In the military parlance, encirclement operations are operations in which enemy forces are denied manoeuvrability due to isolation being enforced upon them with all escape routes and supply-communication channels cut off. At the strategic level, China’s strategy of encirclement vis-à-vis India is increasingly becoming evident in a three pronged manner- economic, military and diplomatic.
India views the project as a Chinese grand strategy at gradual colonisation of the weak countries. Quite surprisingly, Dawn- a Pakistan’s leading daily, also criticised the CPEC as a Chinese design to colonise it.
The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative by the Chinese saw 29 heads of state attend the summit on May 14-15, in Beijing. India boycotted the summit by being an absentee and citing reason of sovereignty infringement by China and Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key unit in the OBOR. While China uses euphemisms such as the modern Silk Route to provide a veil of cultural and people-to-people connectivity, India views the project as a Chinese grand strategy at gradual colonisation of the weak countries. Quite surprisingly, Dawn– a Pakistan’s leading daily, also criticised the CPEC as a Chinese design to colonise it.
The fundamentals of the initiative lie in investment and infrastructure development that would connect China to Europe and Africa. However, following the summit, the European Union countries have been critical of the Chinese plans and rejected the draft text on trade and development citing concerns of transparency and sustainability. Sri Lanka shares India’s concerns of sovereignty, but others in India’s neighbourhood are yet to defend against China’s ‘colonial enterprise’, though they are plausibly aware of it. If the project proceeds, chances are that the weaker countries will soon feel the burden of repayment- debt crisis- as Sri Lanka and Myanmar have in the recent times. In most of the strategic projects undertaken by China in Myanmar the stakes are massively in China’s favour whilst Myanmar’s returns are negligible.
An article written by Arun Prakash, former Indian Naval Chief highlights the military dimension of China’s strategic encirclement. The crux of the analysis is the threat that the Chinese naval expansion poses to India’s national security. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is soon expected to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) with the accumulation of the “Type001A” and “Type002” aircraft carriers. Also, the militarisation of the disputed island chains in the South China Sea, in addition to its first military base in Djibouti and port facilities in Hambantota, Colombo and Gwadar are poised to grant it a greater role and access to the IOR. These factors complete the encirclement picture when looked alongside the development of Chinese military infrastructure and rail-road connectivity in the Tibet and Xinjiang region.
China’s principal approach to India is one of regional containment. As China rises, it seeks to restrict India to a regional role.
Diplomatically, China has ensured India’s frustration on two important issues- the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG) membership and the designation of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief as a terrorist. Making sense of China’s refusal to allow India’s entry into the NSG, Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan claims that China’s actions are part of China’s containment strategy. China’s principal approach to India is one of regional containment. As China rises, it seeks to restrict India to a regional role. So, as Prof. Rajesh explains, China’s hyphenation of India with Pakistan on the NSG membership question has played to China’s advantage as the world will not tolerate an active proliferator of nuclear technology into the NSG.
The seemingly illogical, but strategically compelling, Sino-Pak nexus extended to India’s security concerns with the Chinese veto of an Indian resolution tabled at the UNSC to declare JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a UN-designated terrorist. With 14 signatories in favour of the resolution, China was the only country to oppose the ban on Azhar. The JeM has been a major irritant in India’s national security, especially in maintaining order in the Kashmir Valley. The Pathankot attacks being the handiwork of Azhar’s organisation, is one example to cite. China’s opposition of the resolution comes as a goodwill gesture to an ally. Pakistan repays such favours by ensuring that peace with India is a myth and India’s regional focus is sustained.
The last irritant in China’s policy has been another intrusion on India’s sovereignty. Last month, the Chinese state media announced that the government had standardised the names of six places in Arunachal Pradesh. China calls Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet”. China warned India will pay “dearly” if she continues to play the Dalai Lama card and asserted that it was her “lawful” right to name Chinese provinces.
…in the present day, India’s lack of a “defence industrial base” rules out the idea of absolute competition with China in the neighbourhood.
Way out of the Encirclement
The idea of breaking the Chinese encirclement entails two agendas- first, to turn the neighbourhood to India’s side and second, to expand its reach globally, thereby frustrating China’s containment designs. In the immediate neighbourhood, except Pakistan, India still has chances of ensuring that its brotherhood remains. Whatever be the benefits of OBOR, the states are wary of Chinese intentions. India has historic episodes to cite to justify its guild. Operation Cactus (1988) is one such example, where India intervened militarily to avert a coup in Maldives, but did not use the incident to remote control Maldivian politics in the future.
The incumbent governments of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal are amiable to India and it is in India’s best interest to accentuate economic and security relationships. India’s defence deals with Bangladesh and Indian activities in Trincomalee port, Sri Lanka are a welcome move. However, in the present day, India’s lack of a “defence industrial base” rules out the idea of absolute competition with China in the neighbourhood. Although options to deal with Pakistan are limited, India can do well by concentrating on securing Kashmir- an area that is stealing away a huge chunk of India’s energies. Increasing connectivity of Kashmir with rest of India can potentially curb militancy and hinder local support to Pakistan’s nefarious activities.
In expanding its global reach, India will have to counter China’s containment strategy by working with the U.S., Japan, Singapore and other littoral states of South-East Asia. Japan is an important player in India’s friends club, whose friendship is founded on development assistance and infrastructure development- more so, by mutual concern of the Chinese rise. Indo-Japan naval cooperation is central to launching India for an expanded role beyond South Asia.
In addition to looking east, India will benefit by engaging the African nations. India has already been engaging the African nations positively through the “Mekong-India Economic Corridor” (MEIC) connecting Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania through Indian ports shoring the Arabian Sea. Also, India has made defence inroads into Africa by acquiring a naval base in Seychelles. Connecting with Africa is critical in India’s great power ambitions and the “Engaging Africa: 54+1 initiative” that took off in 2015 must bear rich dividends in the time to come. Therefore, a strategic encirclement plan initiated by China against India can only be broken if India employs a combination of liberal economic and security policies, and a strategy of cold calculations.