Wednesday, June 5, 2013

India-China Relations: A Reality Check

Lt Gen (Retd) Gautam Banerjee, 
Executive Council, VIF

The Elephant’s Dilemma

New Delhi’s purportedly ‘meek submission’ to what is seen as arbitrary, at times blatant, affront to India’s national dignity that is regularly inflicted by Beijing, often comes in for sharp criticism by our strategic community. Common citizens too are dismayed when they find New Delhi bending-backwards to reconcile to Beijing’s highhandedness, sometimes after lodging meek protest and sometimes allowing the arrogation to pass1. Many a times, as in the matter of the muscle flexing by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), either the incidents are left unreported, or when that is unfeasible, down-playing explanations are advanced to soothe public consternation - a case of the victim holding brief for the tormentor2!

In more disconcerting vein, there comes grave provocations from China that amount to a sort of ‘hostility’ against our nationhood. Besides, the mind boggling nonsense of staking claim over the state of Arunachal Pradesh, occupation of the Shaksgam Valley in Ladakh, pumping up Pakistan with military, nuclear and missile capabilities – a brazen recourse to destabilize India - and negation of New Delhi’s stance on terrorism go to exemplify Beijing’s obsessive antipathy towards India3. In all such cases, New Delhi suffers these inimical policies in stoic resignation. Thus, the criticism that our strategic community heaps upon the government of the day is not unjustified.
Governance in contemporary India is driven by economic considerations, as indeed it should be. However, there are signs emanating from policy-making confabulations which indicate that the other fundamentals of national security may be consigned to the sidelines in favour of the ‘interests’ of the commercial conglomerate. Obviously, when tested under eternal political wisdom, it is a trend dangerous for the future of our nationhood. Even if the undertakings of national defence are suspended as a temporary trade-off in favour of economic-industrial take-off, as China did during the 1980’s and 1990’s, the governing establishment may not be absolved from its primary charter that mandates, not the promotion of business interests per se, but the provision of secure and sovereign environment for the people to flourish.
The purpose here is, firstly, to suggest that notwithstanding the enchanting dream of ending geo-political rivalry through commercial connections, the Sino-Indian relationship may remain contentious in the foreseeable future; and secondly, to argue that articulation of military power-backed diplomacy would be a hopeful option for India to live in peace with an overwhelmingly powerful and pugnacious neighbour4.

Contentions Ever-Interminable

One comes across many theories to explain Beijing’s compulsive hostility towards India. Experts opine that the root causes of China’s aversion is the power-play of regional leadership – of the kind of that usually comes up between the largest and the second largest neighbours. Then of course, there is India’s repudiation of China’s territorial claims and China’s piqué of Indians’ solidarity with the Tibetan people. In economic terms, competition for energy, water and mining rights for strategic minerals, and China’s efforts to secure her sea lines of communication are also identified as the points of contention. No doubt, all these irritants add up to reinforce the already existing mutual suspicion. However, with the kind of sabre-rattling that China is frequently at, there is no doubt that a powerful majority in the Chinese establishment is afflicted with a sense of apprehension vis-à-vis India. But then what might these apprehensions be, and what can India do about it?

The answer may lie in the weight of the contentious issues that cast a shadow of unease upon Sino-Indo relations.

Regional Leadership?

In the question of rivalry for leadership in the region, the verdict is clear. To state the obvious, China encompasses a vast geographical area and unlimited range of resources. Traditionally, she cradles an extraordinary level of socio-political as well as practical intellect, and has developed sublime forms of civic and military wisdom in equal measure. It is her cultural strength that allowed her to preserve her sovereignty through the periodical shrinkages of political authority, never giving up her claims to rule over what she considered her domain and staking her ‘rightful’ status as a superior race of the “Middle Kingdom”.

China’s fortune is again on an up-curve; she is a rising power of mind boggling potential. Her grip over all segments of her society is pervasive and her technological, economic and military clout is galloping sure and fast. While lining up to do business with China so as to keep their domestic economies on track, even powerful nations are compelled to be wary of the inevitability of security challenges emanating from the fire-breathing dragon. Indeed, there is little doubt regarding China’s global ascendancy in the days to come; political thinkers are already articulating the idea of her role as a ‘pro-active superpower’. In bilateral context, her lead over India on every aspect - political authority, structural stability, economy, science and technology and military power - is so overwhelming, and continuously increasing, that even a fleeting thought of closing the gap may be discarded outright.

In contrast, India, though an equally ancient civilisation, has not articulated a proportionate balance between spiritualism, socio-political wisdom and nationalism. All through her history, there have been short periods of powerful centralisation followed by long periods of political disintegration that invited cyclic invasions and foreign rule. Presently, even as her economy improves and she emerges as an accommodative member of the global polity, she is yet unable to articulate her state-power to disperse such anti-national tendencies that emanate from within or without5. Thus, notwithstanding a vibrant democracy in play, armed rebellion has displaced the state in nearly one-fifth of the country. One third of her people remain malnourished while numerous groups of ethnic, linguistic, casteist, religious, business and political manipulators assail each other, and by default, harm national ideals. Meanwhile, inimical neighbours continue to sabotage her national interests, with impunity.

To be realistic, there is no way India can stake claim for regional leadership in the foreseeable future. Even if Beijing views India’s growing strategic relationships with US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Central Asian States and Myanmar as ‘ganging up’ to contain her, she may seek remedy not in targeting India, but in controlling her own brusque and over-bearing manner of conducting regional diplomacy. Indeed, China need not slip into a banal belief that India could pose a challenge to her ascendency in any manner6.

But that ‘ghost’ of apprehension may be exorcised by the Chinese themselves; India can do little to clear that perception.

The Tibet Issue

The Tibet issue is a cause of concern that sets Beijing on the warpath. History records that the borders of successive Nanjing-Beijing empires have gone through many cycles of expansions and contractions. Thus in some periods, Beijing’s imperialistic control extended westwards right up to Turkmenistan, while at other times, revolt emanating from outlying provinces caused the empires to shrink into just the Han populated areas of the Hwang Ho and Yang Ze River Basins 7. Perhaps this ingrained memory makes the ruling communist regime extremely sensitive to situations in Tibet, Xinjiang and Outer Mongolia. Chinese leadership’s avowed purpose being to perpetuate the stability of their autarchic rule, the simmering discontent in Tibet and world-wide solidarity with the Tibetan cause must be a cause of serious anxiety for them. Even her attempts to buy Tibetan people’s loyalty through accelerated economic development have failed to silence the skeptics who see it as a step to cascade Han settlements and so alter the demography of Tibet. Besides, economic prosperity stokes the urge for freedom, and therefore, the “Free Tibet” movement will remain a serious worry for the Chinese leadership in the foreseeable future. India, in sheltering a Tibetan Government-in-Exile, would continue to be viewed as an ‘upstart challenger’, a potential ‘destabiliser’, who needs to be ‘kept in place’8.

There is really nothing that India can do about successive Dalai Lamas and their followers taking shelter in her territory. May be China could do something about her ways of dealing with these unfortunate people so that they do not have to escape to India. She could reconcile to India’s compulsions in accommodating Tibetan refugees under the established international convention. May be New Delhi’s support of China’s causes in various forums even in absence of any reciprocal gesture would some day satiate Beijing’s complexes in this regard.

Here again there is little that India can do more than what she already does do to assuage China’s fears.

The Territorial Dispute

India’s repudiation of China’s occupation of the strategically sensitive Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley, and outright rejection of the unwarranted claim over Tawang/Arunachal Pradesh further adds to the latter’s consternation. Indeed, it is difficult to visualise India ceding territories to humour China’s expansionist agenda, just as it is naïve to expect China to rid herself of her deeply ingrained instincts of expansionistic philosophy9. India, therefore, will continue to be a target for Beijing to vent her frustrations upon.


The Tibetan Plateau is the major source of sweet water that sustains life in South and East Asia. No doubt, diversion of such waters to enliven her heartlands is an enticing prospect for China. But when considered in the light of international riparian laws and the Middle Kingdom’s compulsive urge to secure great power status, of which display of sense of responsibility is an essential ingredient, the dream may encounter major hurdles. China will have to contend with the fact that diversion of waters from the Bramhaputra, Sutluj and Indus rivers would affect many other neighbours, and that coalescence of a coalition of victims of her highhandedness, even if it is made up of smaller and weaker nations, would be detrimental to her interests10. Thus, even if technological complexities, enormity of investment, decades of construction and environmental consequences may not deter her, and if the global political equation continues to remain favourable to China during those decades, any arbitrary diversion of waters by China may not be beyond contest.

In the overall context therefore, China may not find India as the sole stumbling block on this issue; in India, it would continue to be a cause of discomfiture though.

Strategic Encirclement?

What is described as China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy - that is, establishment of naval facilities surrounding the Indian Peninsula in alliance with littoral countries - would certainly strengthen her sea lines of communication as well as mining prospects in the India Ocean; it would also enhance her economic and diplomatic clout. Indeed, China is free to seek political arrangements to create this ‘string’ as she wants to, but there is much concern that this ‘string’ would lead to ‘encirclement’ of India. No doubt that ‘string’ would pinch, but only if India fails to invest in sea-power and take advantage of the strategic situation of the peninsular India that is best situated to control the Indian Ocean.

Rationally viewed, factoring facilities for naval replenishment located on foreign shores thousands of nautical miles away from mainland China as unassailable ‘military bases’, from where flotillas of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would supposedly set about to impose adversities upon other users of the Indian Ocean, may cause less anxiety when tested in light of the scales of naval forces and logistics that would be necessary for that purpose. It may take China four to five decades of continuation of favourable internal and international order to realise that purported goal, howsoever delightful that ambition might be to a compulsive hegemonist11. Besides, it would be an entire lot of nations whose interests would be equally threatened by China’s dominance over the Indian Ocean.

This issue, therefore, would be a common concern among many nations, India included, that needs resolute preparations over time to manage.

Competition for Strategic Resources

There may be a case to view the issue of race for resources just as a business competition that is ever present in all deals at all times. Such rivalries may not lead to enmity per se12. Besides, securing global sources for supply of assured energy and strategic minerals for one country does not imply that the other may have to starve; the architecture of economic exploitation of natural resources is so intimately intertwined across the globe. The concern that India would jeopardise China’s energy hunt, or in securing her sources of energy China will cause India to be shunted out, may not, either way, be so overwhelming 13.

The trade race may, therefore, be allowed to gain momentum without acrimony.

Compelling Observations

Sino-Indian relationship is marred by such fundamental in-congruencies which cannot be resolved at India’s instance without compromising her core values. New Delhi has to wait and hope that Beijing will some day get rid of her anxiety over India taking what she believes to be her pie, but lot of water must flow out of Tsang Po before that.

Keeping the ‘Dragon’ at Bay

Beijing’s growing acts of diplomatic hostility, even to the extent that the understandings reached in the past - the peace and tranquility agreement 2005, for example - are sought to be repudiated through deliberate acts of negation, must remain a potential source of trouble for India 14. Therefore, stakes in geo-politics rise, China’s insidious muscle flexing along our entire Northern borders, across the Indian Ocean region and even on international waters, should be expected. We are also aware of the fact that, Pakistan would continue to serve as China’s proxy detractor against India. How does India deal with a bellicose and belligerent China is a strategic challenge. How to keep the ‘dragon’ off her back? How do we, as many strategic thinkers opine, keep China’s predatory instincts in check while concentrating on own economic progress?

Lure of Complacency

First, we may not take China’s rhetoric of “peaceful rise to power” on face value; firstly, because in geo-politics, power never comes peacefully, and secondly, the peace Beijing speaks of is but a peace on her terms.

Second, we may not be fixated to the view that integration of Taiwan is China’s sole focus. Presently, that goal remains farfetched, whereas Tibet is a ‘live’ issue in contention. Settlement of the Tibet issue will bring her a step closer to integration of Taiwan. Therefore, possibility of a situation when Beijing may bolster her politico-economic measures with military power to overwhelm the Tibetan refraction, is real. India will invariably be embroiled in that conflict in some manner or the other.

Third, growing bilateral trade may not be a harbinger of dispute resolution. History bears testimony to the fact that good business does not come in the way of politico-military confrontation.

Fourth, the claim over whole of the Arunachal Pradesh may not be seen just as a bargaining posture. Such rhetorical claims, when repeated over decades, tend to get crystallised into national aspirations. When that happens, even authoritarian regimes are unable to back out against popular pressure.

Lastly, we may not dismiss those experts who have recently expressed the possibility of another Chinese ‘attack’ on India. Of course, as expected, the manner of the offensive may differ. In any case, we have to do better than repeating our gullibility of the pre-1962, post-Kutch 1965 and pre-Kargil kinds if we do not wish to suffer another visitation of misfortune.

Thus in the context of China’s adversarial posture, New Delhi has to convince Beijing to limit her uncontrollable expansionist urge to nothing beyond a ritualistic war-dance.

Options Oft Articulated

Will a tit-for-tat exchange work? Asking Beijing either to move out the PLA from Occupied Kashmir or face the prospect of the Indian Army moving into Aksai Chin, for example? Or by sallying out to damage some huts and paint some boulders across the LAC? Can India indulge in such charade without poking Beijing to up the ante`? The obvious answer is that such a bizarre ‘game’ may make a subtle gesture, nothing more, but worse, it might invite a reaction that India would be hard put to absorb.

Can New Delhi impose such a regime of trade restrictions that it starts hurting China’s economy? By all accounts, such a step may cause some losses to China, but its counter-effect on Indian economic progress may be many times over. After all, the weaker gets trampled first.

Growing economic inter-dependency could be thought of to marginalise the hawks in Beijing, mainly the PLA and the rank communists. This may be a good option provided the economic benefits are equitably balanced, not biased against India. Besides, it needs to be appreciated that notwithstanding encouraging prophecies, economic bindings have seldom prevented one state from undermining the other. Conversely, in her efforts to keep the trade equation in her favour, China may find another cause to be nasty.

Strength of human resources bolsters national security. Can we bank upon that to stand up to Beijing’s arrogance? Well, that could be possible if we could maintain our lead in mathematical genius, English language, scientific temper and strong civil institutions that we had inherited at independence. Sadly, that lead has been lost, more or less; China catches up fast when she wishes to, while India tends to entangle herself in endless arguments and agitations, nepotism and mobocracy, divisive compromises and farcical politics. This option therefore is contingent upon India reinventing her societal strength – it is a far away option.

Possibly, India can leverage common cause with the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia, to name just a few, to blunt China’s predatory tendency. Can such a leverage be accomplished without provoking China, something that wisdom tells us to better avoid? Can we prevent such collaborations with the ‘like minded’ parties – no saints themselves - from undermining our interests in some other manner? Arguably, it may be possible to forge such a leverage, though it would be a tight-rope act, liable to misfire.
What about retaliatory measures in Tibet? Can India stoke Tibetan resistance in the same manner that China uses Pakistan to tie knots around her? That indeed would be a strong leverage to exercise. But what if China retaliates by promoting Maoist and North East insurgencies; she had been doing so earlier even without any provocation, after all? Obviously, this extreme option may be reserved as a recourse only in war, with due preparations to handle the consequences.

The preceding discussion leaves military deterrence as the sole practicable, and profitable, recourse to keep China on friendly terms.

Role of Military Power

We know that obduracy of an overwhelmingly powerful neighbour may not be contained by reconciliatory or collaborative diplomacy alone. Beijing’s arrogance will rise in step with her progress and power – this is already evident. Considering its ever-present roots as discussed above, Sino-Indian confrontation of some kind or the other is inevitable. Given China’s philosophy of using military might as a catalyst of political ambitions, it is imperative for India to wield such military power that would motivate Beijing to seek her goals through peaceful means. Indeed, that is what our political leadership have sought to do all these years since 1962. But with the military institution frozen in obsolescence and afflicted with debilitating ‘hollowness’, can India’s military power continue to pay its ‘deterrence-dividend’, or even dissuade our eastern neighbour’s innate urge to grab territories? The answer, as honest analysts aver, is ‘no’.

Further, given that our goal of socio-economic uplift precludes the practicality of competing with China’s military prowess, India may not hope to ever acquire that level of military power that could defeat a full-spectrum, all-front, total war that the PLA’s doctrine espouses, even if that strategy is sought to be camouflaged under the beguiling terminology of “limited war under conditions of informalisation”.

A ‘Smile and Gun’ Option

From the preceding discussion, it emerges that given the compulsions under which it has to carry the burden of statecraft, the courses adopted by New Delhi in keeping the overbearing ‘dragon’ at bay have to be double-nuanced. Indeed, it makes sense to promote political and economic engagement, sometimes reconciling affronts with petulance and showing occasional resolve15. However, since Beijing is no exception in respecting the power of gun, that stoicism needs to be backed up with an efficient military machine that could ‘bite’ painfully even when bound. India could work towards that level of military preparedness which, even if she may not prevail, would make a clash of force prohibitively dear to China. History tell us that it is possible to do so at a cost that is affordable and a pace that is adaptable. Indian strategists may therefore have to come to terms with the aforementioned restraining dispensations, and yet devise strategies that would deny free run to the PLA should Beijing decide to settle her pique with force.

But insight also tells us that the Indian system of administrating its military institution restricts, rather than sponsors such exceptional strategies. Our political culture remains in oblivion of the nuances of cost-efficient management of military organisation and development of strategic articulations, while the burden of defence policy making is consigned to a school of pretending strategists made up of bureaucrats, scientists and auditors - in exclusion of sanctified representation from the military intellectuals! As the show of smug satisfaction among the polity and the media over raising of two army divisions, or positioning some aircraft on the North-East frontier, or successful launches of missiles – all half-measures, titillating but overall lopsided - indicates, innocence of the profound nuances of war-fighting seems to pervade the entire state-apparatus. Consequently, even while maintaining the third largest army in the world, the nation remains bereft of the advantages expected and dividends accrued. That is a sad situation.

Engaging with China

Friendly engagement with China is a necessity that would work only if it is cemented with the backing of military strength. A comprehensive revamp – transformation, so to say – of the Indian defence establishment is therefore overdue. This, however, may be possible only if there is firm resolve in our politico-bureaucratic system to nurture military expertise, foster synergy between India’s numerous defence and quasi-defence establishments and respect the time-lines of force-modernisation.

This condition does not prevail today.


  1. New Delhi’s reconciliation with issue of ‘stapled visa’ to the residents of J&K, blocking the Asian Development Bank loan for Arunachal Pradesh and whimsical response to the threat of deluge along Paree Chu in Himachal Pradesh are some examples. Diplomatic protests, when lodged, are disdainfully dismissed by Beijing, mostly so.
  2. Instances of damaging Indian bunkers, shooing away bonafide graziers and preventing track construction work near the LAC to proceed are known. Besides, of course, there are ever increasing violations of the LAC. India’s attempts to explain away these violations to her citizens as “differing perceptions of the alignment of LAC between the two sides” does not really wash since the Chinese have consistently avoided specifying their ‘perception’ of the LAC and so settle this irritant till the border issue is resolved.
  3. Since 2006, China ‘clarifies’ that the entire Arunachal Pradesh (“Outer Tibet” is the newly invented nomenclature!) is hers. Imagine an international boundary, running not along the watershed of massive Himalayan Ranges, but over and across its reverse foothills! That is a glimpse of ‘Chinese logic’! In the case of Shaksgam Valley, one squatter has gifted its trespass to another! The mischievous deal has gone a step further: Chinese Army is now operating in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
  4. China and India have never been neighbours. Tibet has always occupied that place independent of the ever-changing Sino-Tibet political equations, till communist China completely subsumed Tibet nationalism in the 1950’s.
  5. Arguably, the eulogistic chants of India being an “economic power” or even an “emerging super-power” notwithstanding, she is actually just a “business destination” for the developed nations to rake profit from. It is the lure of profit that causes the developed world to lip enchanting adulations over India’s supposed “success story”.
  6. Of course, China too faces numerous problems. But she is in control and is prepared to keep it that way, notwithstanding from some China-watcher’s wishful predictions of a gathering trouble.
  7. All this while, the vast belt of territory starting from Manchuria in the North, and covering what are called Inner Mongolia, Quinghai, Gansu, Xinjiang and Tibet regions in the West, had enjoyed freedom or subjugation – at varying degrees – at one time or the other. It was only during the early Manchu rule that the map of the empire appeared to be somewhat close to what China controls today, or lays claim upon.
  8. Recently, the instinctive mindset was revealed when commenting on India’s ‘Agni V’ missile test, a Chinese mouthpiece accused India of ‘entertaining visions of imposing regional hegemony’, a status that was, by implication, considered to be reserved, by divine consensus, for China alone.
  9. Ironically, the communist regime fully identifies with its much decried imperialist past. Thus, the communists claim the largest areas that were ever controlled, or even trod upon, by Beijing-based empires at any point of time. By this logic India could claim Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar etc, the Britain may claim half the world, and every other country may claim every other’s territory!
  10. As political philosophers have contended, even the most powerful hegemons are consciousness of a virtual ‘red line’ which when crossed, invites self-doom. Beijing will ignore that ‘line’ at her peril.
  11. A static international order is nearly impossible to imagine. Besides, ’encirclement’ of the Cold war era is invalid in today’s world. Granting a foothold for naval replenishment does not necessarily mean that hostile acts against another country will find auto-endorsement.
  12. India opted to purchase fighter aircraft from the French stable, much to consternation in the US. And that did not lead to a duel.
  13. Economic and societal survival of nations that export and import energy and other minerals is so inter-wound that any major disruption in the cycle will devastate societies of both categories. The effect will be global – it will lead to a kind of global chaos.
  14. We may recount three cases of Beijing’s diplomatic duplicity. One, when asked as to why wasn’t her territorial claims raised before the late 1950’s, Zhou en Lai replied that “the time was not ripe”!; two, the volte-face on Beijing’s stance on Sikkim; three, claim over all of Arunachal Pradesh and invention of the term “Outer Tibet”. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile to a great nation indulging in such undignified tricks.
  15. Instances of either versions of reactions are: one, ‘ignoring’ the recent episode of visa denial to an officer hailing from Arunachal Pradesh and going ahead with a truncated delegation on military exchange; and two, petulant ‘reconciliation’ with PLA’s move into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir by simply stating that the matter was ‘being watched’. Conversely, ‘resolve’ was shown in going ahead with explorations in the South China Sea, rejecting Beijing’s ‘warning’. 

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