The phenomenal rise in the past two decades or so of the global hegemon, China, is unquestionably one of the major challenges confronting peace loving and international laws-abiding nations across the world. That China’s perfidy in its dealings with its neighbours and those nations it considers its competitors is a consistent hallmark of its foreign policies brooks no elaboration.
The other Asian giant, India, has frequently been at the receiving end of Chinese treachery right since the 1950s despite its sponsorship of China at the UN and the Security Council. Sincere efforts by successive Indian governments over the past 70 years or so to achieve harmonious relations with an overly aggressive and assertive China have been rebuffed by the latter on many occasions. Thus it is time for India to holistically review its China strategies and not be lulled into deluding itself of the grave and persisting threat from the Dragon. That Pakistan, a client -state of China, with its perpetual anti India agendas is always ready to do China’s bidding makes the collusive threat to India more than formidable.
China’s territorial revisionism vis-à-vis India has been more than evident since 1949. China’s annexation of 38000 sq kms of Indian territory in the Aksai Chin region in the late 50s/early 60s, the disastrous India-China war in 1962, its illegal occupation in 1963 of 5180 sq kms in the Shaksgam Valley in J&K ( a disputed territory ceded to China by an errant Pakistan), serious border clashes in Sikkim’s Nathu La and Cho La in 1967, the Sumdrong Cho standoff in 1987, periodic attempted incursions in Eastern Ladakh since 2013, the 2017 face-off in Doklam ( along the Bhutan-China border) — the list of Chinese provocations is rather long. The relative lull along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh was shattered in April/May 2020 by multiple Chinese incursions in the Eastern Ladakh region leading to a bloody clash in June 2020 between Indian and Chinese troops which left 20 Indian soldiers dead and reportedly a much higher number of casualties on the Chinese side. A month earlier, Chinese and Indian troops had also clashed in Nathu La in Sikkim leading to some injuries on both sides.
Over 16 rounds of Corps Commander level talks to settle matters in the Eastern Ladakh region did lead to some disengagement of troops–but not de-escalation in the ground situation in some friction points with Depsang and Demchok areas still having troops closely facing each other. All along the wily Chinese, at the highest political levels, subsequently have been talking of the importance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC!
As boundary protocols between the two nations prohibits employment of firepower, once again, on 9 Dec 2022, Chinese troops using steel, barbedwire bound clubs and sticks , in substantial numbers attacked the Indian post in Yangste in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh which China has the temerity to call “South Tibet.” Alert Indian troops, reinforced by Quick Reaction Teams, foiled the Chinese attempted intrusion effectively forcing the Chinese to withdraw to their side of the border between the two nations —that the Chinese do not recognize the relatively well-defined McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh (earlier called NEFA) is another story. A few days later, as is the well-established Chinese ploy — their political leadership led by their Foreign Minister Wang Yi commenced mouthing the need for India-China to work in cooperation with each other for mutual benefit and abide by the Agreements that exist between the two nations! Such a statement from the Foreign Minister could not be more duplicitous.
The Chinese stratagem of “salami-slicing tactics” creeping into Indian territories and making all efforts to justify their incursions by unilaterally deciding on the LAC alignment is an old worn-out story. It is rather naive of India to refer to differing perceptions of the LAC alignment when even after Chinese land grabs way back from 1959 to 1962, even then PM Jawaharlal Nehru had dismissed the term and alignments of LAC as totally unacceptable. By all accounts, the Chinese before unilaterally withdrawing on 20 Nov 1962, had successfully advanced to their so-called claim lines in the Aksai Chin region in Eastern Ladakh and have retained the fruits of their annexation since then.
It is high time now for India to pragmatically conceive and determinedly act upon a sound, balanced and yet a no-nonsense China policy. A policy based on reactiveness and sheer adhocism can prove disastrous. For decades, India has suffered at the hands of the treacherous Chinese and must call the Chinese bluff before Chinese President Xi Jingping, after his unprecedented third presidency election, gets ultra-ambitious vis-à-vis India. His priorities , despite the recurrence of another massive Covid variant wave in China has not deterred him, from asserting himself against Taiwan, in the international sea-lines of the South China Sea as also scoffing at the maritime rights of Japan, Viet Nam, Philippines and other nations. That the invasion of Taiwan appears more probable, than it ever was, is a stark reality and according to some analysts just a matter of time.
Notwithstanding whatever be the financial challenges India will have to overcome, the foremost priority for India is to substantially augment all the constituents of its Comprehensive National Power.
As is well known, combat capabilities take a long time to accomplish. It is encouraging to note that added significance is being accorded to indigenous production in the manufacture of various types of defence-related equipment. The government will have to go out on an over-drive to encourage both the public and private sectors to produce state-of-the-art equipment both jointly, independently and in partnership with willing foreign manufacturers. Secondly, India, while ensuring its strategic autonomy, will have to accord and garner support with like-minded nations, both globally and in Asia, to thwart in concert with each other Chinese hegemonic tendencies.
Thus entities and alliances like the QUAD will have to acquire military capabilities to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region remains clear of China’s attempts to dominate the region — the sooner it embarks on ensuring that international waterways are kept clear of any Chinese interference better will it be for the region’s future. The QUAD must be ready for any kinetic actions , if so forced, in the Indo-Pacific. The unprecedented Chinese naval buildup is a clear pointer towards likely China’s strategies in these waterways in the foreseeable future. The QUAD should also take other Indian Ocean littoral nations in its fold. The US, India and other Asian nations need to synergise their international interests to take on a hegemonistic China in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is indeed strategically a wise step that India has refused to join China’s over-ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. India must zealously endeavour to encourage economic and trade ties with its South Asian and Eastern neighbours. Pakistan, despite its gravely faltering economy, will always be creating problems for India at China’s behest but India must get Iran, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics to ameliorate their mutual trade ties for which the speedy development of Iran’s Chabahar Port becomes a critical imperative. India will have to take some innovative measures to incentivize its neighbourhood.
Another critical aspect in India -China relationship is for India to take a hard look at its ever increasing trade deficit with China. It is now the third largest fiscal deficit in the world and reportedly even more than India’s current annual defence budget! It was, according to reliable sources, $77 billion dollars at the end of the last financial year and soon will touch a mammoth $88 billion dollars in China’s favour. Noted strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney has commented succinctly that ” India is underwriting Beijing’s economic and military power while its forces seek to contain creeping Chinese expansionism.” He further adds that “New Delhi has shied away from imposing meaningful costs on Beijing including by not exercising its trade leverage.”
By any standards, Chinese forces are not invincible. Whenever any physical altercations have taken place, Indian troops on the ground have given them more than a taste of their own medicine. In the event of any likely conflict between the two nations, India will have an upper hand with its battle-hardened troops, adept at mountain and high altitude warfare, than Chinese troops who are primarily conscripts and neither highly motivated as Indian soldiers. China will, off course, try to bridge this gap by employment of heavier weaponry and stand-off firepower. Overall, the Indian Armed Forces are now well geared to thwart any Chinese onslaughts but preparedness to confront a two-front war with China and Pakistan in a collusive mode needs to be looked into with greater deliberation.
In the coming year, as many geopolitical and military pointers indicate, Chinese actions in the whole of Asia including against India, are likely going to be confrontationist. Consequently, all the chances of a kinetic conflict between the two nations exist. To play down China’s threat will be only at India’s peril. It will be prudent on the part of the government to take the entire nation especially the Opposition in the Parliament in confidence and the entire nation is unitedly geared up to successfully counter any Chinese perfidy. Handling the Dragon will thus remain India’s foremost strategic challenge in 2023 and the years ahead.