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India Should Carefully Weigh China’s Strategic Intentions

Paper No. 5754                                         Dated 28-Jul-2014

By D. S. Rajan

(The writer of this article is Mr D. S. Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. He dedicates this article to late Mr B. Raman, a strategic analyst par excellence and one of the founders of the C3S who passed away on 19 June 2013.

Fluent in Chinese and Japanese languages. Portions of the article are based on the writer’s  Public Talk delivered on invitation on the subject of “China’s Rise and India’s Strategic Choices”, organised by the  Sam Nunn School of International affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA,  on 7 April 2014, Email: director.c3s@gmail.com  - C3S)

Abstract

[The new Indian government’s readiness to continue the policy  of  ‘engagement’ with China is appropriate and sound. It should at the same time recognize that contradictions in Beijing’s foreign policy are becoming sharper; national security interests have come to dominate China’s external line and territorial assertiveness of China is giving rise to fears among neighboring countries. The situation imposes a demand on India to begin crafting of a holistic strategy towards China. For this purpose, an important   requirement for India is to gain a full understanding of what the Chinese themselves think about their country’s development and position in the world. While strategizing, New Delhi should not miss the firm resolve of China for never giving up its territorial claims against India. It should be alive to the possibility of future border conflicts with China in the background of latter’s ‘local wars’ military concept.]

All indications are that Prime Minister Modi government in India is going to continue its predecessor’s policy of ‘engaging’ the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Within a short time of taking over, it has taken  initiatives to improve bilateral political, military and economic relations with Beijing; they  have  led to certain positive results; notable are the   prospects that have emerged  for establishment of Chinese industrial parks in India during the late June 2014 visit to Beijing of an  Indian delegation led by   Vice-President Ansari and for increased military contacts between the two sides at the time of the  trip to Beijing of the  Indian   Army chief, Bikram Singh in early July 2014.  Modi has met the Chinese President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit held in Brazil in mid-July 2014.  On its part, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) lost no time in sending its Foreign Minister Wang Yi to meet India’s new leadership; this taken together with a reported proposal for a visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September this year , has signaled PRC’s priority  to strengthen contacts with the new regime in India.    

There are reasons to believe that the present bonhomie with Beijing as only a tactical phase in which the two sides find their interests, especially economic, converge. India seems to be far away from fully developing a strategic vision for itself, while China’s future outlook already stands concrete and well documented. In any case, one cannot miss the divergence between India’s long term view seen so far and the already firm and well documented China’s postulates set to determine its future world position.

 Looking from India’s point of view, the task for it to begin crafting  a sound long term strategy towards China capable of handling such divergence, thus, assumes priority,  noting the increasing contradictions in Chinese foreign policy  and the emerging uncertainties  in regional geopolitics, especially as an offshoot of the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  It needs to be acknowledged that New Delhi has already shown signs of change with respect to its China policy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave a hint to a revamping of China policy, when it, during the poll campaign, charged   the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime of   having been soft towards Beijing and the BJP leader Modi called upon   China in his one of his poll speeches (Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh, 22 February 2014) to shed its “expansionist mindset”. But was the previous UPA government really soft on China? At the best, it can be said that its China strategy has been subtle; as an indicator, former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh  combined his  belief that India and China ‘have enough space to flourish’ with criticism (Washington, late 2009) of “certain amount of Chinese assertiveness” towards India. The UPA government also made some beginning in improving border military infrastructure. The new Indian administration can build up the tempo set by its predecessor.

Prior to strategising, India should understand the basic thinking of the Chinese themselves on the rationale behind its current foreign policy.  Foreign policy statements coming from top levels in China provide clue that regard.   What the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping has said (Speech delivered at a party Politburo Study session convened on 28 January 2013) are important. He declared that “China will never pursue its development at the cost of sacrificing interests of other countries …. We will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests. No country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our core interests or that we will swallow the 'bitter fruit' of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests”. 

The 18th CCP Congress document echoed the same spirit. It proclaimed that China’s ‘banner is to forge a win-win international cooperation’; at the same time it laid emphasis on making ‘no compromises’ on issues concerning ‘national sovereignty and security of core interests’. Most significant has been the document’s clarification that “the two aspects are pillars of Chinese diplomacy and do not conflict with each other” (People’s Daily, 16 November 2013); this marks China’s consolidated position on the subject which is now being debated throughout the world. Of particular interest has been the mention, undoubtedly exhibiting a high sense of assertiveness, that China “will never yield to outside pressure” and “will protect legitimate rights and interests overseas’; this has been noticed for the first time in a CCP congress document.

One can see without ambiguity from pronouncements above, that China’s external line has become core interest-based with assertiveness as key operative element. It is clear that the PRC has now transformed itself into an anti-status quo power. “The PRC will play the international role of a responsible, big country”, says Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi ( Beijing, 8 March 2014).Explaining  in broad terms,  noted China scholar Harry Harding observes  that China’s quest now is for great power status and to achieve that goal it is deploying competing strategies (http://thinkingaboutasia.blogspot.in/2011/03/three-competing-strands-in-chinese.html).

The policy shift began after 2008; before that Beijing’s emphasis in international relations was on 'hiding one's capacities and biding one's time’ (veteran leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous 24-character maxim of tao guang yang hui). The change seems to have come about mainly due to China’s confidence gained through its ability to achieve a sustained growth; also due to its conviction that the country’s   ‘comprehensive national strength’ has grown and hence in proportion to that, it should increase its influence over the world.

Assertiveness also looks like an offshoot of China’s changed threat perceptions demanding high priority to sovereignty-related questions. Notable are observations of Lt Gen Qi Jianguo, China’s Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in his article in Party journal ‘Study Times’ (22 January 2013) which is believed to be a study material for the military. The article listed  five “risks and challenges” for China  –  “ the  long term danger coming from Western subversive strategy of penetration and subversion , including use of military hard strikes” , “ domination of rightists in Japanese politics, Japan’s changing self-defence policy into  an ‘outside oriented’ policy, which would affect stability in East Asia”, “ involvement of  great powers in South China Sea” , “ neo-interventionism”,  i.e “ neo- colonialism waving the  banner of human rights” having implications for national sovereignty” and “  non-traditional security factors including cyber security, terrorism and energy security”. Added to the list are also ‘financial’ and ‘outer space’ threats (Maj Gen Luo Yuan, the Hindu, 28 June 2013).

 Prime Minister Modi has of late been seen highlighting civilisational contacts like visits of Buddhist scholars to India, for promoting   bilateral ties; that is no doubt apt, but at the same time New Delhi, while making its China strategy,   should note that civilisation aspects could also be behind China’s current assertiveness, which affects India. As scholars see, questions of ‘face’ which are dominant in the Confucian ideas often make it impossible for China to compromise (Orville Schell and John Delury on China’s Quest for Rejuvenation,  http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com, 16 July 2013). There could be a cultural root for China’s territorial claims against India; well known is the Chinese traditional ‘Tian Xia’ (Under Heaven) concept, stipulating that all territories belong to emperor who has the mandate of heaven to rule the entire world and rulers of territories outside emperor’s control derive power from emperor.

The Chinese traditional idea on peace (heping) contains ‘unity of opposites’ of idealism and realism; the idea while stressing peace, has simultaneously an aggressive connotation implying an option ‘to rule or stabilize the world’. Giving a true picture on civilisation aspects are some authoritative views outside China:  “China is a civilisation state pretending to be a state”, says noted Sinologist Lucian Pye (http://harvardpolitics.com/covers/national-security-covers/rethinking-china/, 1 January 2013). “China judges all the states, at various levels of tributaries on the basis of approximation to China’s political and cultural forms”, says Dr Kissinger (Book “On China”, http://www.c3sindia.org/india/2595, 4 October 2011).  “China’s inheritance is that of a Middle Kingdom with tributaries accepting its suzerainty and paying tributes in return for not being attacked”, says a comment in an Australian paper (http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/a-realistic-approach-to-china-20130217-2el8d.html, 18 February 2013)

 On the other hand, Chinese scholarly views, offer somewhat a weak defence. According to them, the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised around the nineteenth century (Chinese Journal of International Politics (CJIP, 2009- 2 (4): 545-574. doi: 10.1093/cjip/pop010). They say that Sino- Centrism did not always demand foreign rulers' submission to China as vassals, even during periods of Chinese strength. The Tang, for example, did not insist on Japan's declaration of vassalage (http://cjip.oxfordjournals.org/content/2/4/545.full). 

How are the peripheral countries in the region responding to China’s core interest-based foreign policy? It is becoming clear that  powers like Japan and South China sea littorals,   having serious territorial problems with China, recognise that there are contradictions in the PRC’s policy and fear that the resulting increased level of  Chinese territorial assertiveness with inclination to use force if necessary to settle disputes, can hurt their strategic interests. They along with US perceive that China’s actions, backed by a strong military, are leading to a change in regional balance of power. On one hand, they are eager to have China as economic partner, on the other they look towards US as a balancer. India’s response to China’s regional assertiveness is muted. It has not taken sides on sovereignty issues in Asia-Pacific. There was only a general statement that “Major Powers are affecting economic-military balance in Asia-Pacific region”, without naming any country including China ( Dr Manmohan Singh at Combined Commanders meeting, New Delhi, 13 November 2013).

The Modi administration can be more vocal on China. It is presumably taking note of the symbolic attempts of China to assert on the territorial issue; latest instances include the reported 15 July 2014 Chinese violation of Line of Actual Control in the Demchok sector of Ladakh, almost coinciding with Modi-Xi meeting in Brazil and the release of official boundary map in Beijing, though not a new practice, claiming overseas territories including India’s Arunachal Pradesh as part of China. The latter has happened, while India’s visiting Vice President Ansari was still in Chinese soil. 

As a sign of China’s realisation of the need to improve its image abroad which has come to suffer from the policy of assertiveness, Beijing in the recent period has tried to redefine its  international role through bringing forth  three concepts  – New Type of International  Relations, New Type of Great  Power Relations ( both 2013) and  Asian Security Concept (May 2014).  It has also mounted new diplomatic initiatives aimed at establishing connectivity with Asian nations- revival of the ancient Silk Road by establishing the "Silk Road Economic Belt" and construction of a new "Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century”.

In essence, the concepts and initiatives reflected China’s desire to have ‘no conflict’ and cooperation with outside powers. The Asian Security concept incorporated China’s ‘commitment’ to seek peaceful settlement of disputes with other countries over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. What should not be missed is the change in China’s   tone while promoting these concepts - instead of resorting to usual assertion that  China will never compromise on core issues, Beijing now says that it will ‘uphold principles and pursue interests” and that  all nations should  ‘accommodate core national interests of each other’ and “ properly handle differences”. They do represent some soft-pedalling, but in substance, definitely there is no change in China’s position; it can be seen that the new moves have in no way precluded China’s determination to assert on issues concerning territorial sovereignty. The bottom line therefore is that China can be expected to accord a dominating position to national security interests in its foreign policy formulation, wherever and whenever required.

India should address the key question - how a strong and fully modernized China will behave in future and what will be the strategic implications for it?  Power Transition theorists (Organsky, Koglel and Lemke) argue that a rising power when gets dissatisfied with status quo, will approach parity with the dominant state in a region or system with willingness to use force to alter the system. Others (Johnson) hold optimistic views that factors like economic interdependence, the likely high costs with respect to lost trade and foreign investment etc, will restrict the ambitions of a rising power. The debate continues, but at the best it provides a tool for India to assess China’s strategic intentions.

A brief mention has already been made about the convergence or divergence in visions of India and China. An elaboration may be appropriate. Based on documentary evidences, it  can be seen without difficulty that the convergence is on two  points – (i) time set up for achieving development goals ( India to  “transform” the country by 2020 as   one of the world’s first four economic powers - “India Vision 2020”, prepared by the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) of India's Department of Science and Technology under the chairmanship of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam; China to complete two “centenary goals”, i.e. “ the building of a moderately prosperous society and double China’s 2010 GDP and per capita income of rural and urban residents by 2020 and  turning  China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious and realize the Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation by the middle of this century”- Xi Jinping, Beijing, 15 May 2014) and (ii) the stated   aims to work for a peaceful external atmosphere to suit their paths to economic development, both looking  for mutual benefit through bilateral and global economic cooperation.

There can, at the same time be India-China clash of strategic interests.  Giving a clear picture on India’s vision are the country’s “Look East” policy and “extended neighbourhood” concepts as well as the BJP’s election manifesto (talks about   India’s global strategic engagement “in a new paradigm and on a wider canvass, that is not just limited to political diplomacy, but also includes the country’s economic, scientific, cultural, political and security interests, both regional and global, on the principles of equality and mutuality”). The Indian vision in essence is to create a ‘multi-polar’ Asia, with an inclusive, pluralistic and balanced regional architecture that ensures that no single power gets to set the agenda’. This goes against Beijing’s apparent aim, to have a China-dominated regional order. 

Bilaterally, clash of interests is visible on so many counts. The   BJP manifesto emphasises infrastructure development in India, especially along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. China is uneasy with any Indian border infrastructure building activity including addition of troops. It has at the same time been fast consolidating its defence strength in Tibet.  A clash  can also be seen in East Asia; Beijing considers this area as its own backyard and is wary of New Delhi’s increasing economic and military ties with Vietnam and other countries in the region.   

So, what factors should India take to determine its China Strategy?

(1)  Undoubtedly, deciphering Chinese intentions on the boundary issue should get its priority. New Delhi should understand that China genuinely believes that Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin belong to her, that it rejects the McMahon line viewing territorial problems with India as ones   left over by history and shows no inclination for a real compromise with India  despite its rhetoric in favour of ‘mutual accommodation’. An authoritative article (Wu Yongnian, Liberation Daily, a Chinese language party organ, 25 October 2012) recommended that to “establish peace and stability in the border, India and China should seek to establish a zone of economic development in Southern Tibet and work together for more than next 10 years, so that a final solution to the boundary question can be reached”.  India should not get confused by such Chinese opinions which on the surface look flexible, but in reality as ‘propagandist’ intended only to show the PRC in favourable light on the border issue.   

To understand the Chinese mind, relevant from India’s point of view could be Chinese views of their ‘historically lost’ territories, though they do not mean Chinese claims now. Beijing connects the country’s external boundary as existed during Qing dynasty period to the contemporary borders. The maps published in the PRC in end eighties and in first decade of the century encompassed vast areas belonging to neighbouring countries (The Historical Atlas of China, 1982-1987 and History of China’s Modern Borders, vol. 1, 2007). Parts of India’s Northeast and Andamans were shown in the maps as ‘historically lost territories’ of China. 

The possibility or otherwise of China using force to recover claimed territories should also figure in Indian calculations. Forceful recovery of ‘Southern Tibet’ (as China calls Arunachal) and fighting a ‘partial war’ with India were topics in the Chinese blogs some time back. China’s use of force to turn territorial conditions in its favour has precedence. Beijing launched ‘counter attacks in self-defence’ against Vietnam, India and former Soviet Union in 1979, 1962 and 1969 respectively. In the current period, China is indulging in a show of force in East and South China seas. For New Delhi, also important would be to note that China’s ‘Active Defence’ strategy set for the PLA, the agency tasked with protecting national sovereignty, does not rule out the armed forces resorting to ‘offensive operational postures’. The PRC is also visualizing ‘local wars under informatisation conditions’. The belief is that such wars can be short and happen in China’s periphery, enabling Beijing to realist limited political objectives.  It  would be at the same time a mistake to think that  China’s ‘use of force’ as part of its assertiveness now  might inevitably lead to ‘wars’,  which may jeopardize  maintenance of international and neighbourhood peace, a sine-qua-non fixed by China for its development.  

 Discussions in some of the writings in China by influential scholars are ruling out a war option. One, written by Liu Yuan, Political commissar, PLA General Logistics Department, says (Huan Qiu Shi Bao, 4 February,2013),   “ in the strategic opportunity period (16th CCP Congress described it as first 20 years of this century),  make sure that war is last option. Economic construction should not be allowed to get interrupted by accidental warfare. But we should not rule out hand for a hand. Deng Xiaoping, at periods of strategic opportunity in 1979 and 1983, had to fight battles. So, in this period, the test is whether we can endure and wait till enemy strikes first blow”.  

 India should also be alive to China’s showing its assertiveness in certain subtle ways.  Up gradation by China of status of Sansha city in Hainan as a base point to administer the disputed Paracels could be of symbolic importance to it. How about China setting up a base point in Tibet, say in Cuona prefecture,   to administer Arunachal? Other subtle ways include,   opening disputed territories under Chinese control for tourism and broadcast on weather in the contested areas in national TV network. Will China include “Southern Tibet” in its weather broadcasts?  Cartographic attempts to press territorial claims are another case in point.  Notable is the stamping of Chinese map on passports showing India’s Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as Chinese territories; it included South China Sea with the nine dashed lines to claim Chinese sovereignty and include Taiwan as China’s territory. 

 

The latest example is the release in June 2014 of a new Chinese ‘full’ official map showing  Beijing's  claims over territories abroad including in South China Sea and India’s Arunachal along with a declaration that there are no ‘primary and secondary’ Chinese territorial  claims (“ New Map Stretches to Stress South China Sea Claims”,  http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2014/06/china-unveils-new-map-south-china-sea/, 26 June 2014).  This completely destroys the impression in some quarters now that at the moment China gives priority to ‘bigger’ South China and East China Sea issues, not to ‘smaller’ ones like the boundary question with India. For China, all territorial issues are of equal value.

In a nutshell, India’s strategy on the boundary issue should be based on caution. It should continue the border talks, but without expecting any breakthrough in them. Its long term plans should take into account the likelihood of future border conflicts with China and it should continue to build its defence preparedness as an insurance against any misadventure by China, howsoever it may  look illogical at present.

(2) The nexus between China and Pakistan, two nuclear states, naturally emerges as the next major determinant of India’s strategy towards the PRC. The ‘all weather’ ties between them are likely to get further strengthened in future.  Pakistan, not sure of the support from the US, a declining world power, may like to rely more and more on China’s political, economic and military support. On its part, Beijing has come to a stage requiring it to do a balancing act between Pakistan and India. While it may need Pakistan with respect to energy requirements and safety of sea lanes of communication, 

its importance of India as a partner, in the fields of economy and global affairs is also growing for valid reasons. Beijing may choose to come closer to India on counter terrorism particularly in the context of presence of Jihadi elements in Pakistan supportive of Uighur separatist movement in Xinjiang. So, over all, the picture seen so far on China using Pakistan as a strategic counter weight against India  may undergo a change. India’s strategy should be in the way of encouraging such a change, with an eye on neutralising the existing ‘two fronts’ security threat. Dialogue with Pakistan must also be carried on by India with may go to soften the negative impact coming from the nexus. Modi’s invitation to his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif augurs well in this connection.

If China persists with its policy to use Pakistan as a proxy to apply pressure on India, New Delhi can follow a counter strategy; China will sit up and notice if India revisits its Tibet and Taiwan policies. One wonders whether the invitation extended in India to Tibet and Taiwan personalities for attending Prime Minister Modi’s swearing in ceremony, is a signal to China in this regard.       

(3)  New Delhi should understand that economic links alone cannot improve its ties with Beijing. It should address the question as to why China-Japan security ties have come to suffer now, despite their economic closeness.

(4)  The new regime in India, will aim to nurture a policy of ‘strategic autonomy’ for the country, as the BJP’s election manifesto suggests. Nevertheless, it should realise that India alone cannot counter balance China’ s rise and partnership , not alliance,  from other China-wary regional powers like Japan and ASEAN nations  would be necessary. As said earlier, these powers definitely look for economic benefits in their ties with China, but at the same time consider strong relationship with the US, may be India too, as a balancing factor. For India also US relations are important; US assistance can increase India’s military potential to meet challenges from China. But it  would be prudent for India to ensure that there is no ‘ganging up’ of powers against China; it should at the same time become  a key player in Asia-Pacific, playing a stabilising role in participating in   multi-lateral mechanisms for setting up an open and inclusive regional order.

(5) India should set its own house in order, leading to it becoming strong and self-sufficient nation economically. It should try to fill up the existing strategic gap with China. The PRC’s economy is now four times bigger than that of India and there is already a big military asymmetry between the two nations.

(6) New Delhi’s strategy should be in the direction of taking advantage of demographic dividends in the country; China’s working age population is dwindling.

To conclude, India’s policy should continue to aim at ‘engaging’ China though the country however lacks a strategic culture. Remedy lies in India’s ability to respond to China’s rise by way of forming a long term outlook, which can ensure its strategic interests. But that can happen only when China’s strategic intentions are properly understood by India. 

 

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