Chinese actions over the last few years reflect an increasing assertiveness bordering on domination. While the relationship between India and China could be considered stable at the strategic level as borne out by burgeoning economic ties and cooperation at the international level on issues such as climate change, continued Chinese intransigence at the tactical level raise serious questions about Chinese intentions. These range from increased military presence in the border regions, incursions into Indian Territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh,the issue of stapled visas to Indian citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, denial of visa to the Commander in Chief of the Northern Army and the like.
Chinese assertiveness is not limited to the border regions but encompass other areas as well. A number of port construction projects by China just outside India’s periphery such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar give rise to concerns that China is trying to encircle India through a string of pearls policy, each of the above ports representing a pearl in the string. China has also increased its troop presence in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan.Of greater import is the recent objection by China to ONGCs oil exploration projects in two Vietnamese blocks in South China Sea claiming that the area is disputed. China has asked India to refrain from any activity, commercial or otherwise, in what they term as ‘Chinese maritime territory’. India has brushed aside Chinese objections claiming rightly that India’s cooperation with Hanoi for oil exploration is in accordance with international law and is set to grow. The Chinese media has commented widely on this issue and has warned that such actions on the part of India will harm Sino-Indian relations in the long term. In fact, the continual reference in the Chinese media is for India to play a constructive and beneficial role for stability in the region and not to venture into the South China Sea which evidently Beijing is trying to propagate as ‘China’s Sea’. That assumption is fatuous. Just as the Indian Ocean is not ‘India’s Ocean’, so also the South China Sea is not ‘China’s Sea’. Also, what is seen by China as a constructive and beneficial role is one that is in accord with Chinese interests. Such an outcome can only come about when the interests of both countries converge. When interests diverge, as invariably they will between sovereign countries, Chinese view of harmonious relationship would imply an acceptance of Chinese terms. That is clearly something which India cannot do.
Chinese assertiveness is also a reflection of its concerns over energy. Increased troop presence opposite Ladakh and in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan have much to do with Chinese attempts to get a secure overland route for supply of oil from the Central Asian Republics and from the Gulf via Gwadar.Their claims over parts of Arunachal Pradesh are to keep India unsettled in the short term. In the long term, China appears to be eyeing the large reserves of shale oil in the state. As per ChudamaniRatnam, former chief of Oil India Limited, these deposits could produce 140 million tons over 100 years making India a net oil exporter. While the technology for extraction as of now is uneconomical, that situation could change in the future. Arunachal Pradesh, along with Tibet is also a reservoir for water and China has been very aggressive over its hydrological policies. Aggressiveness over Arunachal Pradesh is hence unlikely to diminish in future.
The South China Sea region with its rich oil and gas reserves has long been a cause for dispute between China and key ASEAN members, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. China wishes to settle the issue bilaterally with the concerned countries but they are rightfully wary of Chinese designs and would prefer multilateral resolution to their respective claims. The escalation of tensions in the South China Sea smacks of a return to the old Chinese doctrine of righting the wrongs of the past and claiming what it believes is rightfully its own territory by any means possible. The harassment of Philippine and Vietnamese survey vessels earlier this year along with the rather assertive submission that “China’s sovereignty and related rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea are supported by abundant historical and legal evidence,” is a pointer to increasing Chinese intransigence in the region. In its strategic implications, China considers India a non-player beyond South Asia and aims to check India’s rising status in the region. This fits in well with China’s larger strategy to limit New Delhi’s influence to just the SAARC nations. Beijing’s support to Islamabad in the military and nuclear field is aimed at keeping India tied down in South Asia. The proxy war being waged by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir could well have Chinese support as it admirably fits into Chinese policy.
There are some in India’s strategic circles who would avoid an adversarial relationship with China at any cost. They wouldabandon India’s oil exploration bid with Vietnam to the altar of friendship with China. Such thinking puts the onus on India for maintaining good relations even if it means compromising on Indian interest. Such an attitude is dangerous and is reminiscent of Arthur Neville Chamberlain’s famous statement of ‘Peace in our Times’, after he negotiated a peace treaty with Hitler prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Churchill was to say later that Mr. Chamberlain views everything through the wrong end of a municipal drain-pipe. Much the same can be said for the band of pacifists who continually espouse China’s cause.
Five thousand years of Chinese diplomatic history suggest it is more likely to respect a strong state than a weak and vacillating one. Appeasement would only increase China’s appetite for regional domination.There is no doubt that increasing Chinese military and economic clout is leading to a gradual shift in power away from the United States. The process is however a gradual one and will take decades from now. For India to preserve her core interests, it must have the requisite military capability on land, sea and air to counter Chinese designs. This must proceed apace with economic growth otherwise our ability to stand up for what we believe in will be seriously compromised.
Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch, SM, VSM (Retd) is Additional Director, CLAWS
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).