Sino-India ties: Points to ponder

Sino-India ties: Points to ponder

Historically, Sino-Indian relations date back to ancient times. The then ‘silk route’, as it is famously known, originally served the purpose of facilitating trade links between these two neighbouring countries, which are among the most populous and fastest growing economies, apart from causing the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia.

Then, in the 19th century, the growing opium trade with the East India Company caused the First and Second Opium Wars. Subsequently the two countries played a significant role in halting the progress of Imperial Japanese during the Second World War.

Contemporary relations between the two neighbours date back to since when India was among the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of mainland China, ending the formal ties with the erstwhile Republic of China (Taiwan).

Subsequently, however, competition in the economic sphere and persistent border disputes have served to create a relationship characterised by tension and unease, if not distrust and open hostility.

Naked aggression by China in 1962 came as a rude jolt to the government of India and signalled the abrupt end of the “Hindi Chini bhai bhai” days of yore. Two later events, namely, the Chola incident in 1967 and the skirmishes in 1987 did little to improve matters.

After 1980, however, the two countries, thanks largely to enhanced diplomatic effort, improved their relationships in various fields such as trade and strategic military partnerships. But a discordant note crept into the relationship in 2017 following the clash at the Doklam plateau on the Sino–Bhutanese border. 

The expectations created by the visit of the Chinese premier in 2014 proved to be short-lived as the differences in major areas persisted. Our neighbour continues to manage to keep some dispute or the other going on the border to keep the tension alive.

In fact, it has not even exchanged maps indicating the Line of Actual Control, and perhaps will not do so until India agrees to its terms, such as handing over Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, Doklam in Sikkim and a few areas in Ladakh to regularise the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China’s negative role at the United Nations, in blocking the initiative to ban Jaish-e-Mohammad Chief Moulana Masood Azhar (who masterminded the Pathankot attack), claiming that a fugitive is not a terrorist, also caused extreme disappointment to India.

Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region, referred to as the “String of Pearls” geo-political theory (a term first used in an internal US Department of Defence Report, ‘Energy Futures in Asia’), concerns the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extends from the mainland to port of Sudan in the Horn of Africa.

The emergence of this strategy is believed to be indicative of China’s growing geopolitical influence through concerted efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, expand and modernise military forces, and foster stronger diplomatic ties with the trading partners.

Observers believe that this plan together with the CPEC and other parts of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, is a major threat to India’s national security, as such a system could encircle India and threaten its power production, trade and, potentially, territorial integrity. Moreover, the likelihood of China developing an overseas naval military base in Gwadar is perceived as a major threat to India.

A major area of concern, according to analysts, is the substantial difference in the Defence expenditure in the two countries as a proportion of their GDPs. Whereas, for the last four years or so, India has averaged about 1.58%, China has stayed at around 2% which, given its much larger gross GDP, represents a substantial difference indeed.

Also, of considerable significance is the fact that 70% of military equipment in India is imported, compared to 80% plus of its counterpart in China being completely indigenous. It is also known that the Indian armed forces are in dire need of state–of–the–art equipment, with no purchases having been made ever since the controversial Bofors deal.

It is estimated that India needs $150 - $200 billion worth of equipment for the Army alone in the next 5 to 7 years and, with the Air Force and Navy put together, approximately $250 to over $300 billion over the 10 years to follow. And the simple answer to political leaders, analysts and civil servants who express reservations about the availability of the required funds is – what is the price they put to India’s security concerns?

The Chinese ambitious plan to divert river Brahmaputra before it enters India is also regarded as a source of potential conflict in the near future.
Both countries are heavily dependent on oil imports for their energy requirements – a dependence which is expected to rise. While China imports the majority of its requirement from the African continent, most of India’s oil imports are from the Middle East countries.

Thus, Chinese oil imports will need to cross the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy has the potential and capability to interdict these supplies. While China regards this as a weakness and is trying to counterbalance it with its ‘String of Pearls’ policy, India, on the other hand, has reason to fear that the Gwadar port in Pakistan could be a base from where Indian oil supplies could be threatened.

Chinese participation in the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden could provide it valuable experience in conducting operations far away from the mainland – experience which can well come in handy in dealing with the threats from the Indian Navy, in case of a conflict.

Although not as acute now as it was some seven decades ago, and despite the fact that India is now reconciled to recognising Tibet as a part of China, the extent that India supported China during the anti-China protests by Tibetans in the run-up to the previous Olympics, China continues to distrust India, partly on account to the feeling that the Dalai Lama- a good friend of India - keeps raising the issue of Tibet.

In spite of its spectacular success in various fields including economic growth, rising industrial production, and its emergence as a global power, the leadership in China remains highly insecure. The recent jailing of Professor Liu Xiaobo, merely because he advocated freedom of expression and an end to the one-party rule, the general bleak human rights picture, the lack of media freedom, the Tiananmen incident of years ago, all point to the fact that the leadership is nervous about uprising and revolt.

This, combined with the fact that India is the country that is spoken of most often as an enemy, makes it much more than a mere possibility that the China may resort to some drastic act to divert public attention in case it is cornered by a popular movement in the future.

The Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straight to the south-west, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the current territorial boundaries form the perceived strategic frontiers of China. As interests of the two countries clash in these regions, future conflicts cannot be ruled out and let it not be forgotten that the dangerous presumptions either that war is unlikely, or that any factors other than an essential inner strength can prove equal to facing the challenges before us, are nothing but dangerous delusions.

Currently, however, it is heartening to note that the two countries have entered an era of increasing partnership in areas such as climate change and reform of global financial order, apart from other areas of common interest. It is widely accepted, however, that both countries have to work with a sense of determination and sincerity towards strengthening and consolidating their long-term partnership.

In doing so, overcoming the distrust and suspicion arising from competition in the economic sphere and recurring tension on the borders – exacerbated by China’s discomfort with India’s role in the South China Sea, a disputed area, and India remaining wary of the ever-increasing strength of the bilateral ties between Pakistan and China will probably constitute the most important challenges. (The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) (Part II will be published on next Thursday) 


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