The state of Sino-Indian bilateral relations according to India’s Foreign Minister and former Foreign Secretary Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is ‘not normal’. Even while the militaries of both countries have made worthwhile efforts to normalise the situation along the Line of Actual Control, both sides are struggling to recover each other’s trust and respect lost on the night of June 15 and 16, 2020, in the Galwan Valley. This death-dealing incident can be hailed as a watershed in bilateral relations as it marked the end of 45-year period of no armed conflict and it permanently falsifies China’s peaceful rise theory. According to India’s official narrative, Indian forces are deployed in strength along the Sino-Indian border which is a response to China’s mass mobilisation of its troops along the border in gross violation of standing border agreements between the two sides.
China’s security analysts posit that it is India, not China, that has disregarded and violated the bilateral pacts and encroached on China’s territory. This episode reminds one of lyrics of the famous pop song by Billy Joel, “…We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning, since the world was turning, we didn’t start the fire, no, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it…” This complex issue is further rooted in the role of perceptions in defining the limits of one’s territory and the problem of analysis which is spread across different levels – grand strategy, strategy and operational-tactics. If China’s troop mobilisation was a cause in India’s view, then so was India’s border infrastructure development spree since 2014, a cause in China’s view, which perhaps violated the ‘principle of mutual and equal security’ as agreed in the 1996 agreement. Last week, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the ambitious Trans-Arunachal highway. Hence, while the effects are tangible, the causes will remain a research topic for military, strategy, and security analysts.
While it is quite clear that the long-standing border dispute left over by history between the two Asian heavy weights is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, recent reports on Russia and China’s warning- as against mere concern – over India being cajoled into the western security alliance architecture (NATO) indicates an evolving strategic phenomenon of which the Sino-Indian border dispute remains a significant but auxiliary part. Indian foreign policy is founded on the notions of ‘strategic autonomy’ and by design, holds out against the idea of being identified as part of any security block. However, statements from Russian and Chinese leadership spell an anxiety in this regard.
From The US’ Viewpoint
According to the US Department of Défense, in its mandated annual report on China’s military development (2022) to the US Congress, “the PRC seeks to prevent border tensions from causing India to partner more closely with the United States. PRC officials have warned US officials to not interfere with the PRC’s relationship with India”. Days after this report was made public, Russian Foreign Minister mentioned the US attempts to drag India into anti-Russia anti-China alliance – which India refused – with the intention to squeeze out Russia’s influence. While Russia and China’s warning to the US makes sense after former US Secretary of Défense Mark Esper publicly stated, “Beijing posed the greatest threat to the West, followed by Russia”, the US warning to India makes matters convoluted.
In April this year, the US told India that the consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow would be “significant and long-term”. According to the Director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese, “there are certainly areas where we have been disappointed by both China and India’s decisions, in the context of the invasion (Ukraine)”. India’s foreign policy, on the other hand, has turned assertive with undisguised criticism of the West’s hypocrisy. On November 28, India’s Foreign Minister stated, “Why should I step up to the West? Some Quad members do not even endorse India’s map…. had I done all the things that the US said, I would have been of no use to anybody, including myself in Bali (G-20).”
China’s Attitude towards India-US Bonhomie
It is within this ongoing great blame game that the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian on November 30 mentioned that the ongoing joint military exercise held by India and the US near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) violated the ‘spirit’ of relevant agreements signed by China and India in 1993 and in 1996, and does not help build ‘bilateral trust’. India’s Ministry for External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi hit back by stating, “India conducts exercises with whomsoever it chooses to and it does not give a VETO to third countries on this issue.” The Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas signed on September 07, 1993, states that, “Neither side will undertake specified levels of military exercises in “mutually identified zones.” Each side shall give the other prior notification of military exercises of specified levels near the LAC permitted under this Agreement”.
China has not complained about the violation of the agreement per se but the “‘spirit’ of relevant agreements” and its effect on building bilateral trust – a subjective assessment. The 1993 agreement also states, “Both sides shall work out through consultations effective Confidence Building Measures in the areas along the LAC”. The ongoing 18th edition of the India-US Army Exercise ‘Yudh Abhyas – 22’ is underway at Auli in Uttarakhand, which is about 100km from the LAC and hence, outside the ambit of the 1993 border agreement. The Agreement between the government of the Republic of India and the government of the People’s Republic of China on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas signed on November 29, 1996, mentions the following:–
- Not to engage in military activities that threaten the other side or undermine peace, tranquillity and stability in the India-China border areas. [Article I]
- Caveats – on large scale military exercises involving more than one Division (approximately 15,000 troops) in close proximity of the LAC in the India-China border areas. [Article IV]
- Exchange of information if either side conducts a major military exercise involving more than one Brigade Group (approximately 5,000 troops) in close proximity of the LAC in the India-China border areas. [Article IV]
With the India-US Army exercise being held at Auli (Uttarakhand) there is no violation of the border agreement on India’s part. However, the terrain and weather scenario are similar for high altitude mountain warfare drills being conducted at 9,500-12,000 feet. Furthermore, Article IX of the 1996 agreement which states, “In case a doubtful situation develops in the border region as against close-proximity and border area or in case one of the sides has some questions or doubts regarding the manner in which the other side is observing this Agreement, either side has the right to seek a clarification from the other side. The clarifications sought and replies to them shall be conveyed through diplomatic channels”. China and India seem to have violated both the agreement and the spirit of the agreement – by letting known their displeasure in the public domain. Public opinion plays a crucial role in shaping preferences in this day and age of mass communication.
According to India’s Ministry of Defence, US Army soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the 11th Airborne Division and Indian Army soldiers from the Assam Regiment took part in Exercise Yudh-Abhyas 22. Some media reports suggest that soldiers from the 9 Assam Regiment and 1st Regiment 40th Squadron of the cavalry regiment participated in this exercise. This exercise was held under the Chapter VII of the UN Mandate – “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression”. According to Brigadier Pankaj Varma, a participant in the exercise, “We exercise Brigade-level teams (350 troops from each side) as Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) which go in for various peace-keeping operations under Chapter VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes) and VII of the UN mandate.” Articles 41 and 42 of Chapter VII are worth mentioning:
The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions and it may call upon the Members of the UN to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communication as also severance of diplomatic relations.
Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of members of the UN.
While emphasizing on the employment of an Integrated Battle Group, the 18th Exercise Yudh Abhyas-22 included all operations related to peace keeping and peace enforcement. The joint exercise also focussed on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations as well as swift and coordinated relief efforts in the wake of any natural calamity. The scope of the Field Training Exercise (FTE) includes validation of integrated battle groups, force multipliers, establishment and functioning of surveillance grids, validation of operational logistics, mountain warfare skills, casualty evacuation and combat medical aid in adverse terrain and climatic conditions along with employment of UAS/Counter UAS techniques and information operations.
China’s Strategic Philosophy
All this must raise no alarm in Beijing given that China champions the centrality of the UN within the in-vogue international system and holds veto powers as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Although China has the unique experience of fighting a war against the UN, such a situation no longer persists. So why is China so concerned with India-US military exercises despite abundant evidence in both words and deed which indicates India’s resolve at pursuing an independent foreign policy? India’s position at the UN and its bilateral relations with Russia and the US-led West is perhaps the most tangible evidence in this regard.
Even while China opines that geo-political thinking no longer applies to the world we live in now, China can hardly escape it. China’s strategic philosophy seeks to avoid a two-front war situation – the Pacific theatre and South-west, which China has communicated to India in crystal clear terms in the past. This, however, is true at the level of strategy. At the level of operations-tactics, China employs its military power to regulate India strategic behaviour and guide its overall strategic direction. The Galwan crisis followed India’s decision to revoke special rights (Article 370) guaranteed to the state of Jammu and Kashmir within its constitution and emotionally charged aggressive statements by India’s Home Minister on the floor of Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha). India’s Home Minister Amit Shah stated, “ We will give our lives, to re-integrate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan”. It also followed India’s use of air power against terrorist training camps within Pakistan which in many ways construes as an increment in India’s ‘status’ as a great power. China’s concern must be viewed bearing the fact that the high-altitude mountain warfare exercise between India and the US is a first and both the current (Himalayas) and previous (Alaska) round of Yudh-Abhyas exercises were conducted to train and operate under frigid conditions.
In recent weeks and months, senior military and political leadership in India has been explicit about its intentions with regard to PoK. According to Lieutenant General ADS Aujla of Chinar Corps, “The Indian Army is fully equipped and ready for any action and is waiting for the government’s order.” The flagship project of China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – runs through this territory which according to India’s Foreign Minister will be in India’s physical control in the near future. Security analysts believe CPEC makes no sense from an economic perspective and is a Chinese ploy to gain access to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and hence, a security project. It is quite clear that India is whizzing towards its objective to re-integrate PoK and has made constitutional provisions to sanction military use of force (1994) in this regard along with high-level military preparedness.
India’s decision to create legal space for its intent to do so followed China’s adoption of Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (1992) wherein China legally claimed that its territorial land includes the mainland and its off-shore islands, Taiwan and the various affiliated islands including Diaoyu Island, Penghu Islands, Dongsha Islands, Xisha Islands, Nansha (Spratly) Islands and other islands. Article 14 under this law adopted by China includes ‘hot pursuit’ to be exercised by warships or military aircraft of the People’s Republic of China or by ships or aircraft authorised by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to that effect. Both countries have merely created ‘legal space’ to deal with contingencies ‘pending action’.
China’s affright with regard to the India-US military exercise operates at the level of strategy and goes well beyond the India-US military exercises. The rise of a major military power in its South-west theatre which is non-aligned with its interests, but aligned with the US interests is a major security concern and an existential threat to China. This is nothing to do with India but with China’s experience where towards its East, the US has established a chain of military alliances with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand and Australia. The trust deficit between India and China arises from China’s suspicion regarding India’s position in the event of an armed conflict between the US and China, which many in the US, have come to believe as the inevitable Thucydides Trap. This fear is rooted in geo-political thinking which Chinese leadership and scholars believe is outdated – a contradiction. India resists from alleviating this fear as it perceives her national capacity to be insufficient to shape international order as some other powers do.
India’s Foreign Policy
According to India’s foreign minister, “The way to rise is to maximise opportunities and the opportunities are provided by the contradictions of the world…. if there are no contradictions, then there is no space for the rising power to move.” In implication, India will seek opportunities for its rise within the contradictions in China-US relations. India’s political and military relations with the West and the US in particular have come a long way and are no longer constrained by the past [Prime Minister Modi; 2015]. However, China must decipher India in light of the fact that despite tremendous efforts made by the US, the so-called strategic partnership between India and the US continues with the US strengthening India’s capabilities without any expectations of clear quid pro quo. While no realist will take India’s position for granted that its partnership with the US is not aimed at a third country, China goes by her own experience when she cosied up with the US behind the back of US’ close ally, Japan and against the Soviet Union only to end up in a situation many years later where she celebrates a strategic partnership with ‘no-limits’ with Russia – unequivocally aimed at the US.
Apart from lack of understanding regarding India, China remains insensitive to India’s interest and this, according to Bharat Karnad, is due to China’s utter contempt for the Indian state and civilisation. This proposition is true not just with respect to India, but any alien society other than itself. However, Chinese culture remains discreet at expressing this contempt for others (waiguo ren). This is also rooted in the non-assimilative property of all East Asian cultures and is representative of a cultural trait as against a behavioural trait. India’s foreign minister has in public stated that everything that China does is tantamount to ‘putting a gun to India’s head’. China, on the other hand, believes it is pre-occupied with building a common destiny for all mankind. China’s idiosyncrasies is at best exemplified with a common experience all foreigners have while walking down a street anywhere in China when young children call out to their parents “waiguo ren lai le 外国人来了” foreigner is coming – of course, in delight and excitement on seeing an alien person – forgetting the fact that to a foreigner, a Chinese is also a waiguo ren.
China’s foray outside its territorial limit is a recent phenomenon and it has barely any experience in foreign relations compared to India whose post-colonial society in many respects has shaped and has been shaped by many cultures. While Chinese President Xi Jinping might be well-versed or tutored on the Peloponnesian War, the Thucydides Trap and the Melian Dialogue, and engage Western leaders on the subject, it is safe to assume his ignorance about “Akhand Bharat” – a concept put forward by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. China’s South Asian foreign policy ignores the deep-rooted civilisational, cultural, linguistic and historical reality of this region and seeks to view South Asia in parts as against a whole. This approach is the mainspring for extra-regional powers such as the US to lurk around in the region making China’s efforts counter-productive.
The present discomfort or abnormality in Sino-Indian relations results from two major transformations that occurred in China (2008) and India (2014). Since 2008, China’s foreign policy behaviour stands upgraded following the global financial crisis that called out the major flaws in a capitalist-led global order. Scholars in China claim that China has turned assertive and not aggressive since 2008. As for India’s foreign policy – following the coming to power of a majority government after decades of coalition government with weak and indecisive leadership, a new vigour and vitality in India’s external relations was restored under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Scholars in China claim this transformation marks a transition from non-alignment to a leading power for India.
What remains unchanged is the fact that India in its strategic interaction with China is often caught by surprise and remains in a state of hyper-arousal. India’s narrative suggests that despite its best efforts to build cooperation with China, it often faces deception. India’s Defence Minister’s emergency departure to Russia to order a squadron of MIG-29 following the Galwan crisis, unplanned economic sanctions and banning Chinese apps is a case in point. Sino-India trade stood at $100 billion for the year when Galwan incident occurred. In the absence of a long-term plan to deal with China whose rise has been understood as most consequential to India due to its geographical proximity and trade imbalance favouring China, Indian leadership reacts to China’s action. China’s behaviour vis-à-vis India must be viewed in the context of the overall strategic situation where the US leadership has come to believe that China is the only nation in the world which has the capacity and intent to challenge the global order led by it. India must “respond” to China instead of simply “reacting”.
The terms ‘react’ and ‘respond’ are often construed as synonyms; however, there is a subtle yet profound difference between the two terms. The Latin root of “react” is “back, to do, perform” and the Latin root of ‘respond’ is “back, answer”. Furthermore a ‘reaction’ is immediate, unrestrained and not aimed at achieving a specific objective whereas a ‘response’ is delayed, restrained, measured and aimed at achieving a specific objective. Hence, in order to deal with China’s behaviour, India must first ascertain its specific objectives to be achieved vis-à-vis China and then initiate the process of responding. India’s famed air strikes against terrorist hideout in Pakistan proper can be categorised as a ‘reaction’ to a major terrorist act which, although warranted, does not address India’s core objective vis-à-vis Pakistan’s state sponsorship of terrorism.
While reaction operates at the level of operations and tactics, response operates at the level of strategy. India’s objective – trust and respect vis-à-vis China demands a response at the level of strategy as against a reaction at the level of operations and tactics. Execution of many of the recently pronounced economic goals such as ‘Make in India’, self-sufficiency in defence manufacturing, a $5 trillion economy will reinforce India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ and successful conclusion of military operations to recover Indian territory held by Pakistan is a ‘response’ that will achieve trust and respect vis-à-vis China at the level of strategy.
According to Kanti Bajpai, to restore a normal and peaceful relationship between India and China, India will need a near-civilisational change. In the larger course of history, both India and China are likely to find themselves on the same side in the event of a clash of civilisation as hypothesised by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work. India is at comfort with Laozi more than Aristotle. China’s recognition of India as a major source for world civilisation including Chinese civilization can only help matters.