Chinese foreign policy approach under Xi Jinping has witnessed a significant change since 2012-13. A cooperative and development-oriented perspective coupled with an aggressive diplomatic and military posturing has been the underlying aspects of its foreign policy. A reiteration of this approach can be witnessed in Xi’s pursuit of China’s nationalist ambitions while offering cooperative gestures towards most nations through its flagship BRI. In the purview of the current times, both the ‘mask diplomacy’ and ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy of China explains the extremities of this approach, pointing towards an intriguing foreign policy style of soft power projection juxtapositioned with an assertive, proactive and high-profile diplomacy under Xi. In this context, where does India figure in Xi’s foreign policy?
Xi’s policy towards India transcends from the prism of a neighbouring country to a major power to an adversary power. While a desire to orchestrate China’s relations with India under a ‘developmental partnership’ has been the highlights of Xi’s diplomatic manoeuvring towards India; a competing perspective to view India as a major adversary in the making has shaped most of the Chinese outlook under Xi. Thus, testing India’s resilience at the Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, Doklam in 2017, coupled with New Delhi’s rapid border infrastructure development, growing India-US ties, and adherence to Indo-Pacific undercurrents points to such a Chinese intent. The current border face-offs between the Chinese and Indian troops since early May, followed by an escalation on June 15 in the Galwan valley further buttresses such a narrative.
With the Galwan incident marking a new low in the bilateral relations, Xi’s approach towards India is becoming more explicit, explaining a competing rather than a cooperative approach. Beijing’s reluctance to clarify the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and its periodic attempts to transgress into the Indian side of the LAC to change the status quo of the India-China boundary is a serious indicator of this. Despite numerous engagement efforts by both New Delhi and Beijing, the fundamentality of the Sino-Indian ties remains categorized by the territorial disagreement over the LAC. Also, even as India utilizes a measured approach towards the Dalai Lama issue, the Tibet factor remains a foundational element to affect the bilateral ties from time to time. However, the Galwan valley incident holds higher strategic significance in the list of India-China military skirmishes since the valley was a hot spot in the 1962 war. More so, as unlike the localized structure of the confrontations between both the countries in the past, the current face-offs suggest towards encounters occurring at multiple locations concurrently, signifying towards Xi’s approval for such aggressive conducts.
In this context, Beijing’s territorial ambition under Xi has amplified post the 2016 PLA reform and restructuring, holding enormous significance for the boundary dispute. If anything, China’s claim over the entire Galwan valley only exemplifies the authoritarian Chinese decision-making process under Xi. This is best reflected through Xi administration’s bluntness in changing the status-quo; as it is reiterated in the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s statement:
“The Galwan Valley lies on the Chinese side of the LAC… Since April this year, the Indian side has been building roads and bridges at and across the LAC in the Galwan Valley, unilaterally changing the status quo.”
In fact, this is not the first time China has accused India’s actions of being threatening its sovereignty. Beijing was equally vocal about India’s decision to revoke J&K’s special status. Nevertheless, the present hostilities at the LAC resonate the territorial ambitions of the PLA under Xi, exhibiting incrementally assertive revisionist tendencies. If anything, the Galwan incident displays a more confrontational posture towards India by Xi, which remains guided by sources beyond bilateral linkages.
What Shapes Xi’s India Policy?
Xi’s first-ever visit to India in September 2014 ahead of the stand-off at the Chumar valley highlighted his acknowledgement of the necessity to forge a closer developmental partnership with India. Similar rhetorics were visible during the informal summits between PM Modi and President Xi in Wuhan in April 2018 (ahead of the Doklam crisis) and Chennai (Mamallapuram) in October 2019. Through such a partnership, Xi aimed to channelize its economic diplomacy with India, realizing New Delhi’s strong opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Importantly, India’s stern opposition to the BRI had frustrated Xi’s approach from time to time. Even more so, as BRI plays a central role in acquiring China’s core strategic objectives and remains the genesis of Xi’s grand geopolitical strategy. Thus, repeated denials by India to participate in the Belt and Road Forums held in 2017 and 2019 were unbecoming of a true developmental partner that Xi would have realized.
Moreover, New Delhi’s efforts to indirectly review the flow of the Chinese FDI in India, citing sovereignty concerns amidst a pandemic and economic crisis has perturbed China. Viewing the new Indian policy as ‘discriminatory’, the above Indian FDI move has factored in Xi’s India policy while enabling the Chinese leader to view New Delhi more as an adversary, rather than a developmental partner. In other words, India’s resolute stance towards China has unnerved Xi to pursue a more confrontational approach.
The Rising Power India
More than anything, it is the testimony of India as a rising power which has confronted Xi’s foreign policy prism. New Delhi’s increasing influence as an actor in the regional affairs has posed enormous challenges to Chinese diplomacy in Indo-Pacific. A contest in outreach and in ideology has emerged as differing lines between China and India. To this effect, a greater Indian outreach in East Asia, in the Indian Ocean Region, and the Pacific Islands is driving Xi’s competitive India policy. At the same time, China’s prolonged refusal to acknowledge India’s rise as a major power is unravelling the ideological element to view India as a ‘struggling democracy’. Arguably, in order to sustain the glamour and highness that Xi endorses for the Communist Party of China (CCP)’s model of governance, the Chinese strategic communities have engaged in disregarding the Indian Inc.
However, post-Doklam, India has emerged to be a power which would refuse to kowtow to China and fall prey to Xi’s pressure tactics to achieve strategic and geopolitical gains. In fact, Indian military improvements in patrols and stepped up infrastructure developments along the LAC have contributed to a firm approach towards China and added to Xi’s displeasure.
Xi’s Qualms about India-US Ties
If any bilateral ties have troubled Xi the most, it is the India-US ties. The India-US ties are still in a progressive stage. Yet, China views this progressive partnership as antithetical to its regional and global interest. India’s strengthening defence and security ties with the US, particularly with agreements such as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, and the defence technology transfer pacts concluded between the two nations in 2019 have also been worrisome for the Chinese leadership. If anything, China’s aggressive conduct amidst the Galwan stand-off would only provide a new rationale for greater US-India ties.
Xi’s apprehensions towards a concrete US-India partnership stems from an intensifying US-China trade war which has acted as a potential threat to Xi’s leadership sustainability. Further, the US-China conflicts have only worsened under the garbs of the Covid-19 pandemic, proving to be a greater test for Xi’s authority. In this context, India’s participation in the conjectural ‘Quad Plus’ meetings amongst specific countries started by the US; New Delhi’s acceptance of Trump’s invitation to join the next G-7 summit; and India’s support to the global call for diversifying away from the China-centric supply chain networks have contributed to Xi’s aggressive policy towards India.
The Indo-Pacific Undercurrents
Moreover, to Xi’s discomfort, India under Modi has been developing an independent posture through multi-aligned networks. While advocating for a multipolar global order, India is building regional and global partnerships to uphold its national security and interests. For instance, India’s Special Strategic and Global Partnership with Japan is enabling it to cooperate in Northeast India and forge business-oriented ties. Similarly, the recently upgraded Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between India and Australia is enhancing the economic, defence, and people-to-people ties between New Delhi and Canberra. Arguably, India’s growing engagement with ‘select countries of the Indo-Pacific’ has been heightening New Delhi’s growing stature as a major power vis-à-vis China. To Xi’s discontent, the select countries majorly comprise of Beijing’s most significant economic and strategic partners, which further China’s insecurities and act as a driving force for Xi’s competitive response towards India.
To put it directly, Xi’s India policy takes a more confrontational route rather than a cooperative one, contradictory to what his ‘developmental partnership’ diplomacy pretended to offer. Stronger nationalist elements led by the PLA seem to be shaping a more competitive and conflict-oriented approach towards India. With the boundary question and the geopolitical undercurrents forming the bedrock of Xi’s policy towards India, any future developments in Beijing’s approach towards New Delhi would reel from the shadows of the Galwan border tensions, and the scepticism Xi holds towards India. However, is a confrontational India policy strengthening Xi’s foothold in China’s domestic governance? Possibly; and therefore Xi relies on an anti-India resort to create a stronger nationalist ethos in China to strengthen its authoritarian regime. Further, in the backdrop of an assertive approach towards India, one wonders if New Delhi had ever figured in Xi’s premise of a “community of shared future for mankind”. Xi’s current India policy answers the obvious.
*Ms Mrittika Guha Sarkar is a research scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS), in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She is also an Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”. She can be contacted through email at [email protected] and @guha_mrittika on Twitter.