Various metaphors are being used to describe the outcome of the Chinese President’s recent visit to India and whose outcome will be hotly debated in India. This is primarily based on the hype created both in terms of likely Chinese investments and also possible traction on outstanding security and diplomatic issues. Various opinions are being expressed ranging from potential economic gains of promised Chinese investments, together with commitment to open its markets for the Indian IT and Pharmaceutical sector and the proposed industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra which could address the existing trade imbalance.
On the other hand security analysts and some within the government as well, look upon Chinese incursions in Chumar and Demchok Sectors of Ladakh, during the Presidential visit as part of well orchestrated strategy to underscore apparent tensions and in a sense set limits to the relations; the consequence of historical baggage. Intrusions or standoffs during high profile visits have become a sort of ritual during such high profile visits of Chinese leaders.
This leads to the central question as to why China behaves in this fashion, of casting aspersions on the India – China rapprochement. Are the Chinese being unnecessarily provocative or this is part of a larger well-crafted design? The events of the last few days should have brought home to the new Indian political leadership that mere economic engagement collaborating with Chinese on global issues is unlikely to provide positive traction to relations. These developments underwrite that India and China are no doubt involved in a game of regional competition and China in particular would like to ensure Indian power and influence is restrained so as not to challenge its regional pre eminence. This should perforce make them look at all Chinese moves or initiatives with great degree of diffidence if not outright suspicion be it economic corridors such as BMIC or the proposed Maritime Silk Road.
This intrinsic competition more importantly will force India to redefine its relations with other important Asian powers like Japan and ASEAN among others and could impact the forthcoming prime ministerial visit to the United States. It is most likely that the American leadership would exert pressure on Indian government to play a more active role as part of strategic rectangle in Asia – Pacific comprising Japan – India – US and ASEAN designed to restrain aggressive and intimidating postures of the Chinese.
From a Chinese behavioral perspective it needs to be noted that their insecurity is arising out of major threats to its stability and growth emanating from disturbances to the ‘natural order’ euphemism for internal unity and stability. In their calculus internal dissonance has a spiraling impact by externalizing internal threats, that could eventually lead to instability and regime change. Within the above strategic discourse, control and influence over internal and external periphery, including the maritime borders are essential to China’s rise and harmonious growth.
Conscious of above strategic thinking the Chinese leadership held first even conference on “periphery diplomacy” in the last week of Oct 2013, just prior to Third Plenum. In his remarks at the conference President Xi Jinping emphasized China’s need for a stable external environment that is conducive to domestic economic reform. The underlying discourse at the conference revolved around how to shape Chinese policy to exert overall influence along its periphery and to counter the US rebalancing towards Asia. The Chinese proposal of Silk Routes (continental and maritime) therefore must be seen as part of overall strategic construct of peripheral influence and regional integration to enhance Chinese political and economic influence.
Tibet and Xinjiang are seen as the great barriers along the periphery that protect the heartland from invasions from the West, a historical invasion route. This is aggravated by the fact that despite nearly seven decades of fairly strict control over the regions including attempts at shaping the cultural and social discourse, disquiet remains further enhancing Chinese anxiety. What most analysts tend to overlook is that Tibet remains an important factor in Indo – China relations. China looks at 1, 50,000 Tibetan in India as a potential source of friction, even as the Tibetan struggle over the years has become much more passive despite recent immolations.
Within this backdrop post Dalai Lama scenario is deemed as a potential source of trouble. Going by current trends attempts to install infant of their own by China will lead to potential backlash from Tibetan community both in China and in exile, forcing much larger crack down. On the other hand nomination by Dalai Lama of his successor would be unacceptable – a perfect Catch 22 situation. Therefore until the Tibetan issue is resolved in terms favourable to China it can be expected to continue to leverage boundary issue for coercion.
Second and incrementally more serious issue is the changing balance of power along the Indo – China border. No doubt Chinese authorities would have taken note of Modi, government’s initiatives on improving border infrastructure, Upping the ante in Ladakh by planned induction of an armoured brigade, and fast tracking the raising of the mountain Strike Corps. From the Chinese perspective particularly PLA’s calculations these are potentially destabilising developments. No doubt both in comparative military balance and terrain favour the Chinese owing to Tibet being a Plateau; however what is overlooked is that this only facilitates initial build up. Actual operations will be in mountainous terrain entailing fighting a classic attritional battle across mountain ranges, against vastly well equipped Indian forces.
They are also conscious that once India improves border connectivity and develop logistic capabilities which are presently being developed will allow India ability for rapid mobilisation. Indian offensive operations in contrast to the Chinese will be classic manoeuvre operations involving both special and mechanised forces with the advantage of rolling down the Tibetan Plateau posing a major threat to China. Areas where current Chinese intrusions are taking place are precisely those where India has geographical advantage. Similarly in Arunachal Pradesh and other disputed areas India is taking stress to improve its infrastructure.
The above analysis underscores that China realises that it has at the maximum 5-10 years to seek boundary dispute on favourable terms and hope within this period it will be able to resolve the Dalai Lama issue, beyond which relative balance of power could become inimical. Sino – Pak nexus is precisely a context of above thinking, to ensure multiple pressures on India to resolve boundary dispute on favourable terms in case of border alignments and demarcations.
There is another dimension of boundary issue which is being overlooked in Indian strategic discourse that relates to China – Bhutan boundary. In contrast to India Chinese behaviour on the boundary issue with Bhutan is vastly different. It is going all out to resolve boundary issue and has recently completed survey of the central sector of Tibet – Bhutan border and is likely to complete survey of Western and Eastern Sectors by the end 2015, thereby removing all roadblocks in normalisation of relations with land locked Bhutanese kingdom and incrementally bringing it within its sphere of influence. This will result in removal of critical strategic buffer exposing India Chicken Neck the “Siliguri Corridor” to the Chinese machinations. Thus it will be futile to think recent Chinese intrusions are a flash in the pan; these are in fact calibrated moves means to incrementally enhance its sphere of influence and strategically surround India.
Despite the machinations on the boundary issue Chinese have major reasons for aggressively engaging India economically. Chinese export model is essentially based on aggregator of raw materials and components sent by Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and ASEAN. In most manufactured goods value addition is low. In the wake of slowing down of exports China is involved in mammoth task of rebalancing its economy from export driven to domestic consumption model forcing key adjustments in fiscal and banking reforms. Falling exports and poor internal consumption could lead to a scenario of dual demand shock, domestic and external resulting in steeper fall in growth rates. This could jeopardise its political reforms and disturb the ‘natural order’. These and other economic factors are the rationale for china seeking new markets and Indian growth story if it picks up would be an ideal destination for Chinese investments something which Xi Jinping and his government realise. However from the nature of investments $ 20 billion, it appears Chinese are moving cautiously, waiting and watching as to how the Indian government’s economic reform agenda unfolds.
The above highlights in stark terms the contradictions in China’s India policy; at one level security concerns and possible shift in balance of power along the India – China boundary precludes early resolution, conscious of the fact that pushing India too far could result in India becoming deeply entangled with US led quadrilateral and regional re balancing strategy. It thus is attempting to use economic engagement for the twin purpose of enhancing economic integration as also taking advantage of growing Indian economy providing much needed export orders to its infrastructure industries.
Thus a major take away of Xi Jinping visit could be the smart calibration by the Chinese of their security and economic interests without any undue compromises for India. From Indian perspective what is important is to understand and analyse in detail Chinese compulsions and vulnerabilities and use these as leverage both with China and other Asian actors including US. If at all this visit should provide PM Modi a greater understanding of developing geopolitics and create room for manoeuvre for India. This is not merely a geo strategic construct but has important security and economic connotations.