Addressing the China Challenge
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF
(This is a modified version of the talk delivered by Mr. Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF at the Panchnad Research Institute recently)

I propose to dwell essentially on three issues namely the nature and gravity of this challenge, its international backdrop, and what are India's options in addressing it. If Pakistan's hostility to India is embedded in its DNA, China's inimical approach towards India is equally fundamental. It derives from its inability to accept multi polarity in the region and its expansionist urge which inevitably brings it into a collision course with India.

No country could have been more accommodative of China or as mindful of its core interests over the decades as has India. This is amply demonstrated by its renunciation of its extra territorial rights in Tibet in 1954, not supporting Tibet's quest for preserving its independence ( We stymied a discussion in the UN on Chinese aggression in Tibet in 1951 and later in 1961 did not support a UNGA resolution calling for self determination in Tibet), meekly accepting a one China policy, turning down the offer of a permanent seat in the UNSC in favour of China, refraining from voicing any criticism of China for its horrific human rights violations at international fora etc. In contrast, China has apart from attacking India in 1962 sought to undermine the latter's rise by all possible means as demonstrated by its blocking India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, stymieing the placement of Masood Azhar on the list of global terrorists for over a decade, opposing Asian Development Bank (ADB) development loans for Arunachal Pradesh, placing impediments in its quest for a permanent seat in the UNSC, undertaking a host of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) related projects in PoK in total disregard of India's sovereignty related concerns, raking up Jammu and Kashmir in the UNSC, arming Pakistan including with nuclear weapons and a sustained effort to displace Indian influence in the latter's immediate neighbourhood accompanied by the adoption of a string of pearls strategy to contain it.

The current Sino-Indian face off at several points in Ladakh as well as at Naku La in Sikkim has brought the relationship to an inflexion point because of their extraordinary gravity.

Sino Indian face offs along the LAC have not been unusual as it remains undefined to date on account of Chinese intransigence and as each country has a different perception about it. Over the last decade itself several serious ones have taken place. All were ultimately resolved and none resulted in any loss of life. Indeed, the last face off which resulted in a few lives lost was at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh way back in 1975.

The current Sino Indian face off began in early May following a sharp Chinese troop build up in areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) particularly in Ladakh under the guise of annual exercises. The faceoff has been marked by aggressive Chinese posturing along with scuffles between Indian and Chinese troops on the north bank of the Pangong Tso Lake, Naku La in Sikkim, and then in the Galwan Valley on 15-16 June.

In the earlier two scuffles scores of Indian soldiers were injured but there was no loss of life. In the Galwan Valley incident, however, India lost 20 soldiers and China around double that number. Had China disengaged as agreed to on June 6 by the military commanders of both sides this would not have happened. Unfortunately, contrary to what was agreed, China not only continued to maintain troops in the Valley but also erected a structure in it. On being found out by an Indian patrol Chinese troops retaliated with stones, clubs with metal spikes, and batons fortified with barbed wire in gross violation of the CBMs in place which required them to exercise utmost restraint. Clearly this incident was a "premeditated and planned action". Despite five rounds of talks between the military commanders of the two sides as well as talks at the diplomatic level status quo ante as desired by India has not been achieved. Heavy military build up along the LAC continues unabated. China remains in occupation of areas within our perceived LAC inter alia in the Depsang Plains, Galwan Valley, Gogra-Hot Springs area, and the Fingers area. At the end of August China sought to make further incursions on to our side of the LAC on the southern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake which were thwarted due to pre emptive action by our forces. It may further be mentioned that in this area China has continued to try and change the status quo on a daily basis and even resorted to unprovoked firing.

Talks to defuse the situation at the military, diplomatic and political levels have not succeeded. India wants a restoration of the status quo. China is unwilling but wants India to resume bilateral relations in a business as usual mode. India has refused to comply. The situation is, therefore, at an impasse.

Much has been made of the Jai Shankar-Wang Yi September 10 five point Moscow agreement and its having defused the situation. I would urge extreme caution. This is the third agreement since the crisis began and it will meet the fate of the earlier two. Firstly, anything China agrees to, given its track record, is not worth the paper it is written on. As US Secretary of State Pompeo put it the mantra in dealing with China must be "distrust and verify". Secondly, the five points are no more than motherhood and apple pie assertions without any concrete and practical steps. There is neither a mention of a return to status quo ante nor there can be business as usual unless there is a peaceful LAC.

It is my belief that this agreement is in keeping with China's long standing tradition of trying to lull us into complacency while planning its next moves. It also serves its purpose of projecting normalcy. Accordingly, such an agreement was best not made.

The current Sino Indian faceoff as our External Affairs Minister put it recently is "very serious" and far more so than earlier ones on a number of counts. Firstly, while earlier face offs were restricted to a single point this one is strung across several hundred kilometres encompassing several contentious areas. Clearly, therefore, the Chinese action is not locally driven but constitutes a well considered initiative with clearance at the highest level. Secondly, the number of PLA troops employed is much larger than earlier. Thirdly, the PLA has been far more aggressive than on earlier occasions and has undertaken aggressive forward movement even while the military commanders have been engaged in talks. The tone and tenor of military conversations is understood to be rough and while talking of de escalation the PLA's action on the ground has been provocative. Fourthly, the CBMs requiring the exercise of utmost restraint were blatantly disregarded by the PLA which came prepared for physical engagement with weapons specifically designed to not merely to kill but inflict horrific and permanent injuries contrary to the canons of war. Finally, this face off constitutes the largest military engagement between the two countries since September 1967 at Nathu La when India lost 80 troops and China 400. Above all, thousands of troops from the two sides are in an eye ball to eye ball confrontation and violent clashes can occur in a flash and trigger an all out conflict.

Many factors have been adduced for China's latest aggression along the LAC such as India's border infrastructure build up, it's amendment of Article 370, it's restraints on Chinese investments in India, its closer links with USA, its increased activism in Quad and in South East Asia, its opposition to CPEC, etc. Some of these factors along with the Xi Jinping's rising unpopularity at home triggered by China's economic slowdown and the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic may to an extent have influenced China's recent aggressive moves not only against India but also against Australia, Bhutan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, not to speak of Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

It is, however, the toxic melange of China's hegemonic urge, India's commitment to strategic autonomy, and the latter's shortfall in deterrence capability which is largely responsible for the present clashes across the LAC. Over the last four decades China's comprehensive national power has grown exponentially as compared to India's. Its defence spending at $240 billion is four times that of India and second only to that of the USA. Its $14 trillion economy is five times that of India. Moreover, India’s overly accommodative stance towards China, even when it has acted against the former's core national interests, rather than penalising it has sent a message of weakness which encourages it to be dismissive of India's core concerns. This submissive approach in India's dealings with China is illustrated by its acceptance of the concept of an undefined and differently perceived LAC in 1993 which lent an in built inevitability to face offs which have long plagued Sino Indian ties and which signalled a loss of will to recover the areas lost to Chinese aggression. China's disinclination to sincerely work towards the delineation of the LAC, or even to share its perceptions thereof, is indicative of its intent to deliberately keep it nebulous with a view to facilitate its nibbling of Indian territory which it has been doing since long. The CBM's for exercising restraint along the LAC too have worked to India's detriment as China observes them selectively.

India's approach in addressing the China challenge must take into account the international and regional environment. One may draw attention to the following significant features which characterise it:

  1. The world today is in turmoil under the triple whammy of a China exported Covid-19, the massive economic slump induced by it, and the unease at the near universal dependency on China for an inordinately wide range of critical commodities.
  2. This has, additionally, coincided with a Sino-US struggle for supremacy manifesting itself initially as a trade war and now being reflected in tensions betwixt the two on multiple issues arising from the recognition in the USA that China poses an existential threat not only militarily and commercially but also inter alia through data theft and thought control. The era of engagement between the USA and China appears to be at an end. The former now clearly recognises that it made a serious error in promoting the latter's rise through accord of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) treatment to it, by allowing it entry to the WTO though it clearly did not fulfil the criteria, and by encouraging its enterprises to locate in China as well as to share technology with it. The world and in particular market economies like ours had an unequal playing field in their dealings with China. The latter exploited this to the hilt against the rest of the world and benefitting there from has become the Frankenstein that it is today. The US is aware that it may not be able to take on China alone and that this may perhaps best be done by an alliance of likeminded countries. Regrettably, Trump has not worked in this direction and on the contrary has acted in lone ranger style. If Biden becomes the President a rapprochement with China is unlikely as the mood in the USA is now definitively anti Chinese. As per a recent Pew survey 2/3 of Americans have a negative view on China as compared to 47% in 2017. Indeed, Biden may be more adept than Trump in creating an anti Chinese coalition.
  3. China's unlawful, unacceptable, and expansionist behaviour has annoyed many countries on one or another ground which may briefly be enumerated as follows:
    1. Conversion of the South China Sea into a Chinese lake through creation of new facts on the ground in blatant disregard of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and its clashes with several ASEAN countries in the matter such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia etc
    2. Violation of the principle of one country two systems on the basis of which Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 by passage of the New Security Law on 30 June 2020.
    3. Aggressive patrolling and actions near Japan's Senkaku islands as well as off the coast of Taiwan and even the violation of the latter's airspace.
    4. Horrendous human rights violations amounting to genocide in Sinkiang and Tibet.
    5. Responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic;
    6. Imposition of sanctions on Australia by way of stoppage of Chinese tourists to that country, ban on beef imports from Australia and imposition of 80% duty on its imports of barley, as it had called for investigation into the origins of the Wuhan virus.
    7. Downside to economic linkages with China as its products are sometimes substandard, as they often result in debt traps, disregard environmental considerations, tend to be uneconomic, and are geared to China's gain at the cost of the host country.
    8. Exercise of thought control the world over not merely through legitimate propaganda but through use of its economic heft to buy its desired outcomes and through blackmail based on data theft. As the US NSA put it this is done through aggressive propaganda, economic pressure, massive data collection on individuals often illegally, if not by outright theft, in order to influence.
    9. The hollowing out of economies in many countries including ours by using the unequal playing ground enjoyed by it to displace the local production of goods by Chinese manufactures. As the US Attorney General Barr underlined that free and fair competition with China had long been a "fantasy" as it engaged in a wide array of predatory and often unlawful tactics like currency manipulation, tariffs, quotas, state led strategic investment and acquisitions, theft and forced transfer of intellectual property, state subsidies, dumping, and industrial espionage.
    10. Chinese market dominance has created an unhealthy reliance on its products. This poses security related concerns and has prompted countries to look to alternative supply chains and a decoupling from China.
  4. While China has riled many countries few are prepared to speak up against it like the US in view of its military and economic clout. This is not only true of countries in South East Asia but also those in Europe.
  5. In our immediate neighbourhood China is using not only Pakistan but also Nepal as a cat’s paw against us. In the event of a Sino Indian hot war it is a given that Pakistan will join in against India. However, India's relations with its other neighbours are very good.
  6. In the event of a Sino Indian hot war while we should not expect nor will we require any country to come to our aid with boots on the ground we shall be able to get military supplies from USA, Israel, France and Russia. Our relations with the latter are very good and not only is it providing us with advanced military equipment but also participated with us in naval exercises on September 4 and 5 in the Andaman Sea. Additionally USA will be willing to provide us intelligence on request. It would also not be averse to making deployments of naval forces in the Pacific to tie up Chinese forces. In fact it is already deploying two Air Craft Carrier groups in that area.
  7. In the Islamic world, one can see the beginnings of a rift. On the one hand there is the Saudi led grouping of the Gulf monarchies with whom India has close ties and on the other a fledgling ginger group of Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Qatar and Pakistan. China has close linkages with the latter. It may, however, be mentioned that India has a good outreach to both Qatar and Iran.
  8. The Mediterranean is also hotting up with tensions between two NATO members notably Turkey and Greece. The latter is being backed by many EU countries like France and Italy while the former can expect Russian and Chinese support.
  9. Finally, the Chinese are not ten feet tall. For one, as alleged by Cai Xia a recently expelled professor from China's party school there is considerable opposition in China to Xi Jinping's mishandling of Covid-19 as also to his policies which are isolating China. For another many see the Chinese economy to be precariously poised due to mistaken policies which see many financial institutions overburdened with debt. Heavy and unrestrained spending has seen domestic debt mount to a huge 317% of GDP. Banks have run up huge losses and in fact it is reported that in Hebei province size of withdrawals has been restricted. Food shortages have also been reported in some parts of China. This is serious as China depends on 20-30% of its food supplies on imports.

In the backdrop of the foregoing, India has the following three options of addressing the China challenge:

  1. Adopt a business as usual approach to our dealings with China as has been done by us under earlier governments and accept the new realities on the ground created by it in Ladakh;
  2. Adopt a firmer policy designed to impose costs on China for its actions on our borders through economic means coupled with military resistance to efforts at further territorial encroachments in areas within the LAC as perceived by us;
  3. Adopt a comprehensive approach for imposing costs on China comprising a melange of economic moves, quid pro quo military actions designed to gain territory for areas lost due to Chinese aggression, diplomatic moves creating more meaningful linkages directed against China, and a basket of asymmetric measures not only exposing China to the world for its pernicious role as an authoritarian and predatory state but also for its horrendous human rights violations in Tibet and Sinkiang.

While the first option would avert a conflict with China, for the moment, it will encourage the latter to become even more aggressive vis a vis us and will not only create new realities on the ground all along our borders but also encourage it to ride rough shod over us on all issues. It will also send a very bad message to the rest of the world which would see us as a paper tiger and as a country willing to pay second fiddle to China. The Sino Indian standoff constitutes a critical turning point in India's history. India's standing in the international community will depend on how it handles this crisis. The stakes are huge. Successfully staring down the dragon will signal India's arrival on the international scene as a significant player. Failure to do so will condemn it to be a bit player at the mercy of all and sundry.

In this backdrop, I am disturbed at the spate of articles in India critical of the government's unequivocal stance that China restore the status quo ante along the LAC and its resort to military, economic etc and countermeasures against it. These arguments essentially posit the idea that in view of the huge power differential between the two countries India should seek to resolve its differences with China only through diplomacy and must abandon any thought of the military option or the use of economic leverages. In much the same vein a former NSA advises that India remain "truly nonaligned" and not get co opted into "a wider anti China alliance" which China sees as a provocation. Curiously, he forgets that Nehru himself had to beg the West for weapons during the 1962 debacle.

While it is true that there is a huge power differential between India and China---- the result of misguided policies of successive Indian governments over the decades---national self respect demands that we do not kowtow to China but instead take all necessary steps to preserve our territorial integrity. There are many examples in history where smaller countries have successfully done so against more powerful adversaries inter alia through linkages with other players and by resort to asymmetrical measures. India above all has the great advantage of being possessed with a first rate battle hardened professional military which man for man is far superior to that of China. India is also a nuclear weapon state which cannot be pushed around beyond certain red lines.

Happily the government has distanced itself from the first option as evidence by its actions as also by the External Affairs Minister categorical assertion that "the state of the border cannot be delinked from the state of the relationship, " and that "if peace and tranquillity on the border are not a given, then it cannot be that the rest of the relationship continues on the same basis." In other words India China relations are in for a sea change and business as usual is history.

The second option is what the government appears to have adopted whereby it is proactively blocking further Chinese aggression along the LAC and has taken some measures designed to impose economic costs on China such as the banning of 238 Chinese apps, imposition of high import duties on a number of Chinese products, cancellation of some Chinese contracts in India etc. This in my view is too little and insufficient to cause it to alter its aggressive policies. Its exports to India are a relatively small fraction of its total exports and it can live with it. A mere military blocking action along the LAC leaves the tactical initiative with China and imposes military costs on us.

A preferred approach is the third option outlined above. Theoretically, it carries a greater risk of a wider conflict with China which will open the path to a two front war. But I would submit that this is only theoretical as an all out war is not something that China would like since it would take it back decades in its quest to surpass the USA as the premier world power. Indeed, in such an eventuality even if India holds its own against China this would be seen as a defeat for the latter. Above all in any conflict with India, China cannot cross certain red lines because this would bring into play the use of nuclear weapons by India which China cannot view with equanimity.

In operationalising the third option in the coming days if China does not withdraw its forces from areas within our side of the LAC, as in the Fingers area, we must, depending upon the military possibilities, either evict them or seize areas on their side of the LAC. This is imperative so that China realises that it can no longer get away with seizing Indian territory at minimal cost. If this leads to a larger conflict so be it. China is unlikely to undertake this risk as it would place in jeopardy its quest for the global sweepstakes on which it has set its sights.

We must use this opportunity to call on China for an early settlement of the boundary issue or at least a delineation of the LAC in a time bound framework. In case China procrastinates we should make known that we see no advantage in continuing to accept in eternity the concept of an ambiguous LAC and its associated CBMs which they observe selectively and under the guise of which appropriate Indian territory. This has a serious downside risk for China as it opens up the possibility of our targeting the strategic Aksai Chin area linking the sensitive areas of Sinkiang and Tibet.

To lend meaningful substance to our unhappiness at China's actions during the current face off we should widen the economic measures already taken against China inter alia by making known that Huawei will not be allowed to participate in the 5G spectrum auction. Additionally, we must speed up the implementation of the supply chain resilience initiative recently agreed upon by the Foreign Ministers of India, Japan and Australia. In order to derive maximum benefit there from it is imperative that we move with haste in making India a truly investor friendly country. This will not only require elimination of red tape but also the rapid up gradation of our infrastructure.

India must also expose China for having used weapons in the recent stand offs which caused "superfluous injury" or "unnecessary suffering" and which are expressly prohibited in situations of International Armed Conflicts under Part III Section I Article 35 of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Whether or not the current face off legally qualifies as an International Armed Conflict use of such weapons is nevertheless reprehensible under any circumstances and this step needs to be taken to flag the point that China's barbaric behaviour raises questions on its credentials to be considered as a civilised country.

India should make it a point to provide in depth briefings to the international community on the recent happenings in Sino Indian relations including China's violation of the rules of war in the recent standoff. This is essential as failure to do so will give China the opportunity to fill the vacuum with its own narrative. Indeed, on this and other critical issues we must have a high level and well equipped multi disciplinary media team which presents the correct narrative promptly both in India and abroad.

As an immediate riposte to China's actions against India's core interests we need to actively play the Hong Kong, Uighur, Tibet and Taiwan cards. On the first three we should be outspoken at regional and international fora on the horrific human rights violations being visited on these areas by China. Our support to the Uighur people will hopefully shame the Islamic world which has so far been supportive of China on this issue to be much more critical of it, will be a slap in the face of Pakistan and will silence Islamic critics of India both at home and abroad. In respect of Tibet we need to give the Dalai Lama a free run of the country. He should be permitted to interact with our dignitaries and should be invited to select state functions. Indeed, we should consider resurrecting the UNGA resolution of 1961 which called for respecting the human rights of the Tibetan people including their right for self determination. India will be well placed to do so as from next year it will be a member of the UNSC. These moves will not only result in greater international pressure on China but will also lead to greater unrest in the country.

As regards Taiwan we should maximise interaction with it including at the official level. We should also press for its participation in the WHO as an observer. Indeed, our one China policy needs re visiting. Since China does not follow a one India policy why should India adhere to a one China policy? We should never forget that Taiwan can play a critical role in India's defence as by its very existence it ties up a large part of the China's military forces. Indeed, reunification of Taiwan with China is much higher up on China's agenda than its border clashes with India. Above all Taiwan is an invaluable source of intelligence on China and a technological power house which can help us in our ‘atmanirbhar’ programme.

Finally, we have been guilty of going much too slow on activating Quad in deference to China's susceptibilities. These must be shed and the full potential of QUAD including in the military sphere should be harnessed. Other countries apprehensive of China should be welcomed to join it as a means of effectively addressing the threat posed by it.

Apart from the aforesaid immediate moves, China's existential threat to India and the huge power differential between the two demands that we evolve a multi pronged strategy to address the situation. Such a strategy must rapidly ratchet up India's military and economic capabilities in order to narrow the power differential vis a vis China. It must additionally entail the use of deft diplomacy to shore up its support and standing internationally and in the neighbourhood.

(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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