The China Factor in India’s Strategic Discourse
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 05 Aug , 2016

The role of China in India-Pakistan security issues as well as in future conflict scenarios is crucial when considering two factors- (a) the historical nature of 1962 war and its follow up between India and China, and (b) the overt political and military alliance between Pakistan and China. Indian analysts often cite transfer of nuclear and missile technology on a regular basis from Beijing to Islamabad as evidence of an encircled threat to India. Through nuclear and missile technology transfers to Pakistan, Beijing restricts Indian capability to the South Asian strategic box and this constrains New Delhi’s stated desire to seek a more global presence. From the Chinese political establishment’s perspective, the concern is over India’s robust defense expansion with Agni-V missile and its 5,500-5,800 km range that has the capacity of reaching Beijing and the mainland of China, its desire and movement toward a stronger and more assertive regional and global role as is reflected in Modi’s foreign policy, and its increasing strategic partnership with Washington including the historic Indo-US civil nuclear deal.

Thus, any examination of the South Asian proliferation framework takes into account the Sino-Indian rivalry and lingering dispute, the lowest point of which was the 1962 border war. In contemporary times, senior ministers in Indian Government and political establishment such as George Fernandes in 2008 has termed China as potential threat number one and warned the government in power in Delhi not to get bullied by China. According to Fernandes, India was encircled by Chinese military and naval activity and called for “tough decisions” to counter the potential threat from China and be prepared for any eventuality.

Similarly, another political stalwart, Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2013 attacked the Indian government over the incursion of Chinese troops in Ladakh, accused it of being “cowardly and incompetent,” and warned that China “is the biggest enemy”. In recent years, Indian and Chinese leaders and special representatives have met for regular talks on the border dispute issue. In early rounds of these talks, China granted de facto recognition of Sikkim as a province of India, while India accepted Tibet as part of China.

However, serious differences remain between the two countries, and strategically important areas such as the state of Arunachal Pradesh have been claimed by China, while India has claimed Aksai Chin and certain parts of Kashmir that has been handed over by Pakistan to China. Similarly, India had raised serious concern over China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) violation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Chumar sector of Ladakh during April-July 2013. It was interesting to note that the Chinese incursions came days after India cleared a proposal to raise 50,000-strong Mountain Strike Corps along the border with China, a major boost to Indian Army’s war-fighting capabilities along the LAC.

The present threat perceptions between India and China are not the same as between India and Pakistan, which are more immediate and based on a ‘hot’ territorial dispute and state-sponsored and cross-border terrorism. Nevertheless, analysts in New Delhi have long pointed to Chinese military modernization as a coercive threat to India. This modernization includes missile development, such as the current deployment of the DF-21 and DF-3 missiles in Qinghai and Yunnan provinces. Furthermore, there is some suspicion among Indian analysts that though Beijing’s stated policy is that of minimum credible deterrence, the stationing of missiles such as DF-3 and DF-21 reflects a posture of nuclear coercion and intimidation, and under some conditions, does not preclude a first strike against its neighbors. It is also possible that since 1998, Beijing may have deployed nuclear weapons on the Tibetan plateau in response to a perceived Indian conventional military advantage and the May 1998 nuclear tests. Thus, despite growing trade volume between the two sides, there is some degree of unease in India over China’s long-term intentions, more so in light of predictions of increased competition between the two countries for tapping the vital global energy resources. The concern in New Delhi is that if bilateral relations take a downward turn at some point in the future, China’s current military modernization will give Beijing a significant strategic advantage and much needed leverage.

The Sino-Indian security dilemma is also a function of China’s desire to establish close relationships with other countries in the Indian Ocean region (most notably Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), a policy that is seen as a potential threat by India and termed as “strategic containment.” For India and China, the security dilemma also arises from threat perceptions based on consequences of future nationalistic tendencies in both countries. Both sides fear that a surge in nationalism and ultra-nationalistic tendencies in the other could lead to more hostile attitudes and destablising situation which might not suit national interests of either.

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China’s concerns over future expansions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, missile defense and space dominance plans provide feeder to Beijing’s nuclear plans. Therefore, a chain reaction exists in South Asia where New Delhi, at the very least, wants to maintain its current relative nuclear capabilities vis-à-vis Beijing. The interconnected security dilemmas in the Asia-Pacific region with rising China and India shape defense policies and impact stability. Within India, a policy report called ‘Nonalignment 2.0’–released in February 2012, outlined the widening gap in hard power between India and China. With Indian economy slowing down faster than that of China, the policy report called for an asymmetric strategy towards China. Under this concept, India should not try and match China weapon to weapon or focus on simply raising more troops for deployment on the China border in all flanks. Instead, the argument goes, India should build on its own inherent strengths and strategic advantages and target China’s weaknesses wherever it locates. Non-alignment 2.0 also advocated that India’s policy approach toward China should be a “balance” of “competition and cooperation”   by raising India’s global and regional profile in  Cross-continental groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) are important for India’s global rise and profile.

Perhaps, what could be a useful exercise in looking at viable options in order to have more meaningful and substantive nuclear discourse could be, as India’s Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China in May 2015 suggests, an active cooperation on civil nuclear energy issues and initiation of Trilateral Track II level dialogue and this despite lingering matters concerning Sino-Pakistan nuclear nexus and Sino-India border dispute over the Line of Actual Control (LAC).


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Mohammed Badrul Alam

is Professor, Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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