“India and China are very old and beloved brothers”
is what Rabindra Nath Tagore said about India -China relations.Well,the times have changed and things doesn’t seem to be as romantic as it once was.The one elephant of a country sitting at India’s backyard was always a concern for India’s leaders like Jwawaharlal Nehru.Historian Bipin Chandra ,in his famous work ‘India Since Independence’has opined that Nehru was aware of the dangers posed by a strong and expansionist China.In this article,I will try to decipher the logic behind China’s expansionist tendency and also suggest some ways to tackle it in order to protect India’s vital security and sovereignty interests.
Economically,China is the only country in the globe which can challenge a unipolar world order with USA at its centre.But China is a ‘caged naval power’.Although it has a very lengthy coastline (nearly twice as lengthy as India’s), most of it is confined to the eastern borders of the country and the vast Chinese mainland remains landlocked.Adding to China’s disadvantage is the presence of other countries such as Philllipines,S.kore,N.korea and Japan with which its international maritime boundary coincides.This strategic disadvantage also manifests in China’s ‘one China policy'(every country which wants to establish a diplomatic relationship with china has to adhere to the notion that Taiwan is an integral part of China) because recognition to Taiwan’s sovereignty will again choke off very vital maritime boundary from China.Therefore, to have more maneuverability,China reclaims lost islands in the South China sea and claims an expanded ‘Nine dash line’ as its maritime boundary.This move purportedly gives it access to resources including oil and natural gas and bring adversaries within its striking capability.
The region east and south of S.china sea known as Indo-Pacific has strong presence of US navy owing to its security commitments to countries like Japan and S.Korea along with an aim to ensure safety of shipping in the Indian ocean.With US pursuing its global interests with a well versed navy,China can pose a counter only by defeating US navy in a decisive battle or by making it irrelevant through a land based model.China chose the latter and started its ambitious and extensive ‘Belt and Road'( also called One belt One road/OBOR)initiative which aims to connect China with Central Asia and Europe through land.With India fast developing its naval capacities and enhancing its cooperation with US in the Indian ocean,China perceived a naval blockade in the ‘Malacca straits’ in the wake of a naval confrontation.This threat loomed high with India starting the Malabar naval exercise with japan and USA.A possible expansion of this naval exercise with Australia willing to join it , raised the Chinese fear to new heights. This has prompted China to create ports and land based corridors that opens up to sea .The Gwaddar port in Pakistan,proposed land-corridor through Myanmar that opens in the Bay of Bengal are part of this move.With this, China tries to ensure that its vital energy supply (80% through ‘Malacca strait’)lines are not distracted.The ‘string of Pearls doctrine'(Chinese ports surrounding India) is not just aimed at arm-twisting India but will also be utilized to check substantial US presence in Thailand and Vietnam.
As India’s influence in the South Asian region increases(except in Pakistan) and South East Asia sees India as a maritime security provider owing to threats from China in the S.china sea,China would want to assert its position as a regional power in Indo -China.The race between India and china has already started with both countries competing to capture commercial space launching market,infrastructure development and investments in the neighboring countries etc..It even extends beyond the continent to capture markets in Africa.While India is no match to China’s purse,it performed fairly well in other fronts including in softpower projection through Sanskrit,Budhism,Ayurveda and Yoga.
China’s Expansionism vis a vis India
The high Tibetan plateau poses a strategic disadvantage to China in terms of sub-optimal performance of its military hardware that includes aircraft.Therefore China would want to occupy key positions in the Himalayas to checkmate India.The best of this opportunity is in the Southern part of Chumbi valley or Doklam Plateau (the tri-junction between India,Bhutan and China).This will bring China in close proximity to ‘Chicken’s neck’/Silliguri corridor which connects mainland India to its North Eastern states.This region is considered to be a ‘strategic vulnerability’ of India as it is only 23 kms wide. China also fears an all out flare up in dissident Tibet region with India’s support and therefore it claims ‘Tawang’ in Arunachal Pradesh as own territory because it is seat to Tibetan Budhism.In the western sector,the CPEC (China-Pak economic corridor) passes through Gilgit-Baltistan(in Pak occupied Kashmir) over which India has sovereign claims.However,Chinese position seems more moderate in the west as it has offered to transfer Aksai Chin(Chinese administered Kashmir) if India made concessions in Arunahal.It has even agreed to reconcile the status of regions transferred to it by Pakistan once India and Pakistan settles their boundary dispute.
Does China pose security threat to India in sectors like Doklam?
The answer is definitely yes.But it seems that India enjoys strategic advantages in the wake of a limited scale local military engagement.The reasons can be listed as below
1.Bhutan’s support to India:As India’s inference in Doklam is on behalf of Bhutan( as per 2007 friendship treaty,both India and Bhutan will not allow each other’s territory for activities that has negative implications for the security of other)China will be sending a wrong message to small countries in the region.This may draw them closer to India
2.China’s one child policy may backfire:Every 25 or 26 year old Chinese soldier who will fight India in Doklam is the only son to their parents.If India inflict a heavy casualty in he beginning ,the families in China may urge the govt to go for a peaceful resolution if not revolt.
3.Democracy vs one party rule:In a democracy where government is accountable to people ,people will know what the ground reality is and it will keep the fighting force’s morale high.In an non transparent regime like China’s ,the war efforts, if perceived as a wrong step, can even topple the government.
4.China’s Tibetan disadvantage:Tibet has a very unfriendly topology for movement of troops and military equipments.The Chinese airstrips which are 4000-5000m above the sea level will only allow 50 percent of weapon and fuel carrying capacity.On the other hand,Indian bases are in coastal and plain regions such as Guahati,Kolkata etc..
5.Support for India from US and Japan:These countries have already taken an India friendly stand in the issue.In the wake of a military campaign,China will enjoy little support from International community.
6.Lose of Indian market for China:The anti-china sentiment which is already prevailing amongst Indian customers may reach new heights.This is detrimental to Chinese interests as they enjoy a huge trade surplus with India at a time of slowing economic growth in China.
7.Impacts on China’s OBOR:India has already raised the alarm by not joining in China’s Belt and Road conclave.In the wake of discussions about Srilanka falling into Chinese debt trap and Pakistan seriously debates the same,reluctance of India has created a perception that Chinese investments are not sustainable and China’s effort are at creating vassal states.An India -China confrontation over Bhutan will legitimize this argument.
8.Naval disadvantage of China vis a vis India:with more sophisticated naval arsenals which outnumber India’s ,China still has limitations as part of its naval assets are to be maintained in the S.China Sea where Japan and US have rival claims.China will have difficulty in maintaining supply lines to fight Indian Navy in the distant Indian Ocean.
This doesn’t give a complete picture of the outcome of a military confrontation because some of the above points are just compelling reasons for china to not wage a war.The outcome of a war depends also on many other factors such as border infrastructure and war readiness.Since no one can predict such an outcome with ease,it is in the interest of both countries to dig into diplomacy and negotiation.
How to engage China ?
While the stalemate in Dokalam is amicably resolved for the time being ,India can expect more of this trend as Army chief Bipin Rawat said.The need of the hour for Both India and China is to work side by side in issues where there are ‘shared interests’.One such opportunity is presented by ‘Afganistan’.Preventing the spread of militancy and puritanical form of religion to Central Asian Republics and from there to China is in China’s best interest because it already has its share of separatism in Xinxiang province with ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement’.With India’s aspiration to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan amply clear and USA’s New South Asian Policy offering more space to India ,China which is already a part of the Quadrilateral dialogue forum(UAS,China,Afghan and Pakistan) on Afghanistan can contribute its share through coordinated efforts with India.
Other such pressing issue in South Asia is Rohingya Migrant crisis.The neglect and human rights abuse among Rohingyas had radicalized a part of their youth which is clear from the terror attack it carried out on Myanmarese forces leading to 70 casualties.As this has security implications on the region as a whole,China can utilize its friendly relationship with Myanmar’s military junta to find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem.In this effort India becomes a default partner with Budhist cultural links with Myanmar and thousands of Rohingyas being accepted as refugees in India.
BRICS,where India and China are still more of ‘bhai-bhai’, can bring India and China into dialogue table.The presence of other regional players like Russia will enable India and China to set aside differences and discuss issues such as trade in local currency among BRICS countries and the like.Bilateral efforts of India and China to discuss trade balance is a welcome move.
After several such engagements,India and China may move ahead to solve boundary questions because issues like Dokalam will need mutual trust.With trust comes willingness to compromise and the problems will be solved once and for all.