In the aftermath of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India and the continuing intrusions in the midst of which it occurred, it will be prudent not to view events in an episodic manner, but assess the India-China relationship over the longer term.
China’s present assertive behaviour reflects its leadership’s self-confidence based on its perception of China’s economic and military strength and the popularity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘China’s Dream’, which promises to wipe out past humiliations and lays bold emphasis on a strong and wealthy China, symbolises these aspirations.
There are adequate indications that Beijing assesses the present time as opportune to push for international acceptance of what it perceives is its pre-eminent position in the region, including the Asia-Pacific. It considers that it has adequate stature and strength for it to partner the United States in the resolution of international and regional issues. The joint statement issued after the Xi Jinping-Obama Summit on June 7-8, stating they are building a ‘new type of major power relationship’, reflects Beijing’s aspirations.
This self-confidence is visible in China’s muscular activist policy of the past few months, particularly in its strategic periphery. Beijing has consolidated and expanded strategic investments in Pakistan, reviving talk of a Chinese-built railway line linking Xinjiang with Gwadar port.
Similarly, Chinese diplomats are noticeably more actively monitoring and curbing the activities of Tibetan resident in Nepal. In Myanmar too, Beijing moved to safeguard its strategic investments. Among other steps, it, for the first time in decades, overtly engaged in Myanmar’s internal affairs — albeit at its request — by brokering six rounds of ‘peace talks’ between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar’s military.
The Chinese premier’s visit to India and premeditated military intrusion that preceded it had multiple objectives. They brought into sharp definition China’s new policy towards its neighbours and countries in the region with which it has unresolved sovereignty and territorial disputes.
China’s official news agency Xinhua earlier publicised that growing economic and trade ties would not translate into good bilateral relations. It also embarrassed the government and brought into focus China’s policy towards India.
An important attribute of the stand-off that stretched over two weeks in April-May, was Beijing remaining transparently impervious to the prolonged and adverse media publicity and damage it caused to India-China relations.
The clear message was that for Beijing’s leadership the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity trump all other considerations. Speculation during this period that an errant group of Chinese generals were responsible for the ‘action’, is not supported by a shred of evidence. On the contrary, the CCP has steadily and inexorably tightened its grip on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the past decade.
Interestingly, during this period senior Delhi-based Chinese diplomats informed foreign diplomats that approval for the action by PLA troops had been granted by China’s top leadership with the timing of the action left to the local commander. This green light was given prior to the leadership’s final approval for Li Keqiang’s four-nation tour abroad. They added that Beijing had assessed that India would not scrub the Chinese premier’s visit.
While intrusions by Chinese forces are not a new feature and have increased since 2008, the intrusion this April had two clear major objectives. The military objective concerns defences.
The PLA has completed the construction of border defences along the length of the border, including the construction of adequate accommodation for additional troops that may be inducted, and ammunition and storage dumps. This prompted Beijing’s proposal to Delhi on border management late last year. The proposal suggests that neither side should patrol the LAC up to a specified depth on their side or augment and build border defences. Realities of capability and terrain will place India at a disadvantage in case this is accepted.
The larger objective was to warn India against expressing support to Japan during the scheduled visit of the Indian prime minister to Tokyo. The CCP leadership at the highest levels seriously apprehends that the US is intent on forming a coalition to ‘contain’ China with India as a partner. As far back as July 2010, a Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper had warned that: ‘the issue of China’s territorial disputes with neighbouring countries will ignite the flames of war sooner or later. …India’s long term occupation of southern Tibet is indeed worrying…’
China’s deliberate and prolonged military intrusion could well have been prompted by the rapid progress by India in the past few years in building forward border defences and intended to slow it down. These include advanced landing grounds (ALGs), border roads etc. India has accelerated the acquisition of advanced military hardware and is rapidly acquiring effective strategic deterrence capability. China’s action, instead, cast a perceptible shadow over Li Keqiang’s visit and starkly outlined China’s policy towards India.
This resulted in the noticeable absence of forward movement on substantive issues. India referred to the border incursion in Ladakh, clarifying that such incidents detract from efforts at building relations. Progress on economic issues, which mainly comprised Li Keqiang’s agenda, was negligible. India also declined, as it had during Wen Jiabao’s visit in 2010, to reiterate that Tibet was an integral part of China.
Neither did China have its way in references to the South China Sea in the joint statement. It also ensured a more fruitful and extended stay in Japan by India’s prime minister.
New Delhi must take cognisance of Beijing’s actions and calibrate resistance to further Chinese pressures that will materialise. China’s domestic economic difficulties, growing restiveness among its minorities and increasing societal discontent are vulnerabilities that will potentially constrain Chinese leaders in the not-too-distant future.
Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India
The views expressed by the author are personal