Inflexion in Sino-Indian Relations: Case for Strategic Pragmatism
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The new China has shown itself as muscular, aggressive, expansionist and determined to force its way to top of the world stage by vigourously establishing Pax Sinica. China’s in the past three decades has been rapidly growing economically and accelerating its transformation process with the most extensive restructuring of its military. China’s transformation and modernisation of Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) follows Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The PLA is at threshold of achieving interim modernization goals of informatised, integrated joint operations, and, in 2020 itself has shown as an intensely assertive power. Hence, China, which has gained substantial comprehensive power in a short time frame, is seemingly willing to employ it.

Contextually, China’s behavioural and attitudinal transformation dictates long term view. The approach has to be strategically pragmatic eschewing dogmatism, approaching the problem with the insight that envisioning depends on cognition, and that human cognition is fallible in predictions. In planning for secure national future, inflexible dissensions will be counterproductive, and yet, in seeking solutions, there will be a need to correct and adjust as soon as dysfunctions or shortfalls are recognizable.

Three basic pointers drive the analysis of the current aggression of China. Firstly, the strategic geography between India and China has clear diktats. India had hopes that trade and economic interdependence, insulated from lack of demarcation/ delineation of Line of Actual Control (LAC), will yet promote peace. This notion has been woefully belied. Apparently with little progress through multi-channel protracted negotiations, border remained fragile and brittle. Our architecture of LAC management with China had ever remained anarchic, and peace was only guaranteed by deliberate restraints exercised by India. Realism for India is that the balance of power, by 2020, had been severely disrupted in China’s favour, and this unbalanced power has become a potential threat. It has oft been stated that China may have over-reached itself in the aggression shown in its periphery since May 2020. That is an issue for history to judge. However, presently and in the foreseen future, it is imperative that India accepts the mammoth attitudinal change in China, and prepare itself to newer realities. This constancy of threat calls for India to envision the changed policy paradigm, and prepare for the same.

Secondly, it is obvious that the entire schema of the Chinese in 2020 has been a deliberate, well-planned, premeditated belligerence, with overt and covert agenda. PLA troops have for long been showing disregard to the agreed architecture on management of LAC - the protocols and the CBMs. In the backdrop of such confrontational attitude and aggression, Chinese comments to Indian Army to abide by agreements is challenging basic intelligence, like the pot calling the kettle black.

To explain the whys and wherefores of the aggression is not easy. Warding off threat posed by the construction of DS-DBO road, to Aksai Chin or Western Highway (G219), is grossly over blown. G219 is important, but no more as life line connecting two restive provinces or for CPEC. Again attributing Chinese hostile behaviour at Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs-Gogra and Pangong Tso to occupying areas upto its 1960 claim line can be challenged. For example, there are dichotomies in grid references of 1960 claim line in North Bank of Pangong Tso, and there are other ‘claimed’ areas in Eastern Ladakh not transgressed.

Similarly, to ascribe motivation to abrogation of Article 370 and creation of Ladakh as Union Territory is to underplay the inherent belligerence. Indeed, except that China had claims, these areas have little intrinsic value to it for territorial expansionism. The Covid-19 pandemic is also being ascribed to China, and its growing internal dissensions are stated as causes for aggression. India’s growing bonhomie with the US, the mileage into Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), increasing geo-political importance are all fall back rationale. India has retained good relations with Russia and professes virtues of multilateralism and strategic autonomy.

It is argued that taking cue of its success in South China Sea without facing credible contestation, an attempt has been made to unilaterally resolve its staked/ and even unstaked claims along the LAC. Undoubtedly, China is expressly pursuing a geo-political agenda becoming lone Asian hegemon, and hence the autonomous credentials/ policies of India are irksome. Case in point is Indian principled stand on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP). As argued previously, China fathoms that it has reached a credible pinnacle of power status and with a large number of nations tied inexorably through BRI, trade and economics; it has presupposed that assertiveness can well be carried through without significant challenge. Deliberately, the rules of the game are being one-sidedly established by China, in long term visualization.

Thirdly, the results of the continuous sequence of Border Personnel (Military) Meetings and diplomatic interactions aimed at disengagement/de-escalation and return to status quo ante seem to portray befuddled and dismal picture. It is apparent that Chinese are either obdurate in their unwillingness to return to status quo, or wish to seek deep concessions on the LAC – ones that they well fathom, cannot be acceded to by India. Studying the history of the pace of PLA’s infrastructure development along the LAC, in the oncoming winter (2020/2021), they would create semi/permanent infrastructure and habitat in areas intruded, establish posts of Border Guards and present a scenario of fait accomplii by the summer of 2021.
This scenario presents serious decision dilemma for India. The changed paradigm that the Chinese have presented clearly surmises that an overhaul of Indian policies towards China is inevitable and mandatory. In anticipating the fait accomplii and lack of a firm move on grievously flawed concept of Line of Actual Control (LAC), the optimal necessity for India is to generate substantive options, mindful of the Chinese hegemonic ambitions, including collusion with Pakistan; the options for resolution of the LAC imbroglio are not being debated, being the exclusive preserve of the political and military hierarchy. In any case, the state of parleys, military and diplomatic, has not been publicly disseminated to be fairly examined. Three broader expositions are considered as below:

  • The effect of Chinese antagonism and aggression has been clearly discerned by all the peripheral neighbours. Obviously, there is grave anxiety, with South East and East Asian Nations having for long faced the antagonism in South and East China Seas and Taiwan Straits. It is also a truism that there exist deep economic and trade linkages between China and ASEAN, Japan and Taiwan. The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have common priorities. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China has committed to new infrastructure projects across the Southeast Asia. In the months since the pandemic started, it has sealed deals for building a dam in Cambodia, a $22.4 million business park in Myanmar and a large solar energy farm in Laos. Despite the anxieties of China’s intentions, the ASEAN nations will consider their national interests vis-à-vis China. Understanding that BRI is exceedingly important to President Xi's national and international standing, it may be prudent for many a peripheral nation to continue to hang on China’s coattails.
  • The Quad comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States signifies united steadfastness to counter China’s growing assertiveness. As India has contested borders and Japan the dispute of Senkakau Islands, there is immense scope for conjoined resolve to challenge the intransigence of China and its hegemonic proclivities. There is much scope in pursuing QUAD agenda, as China destined with singularly grim strategic geography, hemmed by the ‘first island chain’, is acutely dependent on sea-borne trade. India will also have to take a call on joining the Blue Dot Network and Five Eyes, the core of the western intelligence system, or the outer rings of Nine or Fourteen Eyes!
  • India has taken strong and firm measures since April 2020 on economic and trade front with China. Though trade had nearly touched US $100 billion, it is yet not too significant in overall terms to distress China. The bans imposed will have some effect, more as India being perceived as a large future communications and consumer market, and the domino effect ban could have globally. Case in point is the follow-up ban on app Tic-Tok by the US. Even the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by China is not too large, data compiled by Bloomberg Quint showed Chinese FDI into India at $4.14 billion in 2019, though the China’s Commerce Ministry, pegged it at $8 billion for 2018-19. It is also true that it may be very difficult for India to totally de-couple from China economically. Many supply chains even outside China have behind-the-scenes links.

Contextually, there can be no avoidance of hard power to deal from a pedestal of strength, with a clear intent and will to use it. Indian Armed Forces have their strengths that the adversaries recognise too. It is the arena that the Armed Forces need to create sunrise capabilities that is as important. Three issues to ponder upon:

  • Over a period of time the three Services have developed most un-identical internal cultures. The three combat forces need to convert into an integrated combat power. Even before venturing into integration/ jointness, the three services need to take time off to contemplate typology of threats, decide how best to undertake war fighting and strategise for the next 20 years without inter service or intra service turf wars. There is also need to rebalance the lopsided weight on the Western Front. It will be the best to create new set of plans, set aside egos, and create the requisite combat power. Integration will follow naturally. There may be need of a tri-service blue ribbon commission to create the Joint Transformative Report and action plan with time horizons. Without this we could be fallible and create mistakes or leave voids.
  • Appreciably, the Government and the armed forces are already charged with the future, and are preparing for a modern, technological war. There is but no alternative to modern capabilities, in imbibing offensive and defensive disruptive technologies, not as force multipliers, but independent realms of warfare.
  • India, in deepening relations and economic integration with the US, should plan the engagement in manner that avails of requisite technological prowess. Understandably, as is proverbially said, there will be no such thing as a free lunch! However, pragmatically, India cannot become a frontline state in an oncoming global cold war. Inspite of all friendly mechanisms with other nations, multilaterals and bilateral, China is a neighbour with contested borders and, hence, any future estrangement with China will inevitably be for India to handle independently.

The Dragon is awake, exhorted by the nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China having ambitiously laid down aims, to be ‘…a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.’ There is a world opinion building against the ham handedness of China. This argues for a high grade readiness of the combat power.

The gravity of the situation also demands tempering of rhetoric. Cool headed, long term visualization is imperative to envisage the multiple avenues to assure National Security. The stratagems planned for need to borrow Deng’s philosophy of hiding strength and biding time.

Strategic Pragmatism is based on critical rationalism and realism. A distinctive mark of strategic pragmatism for the Armed Forces will be to focus on ends, ways and means for what can be achieved based on the newest in short term with immediate impact, what requires more structured development over the medium term and what can only be set as a long-term target involving fundamental reform or innovation. A goal may not be immediately attainable, but yet may be attainable if planned for carefully.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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