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China is India’s Threat No.1, Wang Yi Visit Just a Strategic Pause in Beijing’s Campaign of Aggression

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China is India’s Threat No.1, Wang Yi Visit Just a Strategic Pause in Beijing’s Campaign of Aggression
Stance of the Indian government that relations between India-China cannot be ‘business as usual’ unless the border standoff is resolved is a welcome step in the national interest, writes Lt Gen (retd) Balbir Sandhu. (Photo: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar)



Visit of Chinese foreign minister to New Delhi without prior official announcement has generated immense excitement. A vibrant media and the ‘experts’ often fuel such excitement with expectations of a breakthrough in relations which may be misplaced in this context. It may be prudent to view India-China relationship pragmatically, keeping in mind the complex historical facts.

A statement in 1998 by then defence minister George Fernandes labelling China as ‘Threat No. 1’ to India’s national security created a furore in both India and China. Two decades later, when India is experiencing frequent incursions like in Doklam (2017) and Ladakh (2020), the latter has lasted almost two years, besides open support to Pakistan on bilateral issues like Jammu and Kashmir has made George Fernandes’s 1998 statement ‘profound’.

Lessons from History

India’s relations with China come with a lot of historical baggage — in the past, our lack of forethought, planning and pragmatism in national security policy resulted in repeated cases of missed opportunities.

A statement in 1998 by then defence minister George Fernandes labelling China as ‘Threat No. 1’ to India’s national security created a furore in both India and China. Two decades later, the statement appears profound.

Historically, prior to 1950, Tibet was India’s neighbour, China did not share any borders with India, till it invaded Tibet in 1950. During the period 1917-1933, official ‘Postal Atlas of China’ showed Aksai Chin as part of India. This position was backed by the ‘Treaty of Chushul’ of 1842 signed between the Dogra king Gulab Singh and Qing of Tibet. The McMahon Line which was negotiated between the British Indian government and Tibet in 1914 defined the boundary in Arunachal Pradesh.

However, when the Communist government led by Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949, it captured Turkestan (Xinjiang) in 1949 followed by forced annexation of Tibet in 1950 after which they disregarded all agreements signed by the previous government of Tibet. Resultantly, China now became India’s neighbour and started claiming the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which was then called North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), and large parts of Ladakh.

Indian governments of that time failed to comprehend the Chinese intentions which resulted in the humiliating defeat of India in the 1962 India-China war because of lack of defence preparedness and political interference in ‘matters military’. Thankfully, this war acted as a wake-up call for the Indian government to shed the ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ mindset and modernise her defence forces.

The result of this modernisation effort by the Indian government was displayed in a befitting reply to Pakistan in 1965 India-Pakistan War for their misadventure in Jammu and Kashmir as also to the Chinese in 1967 at Nathu La (Sikkim) and again in 1987 at Sumdorong Chu (Arunachal Pradesh). China suffered heavy causalities in both the border clashes. Resultantly, since 1987, borders with China remained peaceful till the Galwan Valley incident of 2020 in which 20 Indian jawans attained martyrdom and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed.

It is evident from the outcome of these encounters that Indian Army repeatedly displayed outstanding professionalism and commitment to be more than a match for her adversaries, sending the right message. However, it needs to be remembered that modern day confrontations between states may not necessarily be restricted to soldiers in contact, it could range from hybrid to multi-domain warfare involving economic means and extensive use of technology aimed at paralysing critical infrastructure.

China’s Rise and Debt Traps

Economy is critical to national security. In the 1980s, the size of Chinese and Indian economies was almost same. Till that time, the Chinese military was not equipped with latest weapon systems. Taking advantage of American rapprochement and China’s admission into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Chinese liberalised their economy without any corresponding changes in other political or social structures or behaviour. Unfortunately, the entire world led by the Western democracies ignored the absence of human rights in China and facilitated China’s unhindered growth for almost four decades. During this period, Chinese economy grew almost six times the size of the Indian economy and has now become the second largest economy in the world only after the USA, whom it is likely to surpass by 2030.

Simultaneously, China became the hub of global supply chain and the pivot of global manufacturing both in terms of intermediate materials and finished goods. China has now become economically and militarily too strong to be easily handled by the West or any other grouping. In fact, China vigorously chased her economic dreams as part of a well-conceived strategy for a few decades before flexing her military muscle to challenge the existing World Order.

It absorbed modern technology through all possible means to make her military well equipped at the global level. China has an established defence industry, churning out both numbers and quality. It is no longer apologetic about the deficiencies of an autocratic political system. It proudly aims to proliferate the ‘Chinese Model of Governance’ globally through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

During the last two years China felt that time had come for it to assert her values globally which it exhibited by starting confrontation with multiple nations at the same time, with total disregard for rule of international law. China’s handling of COVID-19 has cast doubts on her ability to act as a responsible global power because it has not come clean on the origin and spread of the virus. Her opaque systems and stone walling of investigation have left more doubts in the minds of global community than it has clarified. Economic exploitation of various countries during the COVID crisis has also not gone down well with many countries.

It appears the Chinese have probably bitten more than they can chew on the BRI front. Additionally, global undercurrents against their role during the COVID outbreak is likely to make China nervous.

These issues might not come out openly but there is an underlying annoyance with China. No multilateral agency is involved in the BRI projects and all deals with various countries are bilateral on terms favouring the Chinese in return for their investment. This has landed large number of her BRI partners in a debt trap, Sri Lanka being one such example. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) hasn’t achieved any tangible results either. It appears the Chinese have probably bitten more than they can chew on the BRI front. Additionally, global undercurrents against their role during the COVID outbreak is likely to make China nervous.

No Business as Usual

However, Chinese have great ability to visualise their future national interests, which they meticulously and ruthlessly work to achieve without losing sight. Visit of the Chinese foreign minister to India can at best be treated as a strategic pause in the continued Chinese aggressive behaviour. This change is probably aimed at buying time and also show the world that it is a responsible global power. China would also like to host the BRICS summit with all heads of state attending it later this year.

Stance of the Indian government reiterating time and again, including during the current visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, that relations between the two countries cannot be ‘business as usual’ unless the current border standoff is resolved, is a welcome step in national interest.

It must be conveyed to the Chinese that their support to Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir and other bilateral India-Pakistan issues such as the one displayed at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation conference recently would not go down well with India. Chinese proposal of inviting India to partner China in ensuring peace all over the world is welcome but that should not take attention away from our bilateral border issues. Chinese have a consistent record of not following the existing agreements including the agreement to maintain peace and tranquility at the borders, which need to be watched out for.

Chinese proposal of inviting India to partner China in ensuring peace all over the world is welcome but that should not take attention away from our bilateral border issues.

Going forward, first, India must stick to her existing stance on border standoff resolution as a prerequisite for normalising bilateral relations. Second, pragmatism in dealing with China must be an overriding factor vis a vis optics. There must be no compromise on national security issues because Indian soldiers if equipped well are far superior than their Chinese counterparts in combat situations. Third, India must speed up her self-reliance drive in high technology defence manufacturing backed by a robust economy to ward off future threats from a strong and assertive China. China is known to respect strong competitors, hence the need to speed up sustained economic growth.

An urdu couplet by the famous poet Iqbal aptly sums up the current Indian security environment: “Khudi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdeer se pehle Khuda bande se yeh khud puche ki bata teri raza kya hai”. Moral of the story is to “Make a self-reliant and strong India” which can retain strategic independence and also successfully meet the future national security challenges.

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