India-China Relations: Envisioning the Long Haul!
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Hu Xijin the former editor of Global Times on X (formerly Twitter) quoted a senior Colonel of PLA stating ‘Zangnan has been Chinese territory since ancient times. Where does Arunachal Pradesh come from? If a border war does break out, India will suffer a big loss and that is what US wants.’ In March 2024 alone, China asserted its claim on Arunachal Pradesh four times and accused India of illegally occupying what was a part of China. It was alleged that India had established Arunachal Pradesh on China’s territory in 1987 after illegally occupying it. Recently China undertook fourth round of renaming of names in Arunachal Pradesh!

India has rightfully termed the renaming of places of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘senseless.’ China obviously glosses over that Indian mythology in which the region is referred to in the epics Mahabharata and Kalika Purana as ancient Vidarbha. Rukmini Nati or ruins of palace of Rukmini, wife of Lord Krishna, are at Lower Dibang Valley. Historical records exist from 16th Century onwards, when Ahom kings ruled the area and Assam. The North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), was one of the political divisions of British India. Post-Independence, NEFA was constitutionally part of Assam. On 21 January 1972, NEFA became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, recurringly participated in elections, and became State of the Union in February 1987.

It is obvious that the entire schema of the Chinese belligerence has an overt and covert agenda and a calculated obfuscation of facts. In one stroke, in May 2020, 32 years of intensive negotiations, agreements, CBMs and protocols stood discarded and thrown away to waste. Obviously, the May 2020 incursions were in pursuance of political goals, and the aftermath of these incursions would have been appreciated, and the risks accepted. With this background, the prospective relationship with China needs examination, in four broad headers.

First is the all-important issue of the relationship developing between China, the US and rest of the world, a relationship that is bound to have its effect on India. The US and China have a complex relationship, engaged in power rivalry for global hegemony, close economy and trade partnership. From 2018 to 2023, their relations were marred by trade war, the pandemic, growing technology competition, rising tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and contrasting approaches to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

However, there seems to be a thaw. In 2023, China was the fourth-largest trading partner for US goods, and the second-largest source of US imports. President Xi Jinping noted that his San Francisco meeting with President Biden in November 2023 had opened a future-oriented vision. President Xi remarked that, “if the US is willing to seek mutually beneficial cooperation and share in China’s development dividends, it will always find China’s door open.” President Biden had reiterated. “…that the US does not seek a new Cold War, its objective is not to change China’s system, its alliances are not targeted against China, the US does not support ‘Taiwan independence’, and the US does not seek conflict with China.”

President Xi Jinping had announced that China would invite 50,000 US students to study in China over the next five years. The first lot of students from US have already visited China in Feb 2024, of which, the young Iowans were so grateful that they expressed their love for China and thanks to Grandpa Xi!

Obviously, the China-US relationship is beginning to stabilize, with a range of deliverables on economic and security issues that institutionalise management of their differences. The commercial interests of the US and China largely dictate mutual relations. Similarly, China is also stabilising relations with the EU (and with European nations), Japan, South Korea, Australia, and rest of the world, for foreign policy reasons as also to generate growth and maintaining social stability. This is part and parcel of PRC’s national strategy of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. With the same aim, with the Global South too, PRC is attempting to build a “community of common destiny,” riding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The PLA has bases in Djibouti and Cambodia. PRC is also considering for military logistics facilities in other countries including Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, Nigeria, Namibia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tajikistan (Refer US DOD 2023 Report to the US Congress - Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China).

There are also deep inroads being planned and executed in India’s South Asian neighbours. President Xi’s meeting with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawadena, reaffirmed promotion of BRI especially Colombo Port City and Hambantota Port. Recent meeting of Wang Huning, Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, with Narayan Kaji Shreshtha, Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister is significant. It included opening of 14 border trade routes between Tibet and Nepal, to focus on trade, investment, tourism, and to expand cross-border road, air, and railway connectivity, and electricity grid. Although China has been building Bangladesh-China Friendship Bridges in Bangladesh for many decades, the $3.6 billion Padma Bridge opened in 2022 connects 21 districts in southwestern Bangladesh to the capital Dhaka greatly expanded its strategic footprint in Bangladesh. The $1.2 billion six-slot China-built submarine base, named BNS Sheikh Hasina is also significant.

It is apparent that China is using covert and overt leverages to retain substantial global and regional influence, charm, when need be, commercial links and global dependencies, infrastructure projects and coercion as essential, to achieve its geopolitical goals. While India maintains warm relations globally, China’s push can have an effect.

Second, predicting future relations between India and China is fraught with serious dangers. PRC remains one of India’s top trading partners. The bilateral trade between India and China in FY 22-23 was over US$135.98 billion. An aggressive China has been known to leverage its economic position by planned economic coercion. It is so deeply and intricately involved in global trade and its own offshoring of industries globally, that it becomes difficult to diversify supply chains, as rerouting of Chinese finished or intermediary products can occur.

It should be obvious that the much-enhanced rhetoric by China, is not without some ulterior motivation, to contain India’s growth trajectory and rise as a geopolitical challenger in Asia, to force a direction into the overall relationship or to convey its consternation on improving India-US relations. India has to be, hence, distracted from the growth path and embroiled in a web of inimical peacetime activities. China has hence generated economic dependencies for India and created relationships with India’s neighbours to promote anti-India bias.

Third, is the issue of strategic relations between China and India, underscored by the border dispute. Four years since the epochal May 2020 incursions by China in Eastern Ladakh, talks at the Army’s Corps Commander level at Chushul/ Moldo have taken place 21 times, and of WMCC, 15 times. The readouts while agreeing to maintain regular contact emphasise the need to uphold peace and tranquillity in the border areas in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and protocols. This is despite the fact that bilateral agreements and protocols stand discredited and mistrusted. The Chinese side repeatedly since 2022 stated, as a cliché by now, that border ought to transit to a normalized phase of control and management, while India reiterates that the situation is abnormal. On Arunachal Pradesh, the EAM Mr Jaishankar at the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore recently was categoric, “The claims are ludicrous to begin with and remain ludicrous today.”

It may well be that the Chinese political enunciation of ‘sovereignty’ with regard to territorial dispute, as translated into military strategy and operational plans by PLA, have NOT reached its culmination point or end state in 2020. Probably PLA had not probably anticipated the robust and strong response by the Indian Armed Forces, on establishing an eye-ball confrontation at all locations transgressed and also all along the 3500km border. Having consequently prodded to ferret out gaps/deficiencies in Indian Army’s posture along the border, by now would have been clear and accepted by the PLA as a fait accompli, that further incursions are not likely to succeed, without deliberate operations which come contingent with the grave risk of escalation to conventional war. Appreciating this, the Chinese formulation of normalised border management and control can be well appreciated. Retaining the Damocles Sword of an ambiguous, unresolved, live border with well-planned training, exercises and deployments and a threat-in-being against India, would greatly suit China.

Four, indeed, war avoidance remains the primary Indian national goal, as it is apparently for China! Wars are evolutionary, the rationale and methods of initiation are endless, they are very messy and unpredictable, and getting increasingly elongated. Deterrence is prone to failure, confidence building measures can become questionable and cannot be relied upon for war avoidance.

Wars are however, avoidable and not inevitable even between India and China. Even if serious attempts are made to avoid collateral damage, war if ever between the two highly populous nations will be calamitous for the civilian population and invariably retard national economic growth for both nations. The current force levels deployed by PLA in Xinjiang and Tibet do not indicate significant conventional war threat or propensity. Intentions/ escalation dominance cannot, however, be guaranteed in a trust-devoid situation. Must be stated though that the capabilities for war waging do exist significantly, and intent can change!

The fact of the matter is that the border territorial war can be taken as Indian Armed Forces forte. Any pragmatic professional adversary, which PLA is, can well appreciate that any offensive plans like capture of Arunachal Pradesh or another sector, will suffer a nought with very significant losses. Ukraine War proves on daily basis that loss/ gain of territory with positional array of force and modern attritive wherewithal is just too expensive and devastating on men and material. The altitudes and weather conditions of the Northern Border is way more difficult. There would also be even chances of loss of face, something unacceptable. What then would be the aim of such a war, if ever? Victory will have to be severely redefined, conceptualised end states will keep getting changed as war progresses. Wars may only result in some strategic advantage to both sides.

Pathways Forward

It is well-nigh impossible to outguess the Chinese, in the trajectory forward. Chinese are attempting rewriting the rules of the international system, to better reflect its own interests, and seeking more and more influence globally and regionally. In consideration of the above four pathways are recommended.

One, the past history does not give confidence in any new Agreements, they did not bind China bilaterally and multi-nationally. The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) and the Corps Commander Level Talks are laudatory in building confidence and check escalation. It seems from the routine-ness of the post-meeting readouts, that the situation in Eastern Ladakh has got fixated and further success may be limited. Hence, post Indian elections, elevation of interaction to political level of the Principals may be advantageous, seeking and institutionalising higher politico-diplomatic-military level conflict resolution systemic to create failsafe mechanisms to avoid escalation.

Two, China had often stated that "we cannot lose a single inch of the lands we inherited from our ancestors," and seeks to safeguard Chinese sovereignty and keep the peace at the same time. Even if China has no plans or intention to settle the border with India, it has to be driven that borders are also inherent to Indian quintessential exercise of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Not finding progress through ongoing diplomatic-military interactions, and a marked mistrust at operational and tactical levels, this much heightened and escalated deployments, maintenance of reserves in proximity, and constant vigil with infrastructure upgradation/ construction are a given. As a corollary, the Indian Ocean Region cannot be isolated from multiple ventures of Chinese belligerence, which will keep Indian Navy as committed. There can be no relent in any which way, till some via-media of a conflict resolution mechanism and verifiable force reduction can be emplaced. Indeed, this will keep the Indian Armed Forces stretched!

In this ambiguous environment escalation is always a possibility; all warfighting domains – the land, sea, air, cyber, electro-magnetic spectrum and space will come in play. Each domain will be critical and wars will be fought in all dimensions of physical, informational and cognitive! To prepare for the complexities and unpredictability, what is essential is resilience, which will be the capabilities to withstand and recover rapidly, to resist and prepare for threats and hazards and adapt to changing conditions. Contextually, resilience is essential for planning, bringing together national capacities. What is imperative is to visualise where and how certain strategic advantages can be continually during prospective war and finally achieved.

Three, there is no longer a dividing line between a state of peace and a state of war in Indian context! China in collusion with Pakistan, is undertaking grey zone and cognitive warfare, by adopting a range of stratagems to win the narrative war against India, exploit political and societal fault-lines to weaken national will, and lower the morale of the nation and Armed Forces. Wars hence, are now fought even without violence! India needs to prepare for this formulation too, by creating cross-government strategy and enunciate common language and shared understandings of the challenge. We need to develop coordinated interagency response options, both offensive and defensive. In peace time too, India needs to create a paradigm, to detect, attribute and respond to clandestine, covert and ambiguous operations. India must remain on top of adversaries’ attempts.

Four, John Mearsheimer had stated that, “nations that depend on others for critical economic supplies will fear cutoff or blackmail in time of crisis or war.” China though a belligerent and adversarial state to avoid, may as far as feasible, avoid direct military confrontation or escalation, largely in consideration of the social, financial and political costs in an era of economic interdependence. Hence, recent instances exist of Chinese economic authoritarian statecraft applied through a set of punishments, a kind of weaponisation of the economy and trade.

Indian government has been working to become self-reliant and make India a bigger part of the global supply chains. Accepting the need of creating resilience against trade dependencies, Niti Aayog is currently studying to develop a comprehensive action plan to bridge the trade deficit over time and align trading strategies with emerging geopolitical situation and potential risks to safeguard supply chains. Threat of economic authoritarianism mandates a focused attention, and a graduated long-term plan.

In sum, the global balance of power had been disrupted and this unbalanced power is by itself has a potential threat. Fresh politico-diplomatic initiatives with China are the call of the day! Meanwhile, peace will be guaranteed by preparing for modern conventional warfare, retaining strong positional deployments by Indian Army denying further incursions, availability of strong reserves in proximity. This escalated deployments and the feverish pace of infrastructure development for Indian Armed Forces, hence, must continue.

The best for India is to reach her immense economic potential, at the earliest.

(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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