China: India’s Biggest Challenge
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 27 Mar , 2017

China is India’s biggest challenge. It is a threat to its security, its aspirations and environmental space. As China’s economic and military might grow and it pursues the ‘China Dream’, China’s neighbours including India will come under increasing pressure. China’s upgraded relationship with Pakistan – since last April China describes Pakistan as its “only friend and ally” – suggests a difficult time ahead for India. China, which has maintained a more assertive posture against India since late 2007, has become steadily more aggressive under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and who now has more formal titles than any other leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ever!

Important is Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ which envisages: making the Chinese people wealthy; making China a strong nation; and the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation – which implies redressing past humiliations and ‘recovering’ territories that China was forced to cede. This muscular aspiration for China spelt out by Xi Jinping at the 18th Party Congress was adopted by the entire Party and very soon entered the lexicon of the CCP. It is this last part, when viewed with China’s aggressiveness, that is worrisome especially to China’s neighbours. For India this means that China will not resile from its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Chinese maps also claim the Andaman Islands. China’s actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea and the expanding territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir reinforce Chinese claims as do the passports published by China a few years ago. Senior Party officials fanned out across the globe ‘explaining’ the China Dream.

Meanwhile, China’s foreign policy acquired a sharper and more muscular edge impacting India, Japan, Vietnam and other countries with which it has territorial disputes or which are on its periphery. Internal arguments advocating a tougher, uncompromising approach gained ground in the debate on China’s international security environment. Prominent and influential Chinese academics close to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) like Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong, a former doctoral tutor of Xi Jinping with reportedly close proximity to him, recommended that: (i) as the probability of conflict with other countries increases, China’s foreign policy should directly confront rather than avoid the issue of conflict; (ii) China should try to develop rather than just maintain its “strategic opportunity period” because waiting for a strategic opportunity period is always passive; (iii) China should begin to shape rather than just integrate into international society because China now has the capacity to do so; and (iv) China should change its non-alignment approach and make efforts to establish a “community of common destiny.” Other influential Chinese strategists have made similar recommendations. The current policies of the Chinese government include the main elements of these recommendations.

The general elections in India and installation of the BJP-led Government with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister attracted attention in China. Beijing was uncertain whether Indian Prime Minister Modi’s campaign rhetoric on the border issue was mere posturing or his focus would be on economic cooperation. The visit (June 8-9, 2014) by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi soon after Modi’s election was intended to engage with India’s new right-wing Government and was part of China’s strategy of high-level contacts envisaged in ‘Peripheral Diplomacy’. It was clear, including during Wang Yi’s visit, that China’s focus is on economic cooperation with India. It is anxious to find a market capable of yielding returns where it can invest its huge reserves of surplus cash. The visit was important because it also clearly reflected the position of China’s leadership on the boundary issue. On the question of China’s territorial claims on India, Wang Yi yielded no ground. At his press conference in New Delhi, in a carefully worded sentence he said that the issue of stapled visas by China was a “unilateral”, “flexible”, “goodwill gesture” or, in other words, that the status of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir remain disputed. China’s position remains uncompromising.

In this context, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India from September 17 to 19, 2014 — the first by a Chinese President in eight years — assumes importance. China’s new Ambassador in New Delhi and Chinese official media reports described it as ‘landmark’ and ‘historic.’ There was anticipation that the meeting between the two powerful leaders, both of whom are politically strong and have a demonstrated capacity to take bold initiatives, could move the India-China relationship forward and add meaningful content to it. Xi Jinping belied both expectations.

The intrusion at Chumar in Ladakh that, quite unprecedentedly carried on throughout Xi Jinping’s visit and for many days thereafter, cast a shadow over the visit. The timing of the intrusion was significant, not least because Xi Jinping has a firm grip on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In fact, the PLA Commanders of the Military Region and Military District involved were promoted within a few months! Coincidentally, they were the Commanders during the intrusion in the Depsang Plains in Ladakh by PLA troops immediately preceding Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India in April 2013.

Soon after the intrusion in the Depsang Plains by PLA troops in April 2013, a lengthy article in the influential ‘Zhongguo Qingnian Bao’ (China Youth Daily) on May 14, 2013 reiterated China’s claim to Ladakh and accused India of triggering tensions by adopting a “forward policy”. It stressed that “Ladakh was unified with China’s Yuan Dynasty as part of Tibet in the 13th century” and was “under the jurisdiction of the central government of China’s Qing Dynasty until 1830s”. Stating it was important for access to Central Asia, it added that “although it is under Kashmir, Ladakh shares similarities with Tibet in terms of culture, religion, customs, and language, and it has long been dubbed “Little Tibet.”

The greatest impediment to the India-China relationship achieving its full potential remains the boundary issue despite the agreements signed between India and China since the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988. These include the: Agreement between India and China on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas (1993); Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas (1996); and Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question (2005). The most important is the agreement of 1993 which states that “The two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this Agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question”, thus clearly indicating that the two agree that the LAC is not the border thus obviating the need for incursions from either side to demarcate one’s territory. Despite the assurances in these agreements, China’s expanding territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir and numerous Chinese incursions across the LAC are a source of constant friction in Sino-Indian relations. China has also been tardy in putting in place substantive conflict-resolution mechanisms, which would quickly ease tension along the border, and the agreement for a ‘hot-line’ has yet to materialise.

The statements read out by Modi and Xi Jinping after their meetings in 2014 and 2015 also reveal the continuing differences on the border issue. The statement after their meeting in Delhi on September 18, 2014 revealed these differences. While Modi listed the border issue and solution of the ongoing confrontation in Chumar in Ladakh as the first item, Xi Jinping mentioned it at almost the end and then too made no reference to an early resolution. He merely said that mechanisms exist to sort it out. The differences were evident again during Modi’s visit to China in May 2015, by which time Beijing had clearly signalled its clear support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and that it had put the border issue on the back-burner. Any reference to the border issue at a high level was absent. China additionally declined since May 2015, to discuss the border issue at the Track Two level or between Chinese and Indian think-tanks.

A new impediment to improved bilateral relations is Beijing’s pronounced emphasis on pushing its new trans-regional economic agenda. The objective is to develop economic ties while setting aside resolution of contentious border disputes till what Beijing deems a more opportune time. At the same time China has been emphatic that it will not compromise on issues of sovereignty and territory and not barter away its “core national interests”. Pertinent in this context are two despatches in China’s authoritative official news agency Xinhua in August 2011, which explicitly declared that burgeoning economic ties are no indication of good bilateral relations which are possible only if China’s sovereignty and core national interests are respected.

Beijing’s new trans-regional economic agenda proposed first in September 2013 by Xi Jinping, is the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. Xi Jinping has taken personal charge of this estimated US$ 1.4 trillion project, which is a grand concept that girdles the globe. Essentially it envisages a transportation artery linking China’s production centres with markets and natural resource reserves around the world. There are seven parts to the project, but the ones directly impacting India are the CPEC and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. Beijing is pressuring India to sign on to the BCIM.

The CPEC, valued by Pakistan analysts at an estimated US$ 46 billion, is a quantum enhancement of the China-Pakistan relationship. With it Islamabad is assured of Beijing’s diplomatic, financial and military support. It provides for a rail and road link as well as a oil and gas pipeline linking China’s land-locked Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region to Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. By announcing the CPEC and its 51 infrastructure projects, China dispelled its decades-long ambiguity on the Kashmir issue and has come out in open support of Pakistan. The CPEC qualitatively enhances and changes the nature of Sino-Pakistan relations. It has a pronounced military content, including the likely deployment soon by China of a Division-strength “private army” to protect Chinese construction sites and workers in PoK, Gilgit and Baltistan in addition to Baluchistan etc. The Chinese “private army” is in addition to the Special Security Division raised by Pakistan to protect Chinese work sites and workers. China also has a particular interest in Gwadar Port to which it has sovereign guarantees from Pakistan.

The CPEC itself has a definite military component and, of particular interest for India is the West Zone (Western Theatre Command), which merges the erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions (MR)s. Comprising more than half China’s land area, 22 percent of its population and more than one-third of China’s land-based military, the newly constituted West Zone is a considerably strengthened military formation placed under one commander. The merger of the Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs will improve joint planning, coordination and integrated joint operations. Incorporation of the Qinghai region in the West Zone facilitates the rapid induction and deployment of high altitude acclimatised and trained troops into Tibet and across Ladakh. Establishment of the West Zone additionally reveals China’s increased and abiding military interest in the region in addition to facilitating focus on “threats in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as Afghanistan and other states that host training bases for separatists and extremists”. The operational jurisdiction of the PLA’s West Zone includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, the CPEC and the Sino-Indian border. Gwadar will be within its jurisdiction as will the Eastern African port of Djibouti, with which China has concluded an agreement to establish a naval base.

Equally pertinent is the appointment of General Zhao Zongqi, till recently Jinan MR Commander, as Commander of the new West Zone. His credentials indicate he was handpicked for this post. General Zhao Zongqi is fluent in Arabic and has experience of Tibet. He is a war hero, having participated in the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979 when he is reported to have often disguised himself as a Vietnamese to gather information. He served over 20 years in Tibet as Deputy Chief of Staff (1984-99) and Chief of Staff (1999-2004) of the Tibet Military District (TMD). Born in 1955, General Zhao Zongqi has foreign service experience and was posted in Tanzania as Defence Attaché. He has also been military consultant for a drama serial on the PLA in 2006. Incidentally, the new PLAA Chief General Li Zuocheng also has experience of Tibet having served in the Chengdu MR.

The special Sino-Pak military ties were underscored in the last week of May 2016, by the appearance at Karachi of a Chinese Navy nuclear submarine for a 3-4 day stay. It is the first time a Chinese Navy nuclear submarine has called at a port in South Asia and clearly signals China’s ambitions in the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean.

A report in Pakistani News Paper, Dawn of January 7, 2016, stated that Pakistan’s plans to upgrade the constitutional status of the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, are a corollary to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad. Described by a senior ‘government’ official from Gilgit-Baltistan as intended to give “legal” cover to proposed Chinese investments, since “China cannot afford to invest billions of dollars on a road that passes through a disputed territory claimed both by India and Pakistan,” such a move has other major implications. It will integrate this portion of Kashmir with Pakistan by giving it considerably enhanced legislative powers, control of its revenue and allowing it to be represented in Pakistan’s Federal Parliament by two members for the first time – albeit as observers. Pakistani strategic analyst Ayesha Siddiqa interpreted the move as possibly demonstrating “Islamabad’s desire to end the Kashmir conflict by formally absorbing the territory it controls – and, by extension, recognising New Delhi’s claims to parts of the region it controls, such as the Kashmir Valley”. She said: “If we begin to absorb it so can India. It legitimises their absorption of the valley.”

The move, however, could well be the thin end of the wedge as Pakistan appears to have got emboldened following the upgrading of its relationship with China. Examples are its efforts to revive the Kashmir issue internationally, the uptick of restiveness and violence in Kashmir over the past year, and likelihood of further terrorist attacks elsewhere in India. Beijing had, incidentally, earlier hinted at its ability to meddle in India’s internal affairs and specifically in J&K, when a so-called Chinese NGO had in 2010 invited Hurriyat ‘leader’ Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to China. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had then stated that China has a role in settlement of the Kashmir issue. More recently on March 14, 2016, the hardliner Pakistan-backed Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Hurriyat Conference was quoted by the Deccan Chronicle as terming “China as a reliable friend of the people of Kashmir and said it is extremely thankful to Beijing for its ‘unconditional support’ and for not recognizing the Himalayan State’s ‘illegal and forced occupation by India”.

The BCIM, which is the seventh and last leg of the OBOR, is planned to go through India’s north east. With the fragile economies in this region and present extremely poor connectivity, the north-eastern states will become even more vulnerable in case India accedes to this project. It would mean allowing the free influx of Chinese goods and nationals with the attendant danger of the latter settling down in these areas.

To reinforce this geo-economic initiative, China’s leaders approved the policy of ‘Peripheral Diplomacy’ in October 2013. For the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, the policy categorised countries neighbouring China as ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’, which has obvious implications for India. It promises huge financial and other benefits — including that flowing from the global influence it exercises — to ‘friends’ who support China’s regional ambitions and warns of sustained periods of pressure and isolation to ‘enemies’ or countries that oppose China. The Conference, also for the first time ever, suggested that China could even forge security alliances with countries designated as ‘friends’. Noteworthy in the context of security alliances is the precedent set by China and Ukraine on December 4, 2013. The security agreement concluded between the two countries states that “China promises…to provide security guarantees to Ukraine if Ukraine is attacked by nuclear weapons or threatened by such aggression”. Chinese commentators point out that the end objective of the policy of “Peripheral Diplomacy” is to use alternative strategies “to achieve global leadership”. Among the countries known to have been identified as “friends” are Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and Turkey.

Of concern in India’s immediate neighbourhood are the inroads made by China in Nepal. While China’s interest in Nepal is prompted by concern for its own security, ever since Prachanda was first installed as Prime Minister it has acquired predominant influence in that country and its objectives have expanded. Beijing’s primary objective is to prevent “hostile foreign forces” using Nepal as a platform from which to instigate Tibetans residing across the 1400-kms border in the restive Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas inside China. It has won over prominent Nepali politicians and large sections of the police, army, bureaucracy, diplomats and media. Over the past five-odd years, Beijing has additionally sought to co-opt the Tibetan Buddhist population, and especially the influential high lamas, residing in India’s Indo-Himalayan belt. The US$ 1.3 billion proposal by a Chinese so-called NGO supported by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), the Asia-Pacific Economic Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), to develop Lumbini in Nepal as a Tibetan Buddhist religious centre is part of this. Recent events have demonstrated Beijing’s influence in that country.

China has similarly been assiduous in developing ties with Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Noticeable is the military component inherent in these relationships and attempts to develop strategically sited ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Maldives and Sri Lanka have both agreed to join China’s Maritime Silk Route, which is the maritime portion of the OBOR. Illustrative is the remark of the Chinese Defence Attache in Delhi who, after the pro-Beijing Rajapakse lost the elections, said in private conversation that China would retrieve the influence it had lost within a year!

Buy Now: This book is sequel to “Threat from China”.

India is the main beneficiary of trans-boundary river flows from the Tibetan plateau and many of its major rivers, including the Indus and Ganges, are fed by the glaciers in Tibet. China has been reluctant to dispel concerns about the proposed plans to divert the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) – on the upper reaches of which at least seven of the proposed seventeen dams are at various stages of construction. China has also been tardy in releasing data on the water flow in the river. The issue was not mentioned by Xi Jinping in his statement during his visit to India in 2014, though it figured high on Modi’s list of concerns. The proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra River, an international trans-boundary river that supports nearly a quarter billion people, has major geostrategic implications for the lower riparian countries.

There is, nevertheless, potential for change in the dynamics of the region’s geo-politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a popular mandate unprecedented in the last 30 years. He is also a reputedly decisive leader with the capacity to take bold initiatives and a strong political mandate. Similarly, China’s Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping that the CCP has had and he has a firm grip on the Party, government and Army. He has proved to be tough and decisive. Both are nationalists and have defined their country’s strategic interests. This could lead to settlement of the 4,056 kilometers-long un-demarcated and disputed border or a period of intensified confrontation. While India’s BJP-led government is attempting to reshape the policy towards China, so far there have been no signs of a change in China policy.

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