Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2020 > India-China relations in Perspective | P. S Jayaramu

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 42, New Delhi, October 3, 2020

India-China relations in Perspective | P. S Jayaramu

Friday 2 October 2020

by P. S Jayaramu

From the upbeat relationship between India and China, thanks to the informal summit meetings between Prime Minister Modi and the Chinese President Xi JinPing in Wuhan in 2018, Mamallapuram in 2019 and Ahmedabad in march this year to the brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers by the Chinese in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on 15-16th June and their continuing build up on the north bank of Pangong lake, bilateral relations between relations between India and China have taken a serious down turn. Against this reality, it is imperative to take a serious look at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China Policy.

Modi’s primary objective since he came to power vis a vis China seems to be to strengthen his one on one relationship with the Chinese President Xi, rather than engage its leadership in serious discussions to arrive at a solution to the vexed boundary dispute for which definite frameworks were worked out by Rajiv Gandhi and Vajpayee in their bilateral summits with their Chinese counterparts in 1988 and 2003.

Though bilateral trade between India and China has grown between 2003 and 2019, statistics however reveals that India’s exports to China stands at only 5.1 percent while that of China to India is only 3 percent. India’s imports from China during the period stood at 14 percent while that of China from India stood at a meagre 0.9 percent.(Source: Ministry of Commerce and Industry, GOI, 2018-19, as reported in The Indian Express, 20th June 2020.) Thus, though trade relations have grown, it is marked by India’s growing dependence on China. It is well known that many Indian industries, specially, pharmaceutical and automobile industries,are heavily dependent on China for supply of raw materials.

A look at the India-China military power balance is also necessary at this juncture to understand the asymmetrical position between the two countries. While India’s military expenditure is 71.1 billion US dollars, (9 percent), China spends a whopping 261 billion US dollars on its military acquisitions (37 percent). While India has 4426 tanks, China has 7760 tanks.In terms of aircrafts, while India has 2261, China possession stands at 4182. India’s naval strength stands at 214, while that of China is 780. In terms of Submarines, India has 15, while China has 76 of them. As for nuclear war heads, India’s strength is estimated to be at 150( not disclosed by the Indian Government) while China Is reported to have 350.( Source: SIPRI’s Year Book of Armaments, 2019). A recent Pentagon report Pentagon about China’s military power says that China now has the world’s largest navy and plans to double its nuclear aresenal. (Source: Steven Stashwick, Pentagon Releases Annual China Military Power Report, The Diplomat, 3rd September, 2020).

The above noted asymmetrical strength of India and China in economic and military power,coupled with the Chinese President Xi JinPing’s hard line attitude in terms of projecting a China led heirrarchical Asian order, with a clear signal that India must accept a secondary position in such an Order has turned out to be strong negatives in taking forward the bilateral relations. Clearly, President Xi’s Asian view seems to an obstacle to a friendly Political relations between the two. This is in clear contrast to his predecessor Hu Jintao’s view of a China-India led Asian century with a hard technological power(China) and soft tech power (India) together projecting themselves as Asian Super Powers. Therefore, at a broader level, the challenge before India, is to convert the rise of China and India into a non zero sum game, by striving to achieve strategic equilibrium with China.

We will return to this theme later and attempt an examination of the parallel between Modi’s China Policy with that of Nehru’s Policy in the 1950s. At one one level, it appears that both of them have pursued a policy of ‘appeasement’ (the phrase appeasement is used for want of a better one) towards China, though the underlying objective of Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi were/ have been different. Nehru’s ‘appeasement’ Policy was driven by the larger goals of establishing an Area of Peace and Asian Solidarity involving People’s Republic of China (PRC) in establishing an Asian order based on their opposition to Imperialism and Colonialism.

 It is in this perspective that Nehru pleaded for the inclusion Communist China in the UN Security Council, a seat which was reportedly offered to India by the American leaders if only India was willing to join them and the West in containing Communism during the Cold War. Nehru rejected the American offer and pursued the foreign policy of Nonalignment. Noted Political Scientist Francine Frankel, in her latest book “When Nehru Loked East: Origins of India-US Suspicion and India-China Rivalry( Oxford Books, 2020) blames Nehru’s ‘Asianism’ and Non-alignment for India’s debacle in the 1962 conflict. Frankel further writes that the ‘outstanding question still is, will India be able to set aside its post-independence suspicion of American motives to join the US in establishing a new natural balance in Asia’. Well, in the opinion of this writer, American motive then was to contain Soviet Communism and now to contain China from pursuing its global ambitions. While in contemporary times, some amount of containment or checkmating of China is in India’s interest, such an objective needs to be pursued independently and not by aligning with the United States. This is also the essence of Foreign Minister Jai Shankar’s book ‘The India Way’(2020) where he rejects the alliance path.

Checkmating China should also be pursued to counter Chinaese strategy of encircling India through its large scale development and miltary assistance and investments in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives. China is reportedly trying to enter Afghanistan in a big way by participating in the latter’s reconstruction and nation building activities. The challenge to Indian diplomacy lies in mitigating the adverse impact of China’s growing influence in its neighbourhood. China’s attempt at encircling India needs to be thwarted.

Getting back to Nehru, it is worth noting that at the Asian level, he went around introducing Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai at the Bandung Conference to work towards realising his goal of Asian Solidarity. At the bilateral level, he wanted a Peaceful relationship with China and accordingly signed the Panchasheel agreement in 1954 during his visit to Beijing.

As for his threat perception, Nehru perceived the political challenge from China, as can be made out by his long conversations with Indian journalists who met him before their visits to China( as alluded to by Frank Moreas) but failed to perceive its military dimension, which manifested itself in the 1962 conflict. Nehru felt betrayed by the Chinese( he wrote about it in his article on India China Relations in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs), realised the limitations of his threat perception and launched the defence plan to cater to India’s defence preparedness, which was continued by his successors.

In contrast, Modi’s Policy towards China is characterised by ‘appeasement’ influenced largely by his personal objective of maintaining a good one on one relationship with the Chinese President Xi Ping. The element of ‘appeasement’ manifested itself recently when he displayed a certain reluctance to name China when it captured our territory in eastern Ladakh in the wake of the brutal hand to hand face off in the Galwan Valley in June this year. Further his statement later that ‘no one has captured our territory and no one will be allowed to do so’ reflected his softness towards the Chinese top leadership.

 Modi’s softness was in sharp contrast to the statements of Nehru who said in the wake of the Chinese provocations after 1959 that he has asked the jawans to ‘through the Chinese out’. In contrast to Modi, the Defence and the Foreign Ministers have spoken candidly about the way Chinese forces have entered the Indian side of the LAC. Additionally, the Chinese aggressiveness vis a vis India in recent months is a clear violations of the 1993 Agreements to maintain Peace and Tranquility along the LAC and the 2005 Protocol on Modalities for the implementation of Confidence Building Measures(CBMs).

In the wake of the Galwan military stand off, in pursuance of the The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs, Corps Commamders of the two sides have met five times to break the deadlock in the Ladakh sector, which has seen a significant military build up on both sides, with reports that China started mobilising its forces since mid March itself. This was followed by talks at the level of the Defence ministers and Foreign Ministers of the two countries in Moscow during the Shanghai Coperation Council meeting recently. Our foreign minister insisted on a return to status quo as a requirement for further talks on confidence building measures.(CBMs). Alluding to the differences between the two sides, foreign minister Jai Shankar, who has rich experience of dealing with China as Ambassador for four years and as Foreign Secretary talked of the need for ‘deep conversations’ at the political, diplomatic and defence officials levels. At the time of writing, the sixth round of talks between the military officials of both sides have begun on the Chinese side of the LAC, with the presence of a Joint Secretary of the MEA, to ensure coordination between the military and the diplomatic wings.

By way of conclusion, the following observations are made:

1.There is a school of thought in India that unless the boundary dispute is resolved, there can be no peace and tranquility between the two countries. However, resolution of the boundary dispute requires willingness and a certain amount of flexibility on both sides. But the hard line position taken by China under President Xi Lin Ping, influenced by its goal of a China led Asian Century is not conducive for negotiations for a settlement of the border dispute. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao and the UPA regime in India should have seriously pursued negotiations for a resolution of the boundary dispute in a spirit of give and take, which unfortunately did not take place. Nevertheless, in foreign relations, nations always take the given situation and conduct their bilateral relations. Viewed in this sense, India and China will have to make efforts at the highest political level to initiate negotiations for a boundary settlement in an amicable way.

One way of bringing round China to the negotiating table would perhaps be for India to continue with and upscale its boycott of Chinese goods and ban on its apps, despite the the possible adverse impact of such policies on our domestic industry. Side by side, India should strengthen its involvement with QUAD with Australia, Japan and the United States by introducing a military dimension to the relationship. India should be able to raise the economic and military costs to China and act as a pressure point to come to the negotiating table.

2. If the boundary issue eludes a solution, the two sides would do well to delink it from the overall bilateral relations and focus on improving relations in all other fronts. The international community too has a stake in driving India and China to diffuse tensions and maintain peace and tranquility on the border.

3. Getting back to the contemporary military situation, there is a group led by hawks who argue that Indian has a superior Air Force and a battle hardened army and that we should be able to take on the Chinese in a limited war in Ladakh. Some retired army officers and defence analysts, egged by TV anchors are supporting such a proposition. However, given the asymmetrical military capabilities of the two sides as brought out by the SIPRI year book (2019) and referred to earlier in this article, the military option would be frought with danger and not worth pursuing.

4.Another viable and realistic option before India and China is the pursuit of hot line communication between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi, with instructions for sustained dialogue at the level of foreign ministers to bring about deescalatation and disengagement of troops to take the two countries away from the eye ball to eye ball confrontation situation in Ladakh.

(The author is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.)

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