A strategic framework for India’s China policy – D.C. Pathak

First, China has — notwithstanding the call for ‘consensus’ on not letting ‘differences develop into disputes’ raised by it in summit interactions — given India an adversarial placement in its own calculations. China was in the past never willing to acknowledge India’s status as anything beyond the position of a ‘major’ Asian country — it has not taken kindly to the rapid rise of India as a recognised world power in recent years, particularly in the Modi regime.

BY D.C. PATHAK

We live in times where the life span of strategies has generally shortened — the global scenario is not static and any long-term assessment is likely to run into the need for a course correction. It is in this context that India’s approach to China has to be reset considering these last three months of Chinese muscle flexing on LAC, PLA’s large build-up in Eastern Ladakh and India’s declared intention of putting up a strong competition to China in the economic sphere in the post-Covid environ.

President Xi Jinping of China — who now holds that position for life — is more of a Mao Zedong than a Deng Xiaoping as he consciously combines the economic route to becoming a superpower with the pace of military advancement and reemphasises the ‘Sinicization of Marxism’ to run an absolutely powerful Communist state while retaining the strategy of a controlled opening up of the economy. India has the advantage of being able to draw upon the experience of numerous ‘summit’ meetings held between Prime Minister Modi and the Chinese President over recent months and the bilateral top level diplomatic and military talks conducted in the wake of the murderous attack carried out by PLA men on our border patrol at Galwan on June 15 — in which as many as 20 Indian soldiers including the Colonel commanding them were killed. In the light of the recent happenings on LAC, the fact of intensification of cross-border terrorism by Pakistan and some new geo-political developments, a review of India’s China policy is necessitated in order to reckon with several important paradigms that now impact our relationship with this neighbour, for the future.

First, China has — notwithstanding the call for ‘consensus’ on not letting ‘differences develop into disputes’ raised by it in summit interactions — given India an adversarial placement in its own calculations. China was in the past never willing to acknowledge India’s status as anything beyond the position of a ‘major’ Asian country — it has not taken kindly to the rapid rise of India as a recognised world power in recent years, particularly in the Modi regime. This is apparently because this came in the way of China’s ambition of becoming the other superpower and denying any prospects of the rise of ‘multipolarity’ in the world.

Some strategic experts, whose thought processes were still embedded in the Cold War era, tend to prescribe ‘equidistance’ from US and China as the best course of action for India for the present. They forget that Xi Jinping’s China has already put India in the opposite camp having realised that India’s present leadership would never permit China to acquire unfettered supremacy in Asia at the cost of this country — which comes in the way of the Chinese fulfilling their larger dreams. In a subtle rejection of ‘non alignment’ as an ideological stance in the post-Cold War world, Prime Minister Modi has favoured the policy of establishing bilateral friendships with all on the basis of mutuality of economic and security interests. He has put India on the right path as with this approach we can never go wrong in international relations.

Secondly, the pattern of mobilisation of PLA along LAC in recent months that culminated in the June 15 incident in Galwan valley clearly demonstrates that China intended to revive border tension as a distraction to cover up for strengthening PLA’s presence and hold in Ladakh segment that was crucial for it for perpetuating the gains secured in Gilgit-Baltistan and POK from Pakistan, its partner in CPEC. Described by many as China’s Marshall Plan for Pakistan, CPEC has sealed the Sino-Pak military alliance — that was directed primarily against India — and established a new level of meeting of minds between these two neighbours against India following the scrapping of Art 370 of the Constitution by Indian Parliament to abolish the special status of J&K.

This explains the timeframe of the Chinese military build-up in Eastern Ladakh and a simultaneous spurt in the Pak operations of infiltrating terrorists across LOC for destabilising Kashmir. Creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory, paving the way for its direct control by the Centre and facilitating speedy execution of defence projects there, has been noted by both Pakistan and China and it can be presumed that the Sino-Pak axis would pitch its hostility against India at a new high. China’s intention of digging in its heels in Ladakh segment of LAC is evident from its reluctance to join in the plan of ‘de-escalation’ being put forth by the Indian delegation in the ongoing military talks. It is notable that China is now fully behind Pakistan even on the issue of harbouring of Islamic radicals and terrorists by the latter.

Further, a major factor affecting India-China relations in the present relates to the geo-political situation that prevails both in South Asia as well as in the global plane at large. The flux in Afghanistan where Pakistan wields a negative influence — even the Trump administration recognised this — makes the Pak-Afghan-Kashmir tri junction an area of crucial geo-political importance for China with its superpower ambitions. What has pleased China is the sight of Imran Khan’s Pakistan showing recalcitrance towards US during the run-up to the American accord with Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pak determination to keep up the proxy war against India.

China realises how important this region was for the superpower rivalry in the days of the Cold War and knows that this time around Pakistan is firmly on its side for the long run. The US-India strategic friendship has peaked in the Modi-Trump years and the willingness of India to join up with QUAD to safeguard its interests in both Indo-Pacific maritime zone and Indian Ocean was a timely message to China not to take India for granted. The muscle flexing by China on LAC could be a part of the Chinese attempt to keep India militarily distracted on the land border but we can see through this and find ways of tackling China on multiple fronts. Prime Minister Modi was upfront in warning China that it should not entertain any ‘expansionist’ thoughts — he did this during a special visit to Nimu, not far from LAC in Ladakh on July 3.

Another paradigm shift that impacts the Sino-Indian situation is the vulnerability of China to economic isolation which the collective of opinion of the democratic world led by the US was pushing it to — after China was questioned for its alleged failure to prevent the spread of corona pandemic. India welcomed all enterprises seeking to shift business away from China to opt for India as the alternate destination and stepped up its own economic revival through encouragement to indigenous business and utilisation of locally available skilled hands for building it. The present Indian leadership is making a determined bid to make India ‘self reliant’ — by way of discouraging import of Chinese goods and technology, aiding start-ups, arranging for re-skilling and upskilling programmes and creating an attractive environ for foreign investors and private sector. Prime Minister Modi devoted his inaugural address at the USIBC ‘Ideas Summit’ on July 22 to making a fervent appeal to foreign investors, particularly from the US, to avail of the huge ‘opportunities’ that India offered in these times to develop and enlarge business. The optimism of the Prime Minister about economic revival of India and his emphasis on the special collaboration between the two largest democracies in this regard has added to the competitive strength of India which would not go unnoticed by a rival like China. In the economic plane, therefore, India-China relationship may remain uneasy in the times ahead adding to the political and military issues already existing between these two countries.

And finally, for the first time it seems India-China relations have taken an irreversible course of antipathy and discord after the June 15 clash at Galwan since Chinese leadership has shown no signs of making a friendly and conciliatory response. India, therefore, has to prepare for a multi-pronged strategy of dealing with this hostile neighbour to our north. The strategic framework of India’s China policy suggests itself. India should complete its defensive military build-up on our side of LAC and prepare for strongly rebuffing any aggressiveness of PLA on the border. The Union Territory of Ladakh should be made the fulcrum of India’s military might for buttressing the demand that China should end its illegal occupation of Aksai Chin. India should punitively deal with the Pak mischief in Kashmir by taking the counter terror drive into POK whenever opportune. China cannot extend its supportive role for Pakistan to creating a parallel border aggression as it cannot afford to precipitate a ‘war-like’ moment with India without losing heavily on its image and credibility both in Asia as well as in the world at large.

India should unleash a diplomatic campaign in the democratic world, including South East Asia, against an expansionist Chinese dictatorship and highlight the immorality of China supporting Pakistan even on the issue of terrorism and Islamic radicalism just to buy Pak silence on the suppression of Uighars of Xinjiang. India must be on the round table that deliberates on the future of Afghanistan — we should advocate for a democratic and participatory governance in that country. India should work on Russia and Iran on issues related to Afghanistan. Indo-US strategic partnership should be further strengthened and projected as the alliance of the two largest democracies of the world for opposing terrorism, protecting security of Indo-Pacific region and promoting world peace. India should give a fierce competition to China on issues of global economy and build economic bonds with neighbours around — barring Pakistan and China — through a liberal give and take policy. Time has come for India to assert its role as a world power and as an advocate of world peace in today’s geo-politics.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)

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