India’s China Policy: Should It Be ‘Effective’ Or ‘Assertive’? – Analysis


By Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Recently, the opposition members in the Parliament accused the government of going soft on a hitherto ‘assertive’ China and apprehended a looming attack in the near future. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s refutations notwithstanding, many political parties are out to make a killing by sensationalizing Sino-Indian relations. Only some time back, a Chief Minister spoke of the desirability of an assertive China policy. While it is good that many regional political parties have started speaking on foreign policy issues, it is however questionable whether roughing up China in public would serve India’s foreign policy objectives. Perhaps not!

It is indeed a fact that management of relations with China is one of the priorities for the Manmohan Singh-led Government. Over the period, his government has carefully crafted an engagement policy towards China that has seen opening up of exclusive lateral dialogue processes in economic and defence areas. If there are no immediate dividends, particularly on the border issue, it is not because the government is soft-pedaling the issue; rather, it is because the issues on the table are too sensitive to be resolved and warrant patience. Unfortunately, the Government has received little appreciation for its efforts despite a decent job being done by the Indian diplomats.

China - India Relations
China - India Relations

While it is true that India has some genuine security concerns vis-à-vis China and the protagonists of an assertive China policy in India are rightly agitated about it; raising a hue and cry and being critical to Government may not serve the purpose, more so, since some of them have either held responsible positions in past with the government or are still holding it. Views expressed by such senior public figures are liable to be taken seriously and reflect an artificial divide in India’s China policy. Not long back, China was dubbed as ‘enemy number One’ by a veteran politician, then in Government. It took extra amount of efforts by the then government to contain the damage.

An assertive China policy, as advocated by some in Parliament and elsewhere, could be damaging to India in many ways. First, it is likely to jeopardize the overall bilateral relations that are still in a transitional phase and are quite sensitive to mutual provocations. Only recently, China cancelled the border talks between the two countries as it was not happy about the invitation to the Dalai Lama to a Buddhist congregation in New Delhi. Second, it will further complicate the ‘security dilemma’ for India since China is way ahead in all indices of military power. The Chinese military consolidation near the LAC and elsewhere is complete whereas India has only recently woken up to the asymmetrical gap.

Third, China could also react by derailing other aspects of bilateral relations. The trade ties, supplemented by incremental development of autonomous societal relationships between the two countries could be endangered. Fourth, it might induce a competitive politics and rivalry between the two countries that are just expanding their feet in the new geopolitical tracts.

The demand for assertion comes at a time when the Prime Minister is leading the national campaign on ‘inclusive growth’ which if successful, can uplift a vast section of population above poverty line. This mission is very much akin to what Deng Xiaoping had aimed for China in late seventies under his ‘four modernizations’ programme. The 12th Five Year Plan, as approved recently by the National Development Council, adopts a ‘developmental approach’ through a liberal commitment of funds to rural and social sectors. India, at this stage, simply doesn’t have the resources to play the assertion game with China.

The ‘assertion’ school must, therefore, reconsider their position and instead help the policy makers in coming out with an ‘effective’ China policy that faces some handicaps. First, the burden of negotiation, even in non-strategic sectors, is only on government. Business and trade communities, as also other groups, have not taken many autonomous initiatives. Second, very little efforts have been made by China specialists and other strategic experts to provide policy feedbacks that could help the Government in exploring a resolution of the disputed border and other issues. Third, political parties that could have played catalysts in engendering public opinion about the contours of a possible border resolution have largely shied away since it could damage their electoral prospects.

India, undergoing a power transition process, needs an ‘effective’ China policy that could help it concentrate on larger issues affecting the comprehensive national power. Sustained engagement of China, therefore, needs to be the hallmark of Indian foreign policy. While this may not bring immediate resolution to many contentious issues, this is the only way of handling relations with China. India has an example how its diplomats negotiated with China that changed its stand on ‘Sikkim’ and started showing it as part of India in Chinese maps.

Restraint in verbal outburst, therefore, is the sin qua non of an effective policy towards China. Public figures have greater responsibility not to say things that could be misunderstood. We should let the diplomats do their work.

Bhartendu Kumar Singh
Indian Defence Accounts Service
email: [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

One thought on “India’s China Policy: Should It Be ‘Effective’ Or ‘Assertive’? – Analysis

  • December 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    The reason why Indian’s chinese specialists don’t want to speak up is because they know that the roots of indo-china problems are territorial disputes. And the fact that Arunachal Pradesh was actually part of Tibet before British stole from them is well documented, but ignored by most indians. This is not integal part of India. Period. Returning that piece of land will solve all the issues.


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