On May 15, 2015, India and China came out with a joint statement acknowledging the simultaneous re-emergence of both the nations as major regional powers. This event was termed as heralding the beginning of the Asian Century in international geopolitics.
The bilateral relationship between India and China influences and has repercussions both within South and East Asia and globally. If their rise to power is achieved in a mutually supportive manner, it would ensure security. These are noble sentiments. However, two years downstream, the status of these opportunistic ideas is dubious.
India-China bilateral relations cannot be judged through the lens of an extended period of equanimity or of superficial bonhomie. It transcends definition, both in context and timeframe, encompasses myriad parts and is almost completely influenced by the past and the present of both the nations. It is obvious that the current trajectory will be projected into the future, where both convergence and divergence of interests is bound to take place. Both the nations are tied down by their individual rich historical and cultural traditions, which cannot be willed away. The past will always be a backdrop for the present.
The present is what is. It cannot be compromised by the government of the day because of real-time consequences of actions that are initiated or carried out in a reactive mode. Both nations are wary of the popular backlash against the leadership to actions inimical to the nation’s interests, actual or perceived, which could have dire domestic consequences. The future is equally contentious. Both the nations aspire to power—regionally and globally—and have growing economic clout. They are on track to soon become the second and third largest economies of the world. These are not aspirational projections, but based on actual figures.
Then came the Belt and Road Forum, as part of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which India boycotted for its own reasons. The call for peaceful cooperation and simultaneous rise to powerful status and to herald the 21 century as the Asian Century, vanished almost overnight.
The Immediate Past and the Present
This analysis will not go into the details of the Chinese annexation of Tibet or the Dalai Lama having been given refuge in India, both of which are issues of lingering contention between the two countries.
Both India and China face common challenges that could derail their focused march towards economic power that they feel will lead to global status as powerful nations of influence. These common issues are: ensuring a balanced domestic growth that benefits all the people; controlling the rural to urban migrations that is unbalancing the development pattern; providing holistic governance that ensures law and order and justice for all; and issues associated with the deterioration in the environment and climate change.
These common issues should be an impetus for cooperation, since cooperation is a positive step that leads to stability as well as economic development of the region. On the other hand attempts at containment of the other invariably leads to competition that in turn aggravates tensions and hostility.
In the India-China equation the emphasis from both the nations is in trying to contain the rise of the other, by all and any means at their disposal. The mantra of cooperation in some areas and containment in others sounds hollow under these circumstances—cooperation and containment are not two sides of the same coin. Both the nations harbor far too many historic memories to permit wholehearted or even nuanced cooperation. Further, the continuing border disputes, left unresolved for over half-a-century, muddies the waters. The border disputes led to a war in 1962 and a humiliating defeat for India, a factor that stands as a pillar of remembrance, especially for India. The undercurrent of mutual suspicion cannot be wiped clean.
Both China and India also face individual challenges, stemming mainly from the fundamentally different ruling ethos of the two nations. China has a one party autocratic government, a party-state rule. Its economy is based on an investment and credit system that generates surpluses in commodities, which threaten global economic stability.
Although the erstwhile Soviet Union had not reached the level of where China is currently placed, the fate of the Soviet Communist Party that presided over a similar governing system is seen as a salutary example by the Chinese leadership. President Xi Jinping’s attempts to strengthen the Party’s control over all elements of national power—especially the military forces, the final arbiter of power—has to be viewed within this reality.
India’s unique challenges flow out of the other side of the spectrum of governance, the issues that come with an entrenched multi-party democracy, gone viral. Endemic corruption, nepotism and pure hooliganism that directly challenge the rule of law and order has also managed to open visible seams within the economic system. This makes it almost impossible for the nation to move forward with strength, and more importantly, in a focused direction. India suffers from accentuated party politics and regional factions, which makes it difficult for the national leadership to find traction for initiatives that are critical for the nation to emerge as a regional, and subsequently, global power of consequence.
Add to this, the religious schisms that exist across the country, which can and does degenerate into violence very rapidly. The cup of woe for the national government would seem to overflow. The Central Government is unable to institute and enforce remedial measures to counter any of these challenges, since the central writ does not run across the entire country.
While these issues will continue to trouble the national leadership of both India and China, the result of historic and contemporary stand-offs is the current situation in bilateral relations. At an intellectual level there is acceptance in both the nations, at least outwardly, of the need for cooperation to address the common challenges. However, there is an inbuilt inability to put cooperation into practice. At least for the time being, the aspirational cooperative initiatives are on hold. There seemed to have been a glimmer of hope in the past three years or so vis-à-vis cooperation, but these baby-steps have faltered and been overtaken by the events of the past two months. During this period, both nations made some economic gains, with Chinese investment in India increasing in 2016.
The Stumbling Blocks
China’s foreign policies, some of historic origin and some instituted recently, especially in the Indian Ocean region has been inimical to India’s national interests. There are four issues that have always stood out as contentious from an Indian perspective.
The reason for Chinese recalcitrant reactions to these issues remain unexplained. First is China’s stand on Pakistan-based terrorist groups. China has unequivocally stated its opposition to all kinds of terrorism as its national policy. However, its stance on the issue of Pakistan instigated and supported terrorist activities is completely opposite to this. India can only consider this as a direct anti-India stance and finds this bind support to Pakistan inexplicable.
Second is the question of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) where China’s stand is unexplainable. Again China’s position on a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is very clear and formally stated.
However, since the CPEC is being built in disputed territory, India has objected to the initiative. China is completely dismissive of India’s concerns and position, a stance that is totally opposite to its stated policies on territorial integrity. This is also seen as an anti-India position that is deliberately being assumed by China.
Third is China’s attitude towards the border disputes with India. China, at its convenience, brings out border disputes to destabilise the immediate situation and also to create mid to long-term instability in the relations.
China’s renaming of Arunachal Pradesh, indisputably an integral part of India, as South Tibet and claiming it as Chinese territory is such a ploy. If the Chinese claims are to be considered as credible, then it would also become legitimate for India to review its policy towards Tibet, annexed by China in the 1950s.
The Chinese reaction to such a move would be interesting to watch and analyse.
The fourth sticking point in the relationship moving forward on an even keel is China’s unwavering opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The only reason that can be attributed to this opposition is a totally negative viewpoint that China assumes and its inherent anti-India position. Containment of India from becoming a more powerful state is written large in China’s repeated refusal to permit India to join the NSG.
Changed and Charged Relationship
In the late 1990s, India and China had a tacit understanding under which both the nations had agreed to ‘manage’ the relationship. Such management involved placing the border disputes, both around Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh that have the potential to escalate rapidly, on the slow burner of protracted negotiations while trade and economic interactions were fast-tracked. At this stage China was pursuing the concept of strategic patience with an attitude oriented to ‘lie low and bide your time’.
However, the notion of strategic patience has always been advantageous to the adversary. It is now clear that under President Xi Jinping, China is projecting its power, underpinned by its growing military might. Initiatives that will entrench China as global economic and military power—the South China Sea disputes and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative—are considered ‘core’ or fundamental and are not open to negotiation.
It is definite that opposition to these ‘core’ issues will invariably lead to the use of muscular power. China has gone a long way away from the concept of biding its time. Under the current president, China is a nation in a hurry. Xi Jinping has also articulated his vision of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. He firmly believes that it is now time to commence the push to make China one of the world’s pre-eminent economic, military and political powers.
Towards this end, the president has moved in a focused manner to consolidate power in order to directly control all organs of the party, government and the military. He has emerged as the strongest leader that China has had in the recent past. Somewhere in this hurried move towards power, China seems to have forgotten that with great power comes great responsibility. China is not rising as a benign and all-encompassing power and its institutions are not oriented towards providing exemplary examples to the rest of the world. Great power status obtained by unrestrained use of coercion is bound to have a short life span.
China is determined to ‘contain’ India’s rising power, since it believes that two rising powers cannot be accommodated in the Asian context. Sharing of power is an alien concept to Chinese thinking. It has therefore initiated a number of actions to achieve this objective. It has established strategic links with Pakistan and some other nations such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It has also attempted to browbeat India into accepting unpalatable changes. However, to China’s surprise, India has been unusually unrelenting in its opposition to Chinese actions and has not budged form its stated position in the issue of CPEC and border issues. India’s boycott of the OBOR Forum in Beijing almost immediately led to yet another border dispute at the triangle of India-China-Bhutan border.
The Doka La Pass Stand-off
India and China share a border of more than 3000 kilometres, much of which is disputed and long been a source of friction between the two countries. The recent stand-off between the two nations, following a minor altercation on 16 June, at the mountain pass of Doka La and the adjoining plateau has transformed into a lengthy affair unlike earlier border disputes.
This region, situated at the India-China-Bhutan border triangle is strategically important. The dispute erupted when China refused to stop the construction of a road in territory that Bhutan claims, despite Bhutan issuing a demarche to China.
By continuing to engage in road construction, China violates a 2012 understanding wherein the three nations had agreed that there would be no attempt to unilaterally challenge the status quo of the tri-junction. India had two reasons to act and initiate a push-back. First, it had to honour its commitment to provide external security for Bhutan; and second, it had to prevent further Chinese expansion in the Chumbi Valley that would directly threaten the security of India’s Siliguri Corridor, which is also known as the ‘Chickens Neck’.
The basic issue is that the Line of Actual Control across the long border between India and China has not been finalised or demarcated. Therefore, patrolling is done according to each nation’s perception of where the border should lie, leading to claims and counter-claims of encroachment and ownership.
The current stand-off has turned to be different from earlier minor skirmishes for two reasons—the timing of the Chinese actions; and the sequence of events. At the time that India boycotted the OBOR Forum, China had warned that India would be isolated and also warned that India’s pro-US stance was akin to being a US stooge. China’s reaction to the Indian army’s push-back at Doka La has been incandescent rage, expressed in public in multiple outlets. This is highly unusual.
It is also noteworthy that the current impasse was created almost immediately after the Modi-Trump meeting, which China has perceived to have strengthened the Indo-US strategic partnership.
The meeting highlighted the commonality in thinking and agreement in both India and the US regarding Pakistan harbouring and actively aiding terrorists and the threat posed by North Korea. The recently concluded military exercise between the navies of India, US and Japan seems to have made China uncomfortable. There is a visible sense of insecurity that seems to have made China resort to an unprecedented war of words against India.
On the other hand India asserts that it follows a fully autonomous foreign policy and that it will not be coerced into any action, by any nation.
It is clear that both the nations have taken actions that have pushed the envelope of the border dispute far beyond any previously taken. The stand-off has gradually edged towards a stage where backing down becomes an unpalatable option for both the nations. How did this happen? Delhi is worried about losing the advantage that it has in the contested region and believes that China is initiating actions to negate India’s advantage.
China, on the other hand claims that it is building a road in its own territory. This is a disingenuous argument, since at best the region can be termed ‘disputed land’.
China’s new policy of adopting an uncompromising stand on most issues that are considered essential for its own rise to global power status has become clearly visible. The sharply escalating and threatening rhetoric, although an uncharacteristic development, is in line with China’s recent posturing on all matters where its own position has been questioned by another nation.
With the Doka La Pass stand-off, the modus vivendi that existed between India and China vanished in a flash. The question now is how India will react and adjust or accommodate this position—whether it will in a traditional manner accept the situation or push back with its newfound confidence. If the recent and on-going border dispute is an indication, then India is not going to roll over and let China off the hook as it has done so often in the past. In turn, this change in attitude will have long term consequences not only for the India-China relations, but to the broader East Asian community.
In a subtle manner the Indian establishment did provide an opening for China to diffuse the situation, which was rebuffed without much ado. There is much to lose for both the nations if the stand-off is not contained soon. President Xi, having elevated himself to ‘core leader’ position, is playing a hard game to demonstrate his tough stance that matches the rhetoric spewing out of China. There is speculation that Xi Jinping may seek an unprecedented third term in 2022, when his second, and traditionally last, term expires. In case the Doka La turmoil spirals out of control and China suffers a ‘loss of face’ these ambitions may not materialise. It is clear that any escalation must end in Chinese domination. The recent statements from both the Chinese foreign ministry and military high command point towards an increasing chance of the use of force. However, Chinese domination is definitely not a certainty, at least for the time being.
China insists on Indian troops ‘withdrawing’ as a precondition to initiating talks, an event that is highly unlikely to take place. In the meantime, while this brinksmanship continues, both the nations have started mobilisation and military build-up to support the forward deployed troops in the region. The stand-off has moved on to a situation of a childish game of ‘dare’ to see who blinks first. The result is yet to be determined, but the outcome of this border dispute will also determine the manner in which the rivalry for regional power and influence will play out between the two neighbours. The stand-off cannot continue indefinitely.
Impact on East Asia
East Asia is a vast region, covering the area from India to Australia and Japan. In the past few years, East Asia has come to a cross road—it may not be able to continue to be a region of peace and stability and may be forced into a situation of becoming a region of bilateral and multi-lateral contests, with China on one side and various other nations on the other, individually and at times in groups. Until recently, East Asia was known for its stability and rapid economic growth. The combination of China’s unmistakable rise to regional power and with Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership has changed the equation forever.
Adding to the discomfiture of the region is the uncertainty that has been brought-on in global geo-politics by the Trump Administration, recently come to power in the US. The growing instability has been turned into a muddle. The inward looking ‘America First’ policy has gradually been translated into the US willingly abdicating its position as the Number One global power. This has led to consternation in the East Asian nations. The absence of a clear Asia policy and the conflicting statements emanating from the Administration has rattled the stability of Asia, especially at a time when China is increasingly belligerent with its neighbours.
The meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping in the US did not discuss the South China Sea (SCS). However, China’s actions in the SCS has been buffeting the region for the past five years, while the two leaders acted as if the on-going struggle in the SCS was not a challenge.
The fact that it is an emerging nightmare scenario is not lost on the Asian nations. The Asian nations have perceived this lack of US focus on what they consider the most important geopolitical crisis in recent times as a willingness to cede space for the growth of a Sino-centric Asia. India is understandably concerned since it is unsure whether the new US President even comprehends the strategic significance of balancing the regional power equation in East Asia.
Unfortunately strong strategic relations have not yet matured in post-colonial East Asia and the US reluctance to engage fully is sending mixed signals. India has its work cut out, if it is to continue to believe in its aspirations of regional power status. Meanwhile, China continues its inexorable march to a trumpet call that only it can hear.
The Doka La Pass stand-off between India and China has given rise to a lot of hyperbole regarding the prospect of a nuclear war. This eventuality is highly unlikely. However, the possibility of a quick diplomatic diffusion of the situation is also very remote. Unfortunately both the nations have moved to a position where backing down would have unforeseen domestic consequences for both the leadership. India-China bilateral relationship is now at a frosty low ebb and will remains so for a long time to come.
Usually a great power crisis in Asia would have involved a US-China or China-Japan confrontation. The current stand-off and the development of a crisis brings out the point that India has emerged as an Asian power of significance. Its relations with other great powers have now assumed global strategic significance. In Asia, old and forgotten animosities are starting to get revived, through a combination of wealth, ambition and an incompetent US policy.
It may not be an exaggeration to state that in the East Asian region, US influence is almost non-existent. In such a scenario, India-China relations, complex and contested, will be the influencing factor in the progress of geo-political manoeuvrings. The manner in which the Doka La imbroglio gets resolved will be an indicator of the willingness of Asia’s great powers to accommodate each other.
What is sure is that the prospects of the region returning to relative stability does not look very bright.
China wants to become the regional hegemon as a prerequisite to claiming global great power status. To achieve this the rest of the nations of the region will have to play the role of virtual vassal states.
This is the Chinese viewpoint and the only possible way forward from its perspective. Post-colonial India has never been submissive, even though in the early stages of its independent rule, foreign policy fiascos were made. Delhi cannot envisage a vassal status to any nation, let alone China. It follows another agenda and a different path to achieve regional power and global influence.
In such a scenario where neighbours are aspiring to achieve the same objectives, skirmishes, confrontations and stand-offs are bound to happen.