Is there a Chinese ‘threat’ to India? The answer will depend on how the word ‘threat’ is defined or the kind of adjectives you would use to qualify ‘threat’. It also depends a great deal on who you ask the question.
I suspect most people in India do not actually believe that China poses an existential threat to India – that is, a threat to national existence. But one would again have to define what ‘national’ is. Territory and populations are, of course, critical elements of statehood and loss of territory and populations in war can bring down governments. However, national survival does not necessarily depend on, for example, retaining or regaining ‘every inch’ of territory in attempts to resolve territorial disputes. Compromise is necessary because national objectives including ensuring safety of the population from (continued) war and conflict, their prosperity and national defence might, in fact, require it. Such compromise is also feasible because national existence is not threatened by it, and might possibly actually be enhanced by territorial compromises.
In the case of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute for instance, which has been under negotiation for several decades now and which has involved some of India’s finest political and strategic minds, it can be no one’s case that Indian interlocutors have not sought the best possible deal. But it is also not possible to assume that our negotiators have not come up against the finest political and strategic minds on the Chinese side, too. It goes without saying then, that it is not possible to do a deal without also giving something in return.
The point might be made that it was India that was ‘betrayed’ or ‘stabbed in the back’ and thus it is for the Chinese to do restitution and to ‘give back what they took from us’. This is a naïve and often deliberately obdurate position that does not take into account not only national circumstances at home and in the opponent country but also the regional and global contexts. Just as no man is an island, no country exists in isolation from networks of communication, politics, trade, and other forms of contact as well as of linkages of history, culture and ethnicity with its immediate neighbours and often countries further afield. In fact, those Indians that make these arguments are usually blindly emotional prone to a ‘my country right or wrong’ attitude, and nationalists but who think they are being ‘realists’ and patriots. Far from it; their conception of realism is more about an imagined reality unwilling to consider problems practically and think of long-term consequences. And their idea of patriotism is really about an imagined perfection in their country unwilling to see what is wrong at home and therefore unable to nip problems in the bud or to tackle them when they do surface, and finding it easier consequently to blame the ‘foreign hand’.
The Hard Reality
From a military point of view, any sober assessment would show that while India lags behind China in capabilities, it is also no longer a weakling or unprepared as it was in 1962. This is the case purely from the point of view of a kinetic conflict. There are, however, other elements to a conflict and before conflicts turn hot, two additional factors need to be considered in the Sino-Indian case.
One, in the age of nuclear weapons, China will think twice about actually initiating a conflict. The case is made that China will focus on short, sharp local wars under highly ‘informationalized’ conditions. This is certainly possible but one must also assess what the actual gains accruing to China could be in such a scenario. Can Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, for example, be captured by the Chinese, without fearing threat of retaliation by India? And if they cannot get Tawang, then what else is worth so much to the Chinese that they are going to be willing to go to war with India?
Remember also, failure to achieve the stated objective, means a loss of face for the Chinese, since India is presumably the weaker power in the equation. This is quite in contrast to the Chinese relationship with the United States. In the South China Sea, China is actually gaining territory by its assertiveness and its opponents either do not have the capability to stop it (Southeast Asian claimants, for instance) or like the United States appear unwilling because of the wider ramifications to the Sino-US relationship and the global order. In other words, the United States has to weigh confronting the Chinese over the South China Sea issue against a larger set of regional and global interests it has. Absent a clear danger to its national sovereignty or existence – which is the case with the South China Sea issue – the United States will not want to confront China and the latter realizes this and continues to take advantage. This is not the case in the Sino-Indian context where a Chinese attack with the purpose of annexing populated areas like Tawang or Arunachal Pradesh as a whole or vital geographic locations such as the Chicken’s Neck corridor or even the Bhutanese territory adjoining the Chumbi Valley would be seen in India as threatening national existence and/or sovereignty and draw an immediate and overwhelming response.
Two, China is no longer the ideologically revolutionary actor that it was in the Maoist era. Today, it is in a position of some importance in the world and has a tendency towards protecting its gains especially in the regional contexts. It also does not want to be drawn into a conflict with a power, whether the United States or India, that it knows well enough can impose prohibitive costs and punitive damage. There are also multiple camps today within China that advocate different options for the same problem. This lack of unity also restrains and possibly also constrains options that lead to actual physical conflict.
This also means that India must be prepared for asymmetric and unconventional means of conflict initiated by China ranging from cyber-warfare to support for third countries such as Pakistan or to insurgent groups in India’s northeast. All of this is already happening in many ways but it is also not the case that India is completely without experience dealing with these problems or without options in each of these cases and others.
While China’s exploiting of India’s weak integration of the northeast is not a friendly act, the truth remains that in over 60 years after Independence, the Indian state and ‘mainland’ Indian society have made little real effort to understand the problems of the northeast other than throwing money at the problem. Stereotypes of the region and its people remain rampant in the rest of India the various minorities and their politics have been dealt with a heavy hand rather than with sensitivity and empathy. If the region continues to provide options to unfriendly actors for destabilization, the blame must in part lie at New Delhi’s door. Everything cannot be blamed on the Chinese even if they can and must be called out for the specific acts of unfriendliness such as hosting Praesh Barua of the separatist and proscribed ULFA and for the continuing free flow of Chinese-origin or –licensed weapons to insurgent groups in the northeast.
Coming to Pakistan, let us first take the case of the Chinese ‘technical holds’ at the United Nations, on the designation of Pakistani citizens Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Masood Azhar as terrorists. Of course, the Chinese are being unreasonable and in fact, supporting the Pakistani position. Further, they also contend that this is an issue that the Indians need to talk to Pakistan about. While it really is none of China’s business to ensure that India talks to Pakistan, it is nevertheless, right in assuming that India’s talking to Pakistan helps reduce the chances of conflict in the region. This apart, it is also true from a purely Indian perspective that despite what might be called the Pakistani state’s – and particularly the Pakistan army’s – innate antagonism towards India, New Delhi, too, has let pride and prejudice govern its Pakistan policy and not opened up to or courted other constituencies in that country that would balance or moderate the enmity towards India.
Support for Pakistan’s ethnic insurgencies or movements in a tit-for-tat manner is seen as one way forward but this also solidifies opposition from those structures within Pakistan that are anti-India. What really would be useful would be the courting of ordinary people and Pakistani businesses, the constituencies with the most to gain from peaceful and increased exchanges with India. Instead, India has let Pakistan slip out of its sphere of influence to first become a puppet of the United States and now a close ally and handmaiden of the Chinese. The Chinese have merely exploited the situation of hostility between India and Pakistan that India has not expended enough imagination to resolve and are now trying to do exactly the same thing in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
Of National Goals, Vision and Action
One reason why China is seen as a ‘threat’ in India is actually a case of self-flagellation. Indians (and the rest of the world) are quick to contrast India’s lack of a ‘strategic culture’ to China’s effective strategic culture exemplified by Sun Tzu’s Art of War or its successes in settling boundary disputes always to its advantage and now its creeping occupation of islands and rocks in the South China Sea. The ‘strategic culture’ trope is just that and China’s so-called successes are mostly the result of myth-making and ignorance of Chinese history and realities. Foreign policy cannot be divorced from domestic policy in any large country or important power and the fact is that China has paid dearly at home in terms of millions killed and dead during such mass experiments and movements as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Since, 1949, none of its external conflicts have come without extensive loss of life whether against strong opponents as in the Korean War or against far weaker opponents as in the case of the conflicts with India or Vietnam. Indians should be more confident about themselves (but not arrogantly offensive) when dealing with China.
China’s territorial settlements have not always been in its favour in terms of territories acquired or retained and in any case this is no way to judge a settlement. What China did successfully was to exploit the fall of the Soviet Union to settle outstanding disputes and bring stability to its periphery and immediate neighbourhood. The fact that China has not settled the boundary dispute with India – a matter which is highlighted in India as a case of Chinese unfriendliness and continuing threat – actually only shows that India was in a position to hold strong on its demands vis-à-vis the Chinese. Of course, whether we too should have exploited the period following the fall of the Soviet Union when the Chinese thought they would be targeted by the United States next is another story.
What is evident, however, is that China overcame this period of strategic uncertainty in the 1990s by cultivating and co-opting the West into its economic development and growth story. China was willing to make the necessary sacrifices by joining the WTO in 2001 and today, it is reaping the benefits of that decision and is the world’s second-largest economy. It is also using the same economic muscle now, to bully neighbours in Southeast Asia, harass American and Japanese naval elements in the South China Sea and East China Sea respectively, and to promote its ‘one belt, one road’ initiative.
If Chinese strategic culture has to be acknowledged, it is in this dimension of pursuing its interests through conflict short of actual physical combat and through a programme of offering economic largesse and influence peddling. But these are not means that necessarily threaten India in any manner where national sovereignty or existence is at stake or affected any more than it was in the past.
What is at stake however, is India’s value system as a democratic republic. In other words, there is an ideological impact of China being seen as successful and India as failing whether at home or abroad. Weaker developing countries will naturally be attracted to the system or model that ‘works’ and India has a long way to go yet in trying to make itself an attractive model for the rest of the world. Mere talk about being a democracy will not do, if this is not also backed by results at home – social stability, justice and economic development for its citizens – and abroad in the form of friendly neighbouring governments and peoples.
In the long run, failure to counter China’s economic onslaught and political values will threaten the Republic of India, as we know it. So if there is a threat to India from China, this is it – the kind of slow-acting, invidious changing of perceptions and values that the Chinese engage in, whether at home, in their neighbourhood or farther afield. They call it ‘peaceful rise/development’ or ‘harmonious society/world’, and the world might call it ‘benevolent authoritarianism’ but in reality these are about preserving China at the top of regional and global hierarchies, about governing the masses in the interests of smaller interest groups, and pushing particular, often falsified, versions of history. Any threat from Chinese soldiers massed on the other side of the border pales in comparison.
Of course, democracies can be equally culpable, as the example of the United States amply demonstrates. Indeed, it is this failure of democracies – of the United States to ensure a just, fair world order and of India to provide a fair and equitable social and economic order to its citizens – that emboldens regimes such as the Chinese one to sell itself at home through a ‘China dream’ or to the world in the form of the ‘new Silk Roads’ or a ‘Silk Road spirit’.
India’s ‘nationalists’ unfortunately tend to miss this Chinese campaign, or ‘grand strategy’, call it what you will, by their attention to only what is obviously before them, such as say, Chinese support to Pakistan, China’s military modernization and infrastructure development in Tibet, its support to insurgent groups in Northeast India, or its attempts to buy influence in India’s neighbours. But this is what all global politics is about. This should not surprise or mystify and ought to be treated as par for the course. Their solutions are also fairly straightforward even if not simple – improve relations with your neighbours, right-size and reform your own military, implement infrastructure development policies effectively and on time. To take the case of just the last aspect, the case of poor physical infrastructure in India’s border areas with Tibet and the need to improve the situation was highlighted as early as 1951 in the Maj. Gen. Himmatsinghji Committee Report. A decade later, Indian forces would be caught short by the Chinese.
There are more modern infrastructure gaps too. Take for example, the case of India’s reliance on China for telecom hardware. The problem is one of the structures of both the Indian government and its economy. India by virtue of a policy prescription from the early 1980s abandoned the idea of creating a manufacturing sector for electronics and telecommunication hardware and decided to focus instead on the software side of things. While this has gained for India today the tag of a global software giant, the reality is somewhat more complex. Indian software prowess is mostly in lower end computer software programming and processes. While Indians might be heads of several technology giants and part of creating several frontier software applications, there is very little value added to national strength itself – many of these Indians are actually no longer Indian citizens and many more cannot even be persuaded to come back home and share their knowledge and expertise to create opportunities in India itself. In other words, there is lack of intellectual property created in India.
In the meantime, China which took the path to building up hardware capacity first is now engaged in building up its software capacity. The latter naturally can be built up faster given China’s competent education systems and tech-savvy population while India will struggle to build up hardware capacity and wean itself off reliance on Chinese products given both the poor literacy and technical skills of its population and weak policy regimes. Thus, today, absence of physical infrastructure capability in the form of actual manufacturing of hardware leaves India dependent on products manufactured in China or in the United States. All of these naturally have security consequences that will again take a lot of effort to overcome and to plug the gaps.
Chinese military modernization and reforms besides having implications for India, is also a reminder of what India has left undone in its own military modernization and reforms. It is notable that doubts about China’s joint operations capabilities and ability to implement its latest round of reforms and restructuring also exist side by side with fears about its overwhelming superiority in terms of numbers of men, materiel and logistical capabilities. Notable, because comments on both aspects tend to come in the main from serving and retired men-in-uniform or others who have served in capacities that addressed these issues in India.
Clearly, there is no unanimity in how to define any Chinese ‘threat’ to India. It is not so much the issue of the requisite data and information from the Chinese side being unavailable –this is in any case a reality that all military planners face – but a matter of how India’s own structures hold up in the face of a putative Chinese threat, or as the prevalent wisdom goes, a joint Sino-Pak threat. If China has managed the difficult feat of getting on the road to implementing its adaptation of the American Goldwater-Nichols Defence Department Reorganization Act of 1986, then India is far from implementing its own version. Despite jointness being cultivated in training institutions both before commissioning and subsequently, the three services in India continue to fight their turf battles even as civil-military relations remain stymied by the non-implementation of the recommendations of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on National Security to name just one committee. There is thus, a lack of synergy between the military and the government on achieving political objectives, security goals and economic well-being.
Against such a backdrop and despite problems and lags in the Chinese system, gaps with the Chinese in sectors of critical importance to national security will increase and this in turn will lead to concern, blame games and eventually, panic as long as they remain unaddressed. Confusion on China policy as well as ‘patriotic’ fulminations about the ‘China threat’ are a natural corollary.
The China ‘threat’ to India is as much of India’s own making as it is a design of its northern neighbour.