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Beyond The Himalayan Barrier: The Chinese Question – Analysis

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In the Indian chapter on China, the last word may never be written. From a veritably tiny footprint on the global economy and little influence outside its borders, China has today transformed itself into a remarkable economic power, the world’s manufacturing workshop, its foremost financier, a leading investor across the globe from Africa to Latin America, and, increasingly, a major source of research and development. Its government sits atop an astonishing level of foreign reserves and there is not a single business anywhere in the world not having felt China’s impact, either as a low-cost supplier or as a formidable competitor.

Meanwhile, the US, the world’s sole economic hyper-power so far stands much diminished; humbled by its foreign-policy blunders and a massive financial crisis, its credibility after the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is at an all-time low and its economic model is in shambles. The once-almighty dollar today finds itself at the mercy of China and the oil-rich states. Its Syrian adventure today is held to ransom by the increasing belligerence displayed by Russia, not least because of Putin’s aggressiveness to regain the Russian position on the world map.

All of this raises the question of whether China will replace the US as the hegemon of the world, the rule setter for the global economy and the enforcer, and what it would mean for India. Given the variety of reasons for the growing conflicts of interest between India and China, a careful analysis would be in order. In the following paragraphs, an endeavour has been made to outline the key issues that would impact Indian strategic interests and policies.

How China Perceives Itself

It is important to understand how China’s influential elite perceive their own country before examining other issues. There are several themes consistent throughout Chinese writing, all based on the premise of the Chinese being exceptional. Specifically, the Chinese see their country as unlike any other, given their long history, pursuit of peace, and inherently defensive rather than offensive approach to international relations. China’s influential elite take a comparative and quantitative approach when looking at their country in relation to the rest of the world. They see a China rising in power in a world that is trending towards multipolarity. This trend favours China’s approach to international relations and is bound to further increase China’s role and stature on the world stage. But this time frame, in which their power is growing and the world is becoming more multipolar, is limited and fraught with danger. It is a window of strategic opportunity for China, which must make the most of it, continuing its fast-paced economic developments and social transformation while limiting any external threats to peace and stability. The Chinese influential elite uniformly espouse the idea that China is unique and does not behave as other states do. China is very proud of its 5,000 years of history and culture. For two millennia, China considered itself the hub of civilization. Lieutenant General Li Jijun, in attempting to explain China to an audience at the U.S. Army War College, noted proudly that “China is the only uninterrupted civilization in world history.”

Chinese historians often boast that China has engaged in more than 6,000 battles in 4,000 years. General Li credited the country’s longevity despite these conflicts to “the soul of the Chinese nation, which makes unremitting efforts for self-improvement and stresses morality and respect for others and national unity.” The importance of national unity to the Chinese is a result of invasions and defeats suffered at the hands of the west in the 19th century. This “century of humiliation” had a profound effect on China’s self-image, which long had been one of cultural, technological, and moral superiority. This experience likely contributed to what General Li termed a Chinese “unifying consciousness” dedicated to “maintaining the unity of the country and its territorial integrity and sovereignty.” Despite frequent invasions and threats to China’s territory, China maintained its pursuit of peace.

The story of explorer Zheng He has come to symbolize this uniquely peaceful disposition to the Chinese. Purportedly, eighty-seven years before Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic, Zheng He made seven voyages, involving 27,000 people and 200 ships, to more than 30 countries and regions. As General Li told the students at the U.S. Army War College, “Unlike later Western explorers who conquered the land they discovered, this fleet did not subdue the newly discovered lands by force. This was not a voyage to plunder the local populace for treasure nor was it one to establish overseas colonies.” Zheng’s mission was “simply to convey friendship and goodwill and to promote economic and cultural exchanges.” On the 600th anniversary of Zheng’s first expedition, the China Daily featured an opinion piece on Zheng’s peaceful missions, noting how they are still symbolic of China’s peaceful nature: “Six hundred years after Zheng, China cherishes a similar desire to befriend the world. But regrettably its goodwill is demonized because established powers fear a resurgent China.”

However it is equally important to see this perceived notion of being ‘victimised’ by the west as a likely precursor to Chinese designs of being a power to reckon with. As has been seen in the recent past, almost all actions of the Chinese are more or less aimed at creating this image of themselves in the mind of the world audience. Unfortunately, only limited access exists as to how the Chinese themselves see the future, owing to their extreme focus on secrecy leaving the analyst with little choice but to rely on own perceptions and other analyses done across the globe.

A World Order Centred on China

It would be immature to imagine China becoming like the western countries as it grows in power and in the size of its economy. The Chinese government and people have a different concept of society and polity; community-based rather than individualist, state-centric rather than liberal, authoritarian rather than democratic. China has 2,000 years of history as a distinct civilisation from which to draw strength and would not simply fold up under western values and institutions. The world order that China would construct may look very different from what has been under American leadership. It will reflect Chinese values rather than western ones. Beijing may overshadow New York, the renminbi may well replace the dollar, and Mandarin may take over from English. There may no longer be the evangelism of markets and democracy. Although China is much less likely to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states it may in return demand that smaller and less powerful states explicitly recognise its primacy (just as in the tributary systems of old). Its increasing belligerence towards the littoral states in the East and South China seas is indicative of this urgency for recognition and primacy.

The flip side, however is that China will have to continue its rapid economic growth and maintain its social cohesion and political unity to sustain such an eventuality which may or may not be possible. Beneath the powerful economic dynamo lie deep tensions, inequalities, and cleavages that could well derail a smooth progression to global hegemony. Throughout its long history, centrifugal forces have often pushed the country into disarray and disintegration. China’s stability hinges critically on its government’s ability to deliver steady economic gains to the vast majority of the population. China is the only country in the world where anything less than eight per cent growth year after year is believed to be dangerous because it would unleash social unrest. Most of the rest of the world only dreams about growth at that rate, which speaks volumes about the underlying fragility of the Chinese system. The authoritarian nature of the political regime is at the core of this fragility. It allows only repression when the government faces protests and opposition outside the established channels. The trouble is that it will become increasingly difficult for China to maintain the kind of growth that it has experienced in recent years. China’s growth currently relies on an undervalued currency and a huge trade surplus. This is unsustainable, and sooner or later it will precipitate a major confrontation with the west. Any number of factors could hypothetically trigger such a confrontation; it could be the unrest in the European Union post Brexit, or it could be a Trump victory in the US elections. China may well have to settle for lower growth which results in unrest domestically rather than confront the west; domestic unrest could still be controlled, trouble abroad would indeed be a very different story.

If China is able to surmount these hurdles and eventually become the world’s predominant economic power, globalisation will have to take on Chinese colours. Democracy and human rights will probably lose their lustre as global norms but there may be greater room for experimentation with different economic models.
Relevance for India: China’s ascendancy to the position of hegemon would bring to bear on India pressure both in terms of economic and political systems. Naxalites and Maoists may be supported either covertly or overtly, but more likely this support would become ‘in- your-face’ and India may witness a move towards communism. What could be more dangerous and detrimental to India is such a move creating the scope for secessionism or breakdown of the entity that we know as India. On the economic front, India’s comparable growth may not remain palatable to China, and in a position to dictate terms, it would well do so. The scenario could be the new face or even the reason for conflict.

Chinese Military and Naval Aspirations

With its economic status well cemented, China also harbours ambitions of being a global power militarily. To that end, it has made rapid strides in bringing in technology and upgrading the fighting capabilities of its forces. Two very important issues of Missile Defence and Naval capabilities have been examined to understand the reverberations in Asia (definitely impacting India) and the world at large. Though Beijing was known to be developing or improvising missile defence systems for long, there were very few indicators from the Communist state on how far it has gone in terms of technological prowess and sophistication. It is only recently that information pertaining to this has trickled out, primarily due to the Chinese themselves wanting the world to know of their increasing capabilities. Similarly, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy)’s gradual expansion beyond the South China Sea and the focus on what Beijing calls, “military operations other than war” highlight the shift in policy and strategy towards protecting its international lines of supply, humanitarian relief, and naval diplomacy.

China undertook a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) test on 11 January 2010, which it claimed was an exo-atmospheric interception. Beijing was known to be developing missile defence systems for long but there were very few indicators on how far it has gone in terms of technological prowess. By releasing very few details on the nature of the test, China has left many questions on its actual capability. China’s demonstration of its ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability in January 2009 was also anticipated for long, though it came with much lesser shock and awe. China succeeded in shaking the world in January 2007 with the display of its Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability, by intercepting and destroying a weather satellite in low-Earth orbit. Since then, it was expected that China’s next technological breakthrough to be displayed to the world would be its ballistic missile interception capabilities. True to China’s deceptive strategies and postures, there were few indicators to the existence of a new, exclusive longer-range BMD system, outside the Hongqi series.

That Beijing deliberately withheld details of the system involved in the January 2010 intercept only added to the ambiguity on the nature and capabilities of the system supposedly used for this intercept. This has prompted China watchers and military analysts to speculate on the Chinese BMD programme and the permutations of systems and capabilities. On the political side, the January 2010 intercept unravelled yet another instance of Chinese hypocrisy on major security issues including space weaponisation and ballistic missile defence. Similar to the manner in which China conducted the ASAT test in Jan 2007 after years of activism against weaponisation and military uses of outer space, the BMD intercept also contradicted China’s long-standing opposition to ballistic missile defences and concerns over their potential to trigger regional arms races and instability. However, the Chinese demonstration of a BMD capability was long overdue given its innate ambitions to counter the US-backed theatre missile defence (TMD) deployments in East Asia and the potential implications of the Eastern European BMD deployment on its nuclear deterrent.

Relevance for India: It would also be anybody’s guess what this means in the Indian context. This programme would not only provide an effective shield against the Indian (existing and likely future) missile capabilities but also opens up another avenue for the Pakistani military establishment to get its hands on such technology. Also a nuclear weapon state, backed by a BMD shield, is perceived to have a natural advantage through its ability to offset first-strike from the enemy through its defences, while also ensuring survivability of its assured destruction/massive retaliation capability through a second strike. As a result, instead of creating stability, BMDs produce a contrarian effect, one which postulates competition for interception capabilities that consequently triggers arms races rather than containment of proliferation. Just as the US BMD plans in Eastern Europe and TMD deployments in East Asia complicated the deterrence equations vis-à-vis Russia and China, the Chinese demonstration of an exo- atmospheric interception capability is destined to dramatically alter the strategic equations in Asia and especially in the Sino-Indian region.

It is quite typical of China to give bare minimum details on a major technological capability demonstration and then leave the rest of the world to do the guessing. Realising the utility of ballistic missile defence and space weaponry in the military element of its rising power profile and posturing and despite its vehement opposition to space weaponisation and missile defences, China initiated commensurate actions to strengthen its deterrent capability by improvising alternate or secondary response systems to the US missile defence. What is ostensibly against the US systems, poses considerable threat to Indian interests. Missile defences were initially seen as an ideal way out of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) trap. Threats of assured destruction and massive retaliation have primarily guided deterrence equations between nuclear powers; it is equally true that the propriety of leaving space for mutual vulnerability is now finding few takers. This naturally takes away from the credibility of the Chinese argument that such systems are only a means of deterrence against the US and definitely need inclusion in any Indian contingency planning.

A Jan 2010 US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report analysed the capabilities and the future direction of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N). The ONI assessment differs substantially with the conventional Indian view of a China racing unstoppably towards being a naval superpower. The assessment notes China’s recent deployment of Task Groups, each consisting of two warships and a replenishment vessel, for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. This marks the first time in over 600 years that a Chinese flotilla has operated in waters beyond China’s immediate vicinity. But the report concludes that none of these operations indicates a desire on the part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to develop a constant global presence. Beijing’s ambition appears to remain focused on the East Asian region, with an ability to protect the PRC’s maritime interests in distant seas when required. Historically, an inward focus which the Chinese Navy adopted around 1495 continued through Mao’s revolutionary war, which brought the communists to power. Thereafter a coastal navy was sufficient to enforce China’s claims over most of the East and South China Seas, and the need to deter Taiwan from declaring independence. But the US Navy’s dominating presence in the Asia-Pacific and need to protect China’s supply lines convinced Beijing of the need for greater naval power.

China’s Defence White Paper of 2008 called for expanding the navy’s operating range and a greater role in international security. The PLA(N)’s most key acquisition is a sophisticated anti-air capability, which would allow its ships to operate in distant seas, far from land-based air-defence systems. The already formidable Luyang-I class of destroyers have been upgraded to the Luyang-II class and the Jiangkai II frigates have been introduced both of which are linked with an air-surveillance network as good as America’s world-standard Aegis system. Submarines, both conventional and nuclear, are seen as key deterrents in the PLA(N). Finally, any argument tending towards the analyses offered by the ONI report puts paid by the acquisition of the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, renamed the Liaoning, with 24 J-15 fighter aircraft, 6 Z-18F Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters, 4 Z-18J Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters and 2 Z-9C Rescue helicopters. This is being projected as a training ship while China is now in the process of designing its indigenous aircraft carrier. Given the rate at which the Chinese churn out military hardware, it may not be very long before they are a recognised and thorough-bred Blue Water Navy.

Relevance for India: China is likely to replace its large number of low-tech submarines with smaller numbers of modern, high-capability submarines. But, while the number of surface ships may remain constant, the fleet of 62 submarines will increase over the next 10-15 years to 75. In that time-frame, India’s submarine fleet will be about one-third that of China’s. Even more worrisome is the programme to develop the world’s first Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), a variant of China’s Dong Feng–21 missile. This may not even have a US equivalent for another few years to come. The ASBM’s peculiar flight path involving a mid-course trajectory correction will make it very difficult to intercept. What may seem as China trying to protect its own interests (to the Americans) may well turn out to be another attempt to create a ring around India in the Indian Ocean. Knowing fully well Indian vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean rim, and given its equations with its neighbours, all recent Chinese overtures seem to be aimed at ensuring supremacy in the region. The activities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, with massive infrastructure development of ports and military/ naval facilities are an indicator of the same.

Indian Defence Imperatives with the Chinese Factor

Certain defence analysts had predicted that China may attack India by 2012. At that time this prophecy seemed farfetched because China would not want a war till it became a true super power by 2050 and would only go to war with a 100 percent chance of success. China is also India’s leading trade partner, and common sense dictates that good economic relations are a logical antidote against war. Finally, in the event of war in the foreseeable future, the Indian Navy would be in a position to wreck havoc with China’s oil tankers ferrying the Middle East oil through the straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombak straits. The Indian Air Force would also be utilised.

Unfortunately increasing signs of belligerence such as the large number of border transgressions in the last few years, the September 2009 Chinese firing across the LAC (the first since 1986, and the first since the 1996 “no firing agreement”), and in northern Sikkim may be the early signs of conflict. At this stage a very serious mistake to make is assuming that the United States would lend any credible support by deterring China and pressurising Pakistan. While New Delhi’s broad national interests do generally appear to coincide with Washington, it must be remembered that no country will go to war against nuclear armed foes unless directly threatened. Given Pakistan’s undeniable geo-strategic location, the Americans cannot be expected to “take out” or “neutralise” Pakistani nuclear weapons, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the terrorists. Neither should it be assumed that America has joint control over Pakistani nuclear weapons. It is good to have close ties with the USA, but it’s prudent not to outsource Indian national security to any external power. By the same analogy, it can be safely assumed that the US will have no part whatsoever to play in any possible Sino-Indian conflict except perhaps that of a mediator, but that too, only remotely and at a later stage.

Being masters of the art of long term strategic planning, Chinese strategy seems to be to keep India tied down by the triple threats from China, Pakistan and Pakistani sponsored terrorists. It would be in Indian interest for the foreign ministry to stop justifying China’s daily incursions by talking about differing perceptions on the Line of Actual Control. China will stop its incursions only when it’s deterred by India’s conventional and strategic defence capability. A possible change in the “no first use” nuclear policy and simultaneous increase in defence expenditure from the present percentage of GDP to a more substantial amount would also give the right signals.


While China’s influential elite may seem concerned about a direct military confrontation with the United States, Japan, and India, they are far more concerned about the possibility of containment efforts by any—or all—of these countries. The threat of containment, however, is less of a military threat and more of a diplomatic, political, and economic one. The influential elite also express concern over the fluctuating, unpredictable, and seemingly unstable nature of the democratic process in all of these countries. This has been dealt with in more detail in Part II of this analysis.

Amitabh Hoskote

Amitabh Hoskote is a Strategic and Defense Professional and Scholar with varied experience in Combat, Defense Management, research in Security & Defense oriented issues, crises management, strategy planning & execution. With a Masters and PHD in Development and Conflict Studies, Finance and Economics, he has been an Honorary Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Strategy Think Tank in India and writes regularly for the Eurasia Review on issues of geopolitical importance.

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