Engaging china

The recent developments in geopolitical and security environment have resulted in the shift of the strategic centre of gravity of the world to the Indo-Pacific region or Asia. A major hub of economic activities of the world has also shifted to Asia with substantial contributions from China, India, Japan, South Korea as well as ‘Tiger economies’ of SE Asia. Thus, in the 21st century, Asian nations would play a dominant role in world affairs. It would not be incorrect to say that the 21st century belongs to Asia.

The rise of China has been phenomenal with sustained economic growth over two decades. It is an economic powerhouse dominating world trade and commerce. It has not only made huge strides in the creation of infrastructure within China itself but also across Asia and Africa. This effort has increased its strategic footprint and assertiveness in world affairs. Now, China is building its indigenous military industry and power to buttress its claim to superpower status.

The entire world had hoped for a peaceful rise of China as a benevolent power since it has been a victim of hegemonic powers in the past, mainly western nations and Japan. However, its assertiveness in the East China Sea (ECS)and South China Sea (SCS);enforcement of self-proclaimed ‘9 Dash Line’and ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ (ADIZ) in this region; claims on various contested islands and reclamation of such islands to create infrastructure fit for military deployments, as well as non-acceptance of International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict on territorial disputes in the region have raised apprehensions amongst the littoral states of SCS and ECS.

India’s relations with China remain a multi-dimensional concern; there are both challenges and opportunities for the political, diplomatic and military leadership of India. There has been a significant increase in defence spending of China, with focus on developing credible blue-water naval capabilities; boost to the aerospace industry; extensive upgrade of infrastructure in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and conducting year-round air operations by large force levels stationed in TAR.

Increased Chinese visibility in IOR; construction of CPEC through Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (POJ&K), disregarding sovereignty issue; clandestinely transferring nuclear-capable missile technologies to its proxy and client state Pakistan, disregarding international arms control regulations, mainly to keep India off- balance; unhelpful attitude towards India in its bid for permanent seat in UNSC, NSG membership; repeatedly blocking UN sanctions against Masood Azhar, a proclaimed leader of Pak- based terrorist outfit Jaish e Mohammed (JeM) and several high- profile transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are worrisome for India.

India’s security concerns vis-a-vis China thus have to be addressed at multiple levels. A logical step would be to increase our military response capabilities to deter conflict. But the final solution is in laying greater emphasis and focus on our robust ongoing pragmatic process to settle the border problem and enhance trade and commerce and economic bonding between the two nations.

India-China Relations Matrix

India and China are two renowned civilisations. They are the world’s two most populous nations, having between them, more than one-third of the world population. They also have an influential, strong and large diaspora across the world and represent emerging markets which drive the world’s economy. They are two important forces in promoting global multi-polarization process, currently under evolution.

India-China relations need to be seen through four prisms for analysis and for formulating an appropriate action plan. These are prisms of Conflict, Confrontation, Competition and Cooperation. Before delving into the 4Cs of the India-China relationship, let us have a look at how the people of these two countries, perceive each other. This will assist in determining the steps that need to be taken to eliminate the barriers between the two nations and to improving bilateral relations.

Chinese Perception of India

How do the Chinese perceive India? From my interactions with my counterparts, China specialists, strategic analysts and articles/ media reports from across the world, I have reason to believe that the Chinese lack an appreciation for Indian democracy, economic power, civilisation, culture and value systems. They do not consider India as a competitor or as an equal, and hence oppose India’s efforts to sit as an equal on the high table. This, in a way, explains China’s stance in opposing India’s entry as a permanent member in the UNSC.  

The Chinese have a superiority complex fed by their pride as an ancient civilisation and their current achievements in multiple spheres, to include economic growth, infrastructure development, military prowess, achievements in the scientific field, achievements in sports etc. They, therefore believe that other countries in the region have to adjust to the rise of China, which is very evident in their aggressive policy in SCS & ECS. There is a Sino-centric view which looks at China as being the Centre of the world, from which would flow the cultural, political and economic order of the world. They thus view themselves in the leadership role for the integration of Asia. India’s co-operation with the US, Japan and Vietnam is thus viewed with suspicion and considered anti-China. Presence of Dalai Lama and theirTibetanGovernment in exile operating from Indian soil is considered by China as a hostile act against them.

India’s Perception of China

From the Indian side, there is a perception that Indian sentiments and goodwill have not been reciprocated by China, as seen by China’s resistance to the grant of UNSC permanent membership to India. This must be seen in the backdrop of what happened in the mid-fifties of the last century when there was an informal proposal to offer the UNSC to India. At that time, Prime Minister Nehru had turned down that proposal, saying ‘We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.’

India’s strategic community also believes that China, through its ‘String of Pearls,’ is deliberately trying to encircle India, to curtail a deliberate attempt by China to encircle India and to curtail its strategic footprint in the region. India also recognised China’s suzerainty over Tibet, but despite that, China has deliberately not settled its borders with India, while it has done so with all other countries. India also views with concern, Chinese claims over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, for which China has no historical or legal right. China is also using Pakistan as a proxy to tie down India to the subcontinent and stem its regional aspirations.

Barriers to Improved Relations Having highlighted the popular perceptions of India and China to each other, there is a need to discuss ways and means to improve the relationship. Mutual ignorance is the first barrier which needs to be broken. We are strangers across the border, having little knowledge of the language, customs, lifestyles, aspirations etc of each other.

Second, is the role of the media. In India, the media is free and can be very vociferous and noisy. With the media espousing divergent views, it is difficult to get uniformity with respect to any policy dealing with China. The Chinese believe that the India media can be controlled by the government and that what is broadcast has the state’s approval. The Chinese media is under state control, and thus the media espouses the view of the Chinese government. But in many cases, the Chinese government disassociates itself from what their media has stated, claiming that it is exercising its own opinion. There is thus difficulty in getting compatibility in public perceptions between the two nations.

The 1962 Indo-China conflict has also perpetuated a feeling of victimhood and mistrust of China amongst Indians. There is a need to grow out of old mindsets, as seen by how warring nations of Europe have now moved ahead, after abandoning the bitter legacy of the devastating world wars. This has led to peace, stability and economic wellbeing of the people. The EU has integrated these adversaries into a single entity with no barriers.

Prisms of Four Cs

Let us now look through the prism of the four ‘C’s—Conflict, Confrontation, Competition and Cooperation. The main area of conflict is the unsettled border or territorial dispute between India and China. High voltage and deliberate intrusions across the LACin Ladakh sector, ie, Depsung (2013), Chumar (2014), Doka La (2017) and the resultant face-offs in the recent past could have spiralled out of control into a larger conflict. Border/flag meetings are being held and a hotline between the two armies have been set up to prevent escalation during such standoffs. But the issue needs a permanent solution with a well-demarcated border. However, the Chinese response to settling the border issue remains lukewarm.

The issues involved in confrontation include the following:

  • The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Gilgit Baltistan, which is Indian territory, illegally occupied by Pakistan. For India, it is an issue of sovereignty, which cannot be compromised and so India has rightly refused to have anything to do with CPEC. Presence of Chinese troops and civilians in large numbers in PO J&K, through which the CPEC has been built, is a provocation and is detrimental to good relations.
  • China seeks freedom and safety of navigation, peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) while denying the same in SCS and ECS, where China wants to be in total control. Such dual standards do not augur well for peaceful relations. Presence of a large Chinese naval force including submarines in the Indian Ocean has the potential for confrontation with the Indian Navy. Chinese efforts at seeking overseas bases and ports in the littoral of IOR may result in militarising this peaceful region and destabilising the same.
  • Chinese plans to continue building large dams across many rivers, especially the Yarlung Tsangpo, named as the Brahmaputra in India, to divert water to water-deficit areas in China is also a source of potential confrontation, if it affects the natural flow of water to the lower riparian states. The potential of the upper riparian to suddenly release the stored water also has severe repercussions for the lower riparian states.
  • India’s improved relations with Japan, Vietnam, US and the ‘QUAD,’ (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), is also an area which could lead to confrontation.
  • China’s deliberate attempts to stall the entry of India into the UNSC and the NSG and its refusal to impose sanctions against terrorist leader Masood Azhar remain irritants. Such acts reveal the negative attitude of China towards India, raising the level of resentment amongst the Indian people. Competition is largely in the sphere of energy security, trade and sale of military equipment.
  • On energy security, Chinese and Indian companies are competing for the world over for exploration of oil and gas fields.
  • With respect to trade, Southeast Asia and SAARC provides a large consumer market. India’s ‘Look East’ policy, which has now been transformed into the ‘Act East’ policy, and various initiatives for connectivity to this region are in competition with China’s OBOR/BRI for capturing a large share of the consumer market.
  • The Chinese ‘String of Pearls,’ which involves providing financial aid to build infrastructure and obtaining a strategic foothold in countries around India and IOR should be considered more as a part of competition rather than confrontation. The countries being dealt with are all sovereign nations and it is their choice who they choose as partners for infrastructure development. There is no need to be envious of Chinese success in investments around India. We need to remember that there is also a flipside to the huge Chinese investments. Some of these nations have realised the huge debt servicing burden which such investments have caused, which has led to these countries losing their strategic autonomy and being forced to lease out such facilities for very long periods due to non-viability of the project in earning promised revenues.
  • Many countries in our neighbourhood are dependent on Chinese military hardware for their armed forces. India would be a good competitor to supply such systems when our indigenous capacities improve and arms export policy is in place. Many countries in Asia and Africa would prefer Indian arms. Similarly, India is performing exceptionally well in the space domain, assisting others to launch their satellites.
  • India has a distinct advantage in terms of soft power. A liberal, open democracy, religious freedom and multiculturalism have helped its soft power to flourish. Art, literature, use of English language, yoga, Ayurveda, music, Bollywood cinema, Buddhist shrines are but some examples of the many pillars of India’s soft power edifice which attracts everyone towards India. Soft power is the best tool to influence the world. The scope for cooperation is immense in multilateral institutions, trade, and issues like global warming and climate change.
  • The multi-national platforms like BRICS/RIC, SCO, G-20, WTO etc are meant for cooperation in diverse areas. BRICS represents nearly 25 per cent of global GDP. It has set up two banks, namely New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai whose President is Mr K.V.Kamath from India; and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to provide aid to members so as to reduce dependence on Western financial institutions controlled mainly by the US.
  • The SCO is dominated by China and Russia and has an anti-western bias. India has become a full member since 2017and it would provide another platform for interaction and resolution of regional issues, especially in CAR, which is the target area of SCO.
  • India is a member of the G-20, which underlines its importance in global affairs. Here, India and China could work together to look after the interests of emerging economies.
  • On WTO and Climate Change Summits, the interests of India and China merge and they are already collaborating to obtain a good deal for developing economies against the entrenched interests of developed nations.
  • There is a huge scope for expanding trade between the two most populous nations with big markets. Indian can increase its exports like cotton, oilseeds, maize, sugar and beef. In fact beef is exported indirectly through Vietnam and sugar attracts 80 percent tariff. Cooperation is necessary to correct the adverse balance of trade.    
  • There is a huge scope for expanding trade between the two most populous nations with big markets. Indian can increase its exports like cotton, oilseeds, maize, sugar and beef. In fact, beef is exported indirectly through Vietnam and sugar attracts 80 per cent tariff. Cooperation is necessary to correct the adverse balance of trade.    

Means to Improve India-China Relations

To achieve a balanced international order, peaceful and stable relations between India and China assume great significance. The emphasis in this relationship would be on Coexistence, Acceptance, Cooperation and Adjustment. Economic engagement, especially investment from China would deter conflict between the two neighbours, though not necessarily prevent conflict.

Strategic autonomy should be India’s guiding principle and pragmatism should be the foundation of our relationship with China, the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, ASEAN etc. India should avoid joining any ‘Block’ with adversarial intentions against another country. Our bilateral relations should be stand-alone and not aimed against any other nation.

For India, neighbours are more important than friends thousands of miles away. Getting on board UNSC as a permanent member may not be of much use since it is discriminatory and defunct. India can leverage much more by enhancing its economic and military power—its CNP—as well as being an equal member of multi-lateral platforms like BRICS, G-20, SCO, ASEAN and the like.

India also needs to grow out of old narratives and not remain shackled and bound to history. Working on positives and strengths with maturity can yield greater dividends. Enhancing contacts, especially people to people exchanges across all domains—education, business, medical, cultural, sports, tourism etc could contribute in overcoming lack of awareness about each other, and could also provide opportunities for investment and business. Military to military engagements, through bilateral/ multilateral exercises, could also minimise the trust deficit.

For China, continuing to protect Masood Azhar at the UN is a huge compromise with terrorism. There is, however, a limit to the amount of political capital China can invest on this issue. Terrorism is an issue on which the nations across the globe will have to cooperate with each other if this global threat is to be addressed. To conclude, India and China have no option but to create circumstances to co-exist and prosper peacefully. For that, the equation is Competition plus Cooperation minus Confrontation.

Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, PVSM, AVSM, VM was the Chief of Air Staff from 31 December 2013 – 31 December 2016. This article is an extract of the Valedictory Address delivered by Air Chief Marshal Raha at the Annual Calcutta Dialogue, 2019.

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