring offensives in years in Afghanistan, even as . forces prepare to draw down there. If he truly hopes to break the deadlock on the subcontinent, Modi needs to do something even Gandhi could not: give Pakistan, a nation born out of paranoia about Hindu dominance, less to fear.
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