China appears to be currently pursuing a 19th century obsession with territorial expansion. Further, the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party seems to have given way to a Xi Jinping-led oligarchy. China allowed international flights into and out of the country through January 2020 when domestic travel between Wuhan and the rest of China was banned. China has much to answer for about the origins of the Covid-19 virus and transmission to the rest of the world.
As for India-China relations, the Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993, discussions between special representatives since 2003 and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination established in 2012 have not kept the peace along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Chinese ingress into Indian territory in Ladakh since April 2020 and the 20 Indian casualties at Galwan on June 15, are possibly due to Mr Xi’s decision to demonstrate Chinese superiority, a la 1962. During Xi Jinping’s visit to a marine-corps base in Chaozhou on October 13 he indulged in sabre-rattling by asking Chinese troops to “put all (their) minds and energies on preparing for war”. An oft-repeated Chinese position is that not just Aksai Chin but Arunachal Pradesh too falls entirely within that country. Incomprehensibly, China has objected to the building of roads, bridges and airports on the Indian side of the LAC. How much more evidence does India require that China poses a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity?
Given that several European countries had fallen in line, it should have been obvious that Xi Jinping would be offended when India chose to stay out of his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), China objected till the very end to the 123 civil nuclear agreement concluded in 2008 between India and the US. India was pathetically disconnected with reality when it repeatedly petitioned China to accept India’s entry into the NSG.
China’s economy has grown more rapidly than that of India since 1991. Given the economic and technological divergence between the two countries, India should have pressed for a border agreement with China much earlier, say, by the end of the 1990s. A decade later, by 2010, India needed to get China’s attention on concluding a border agreement by signalling closer military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries. As of now, India should press for the India-China border to be delineated and demarcated precisely. If China procrastinates, India should be prepared to keep China at bay militarily and suggest autonomy for Tibet while expressing regret about Chinese repression of Uighurs.
From 2008-2011, as the Indian ambassador to the European Union (EU) and Belgium based in Brussels, I also covered NATO. In 2010, I proposed to the Government of India after speaking to the NATO secretary general and also to the US, French, UK and German ambassadors to NATO that they visit Delhi to participate in a seminar on security related issues. The ambassadors were to be accompanied by senior NATO officials and the Russian ambassador to NATO enthusiastically confirmed that he would attend. My proposal was for the seminar to be hosted by the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (IDSA) which is funded by the Ministry of Defence. Incredibly, the then director of IDSA informed me that the defence ministry would not be comfortable with such an event and the seminar did not happen. In April 2014, after the Russian takeover of Crimea, NATO cut all cooperation with Russia.
Illustration: Binay Sinha
Russia has been a long-standing and reliable source of sophisticated defence equipment for India. Over the past 15 years, excessive dependence on Russia has been incrementally diluted through, for example, imports of fighter aircraft from France and transport aircraft, heavy lift and attack helicopters and lightweight artillery guns from the US. Influential US senators have taken the initiative to designate India as a “major non-NATO ally” through amendments to US legislation. At the same time, concerns were expressed in the US about India’s decision to acquire the Russian S-400 missile defence system. The word “ally” raises hackles in India given the past unreliability of the US vis-à-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The trade, investment and supply chain interdependencies that nations around the world have with China will weigh on their posture on the military standoff between India and China. For example, in 2019, US exports to China amounted to $107 billion, while imports were much higher at $453 billion. The European Union (EU) countries too had a significant adverse balance of trade with China in 2019 with exports worth $198 billion, while imports totalled $362 billion. China is a major trading partner for Japan and in 2019 Japan’s imports from China amounted to $170 billion and exports were worth $144 billion. Japan’s exports to the US were marginally lower at $141 billion in 2019. Australian exports of raw materials and minerals go mostly to China. China’s strategy with EU nations has been to pick off weaker economies during times of crisis — e.g., buying controlling shareholding in the Piraeus port in Greece by 2016. Between 2008 and 2019, China’s total investment in EU countries was about $300 billion and included a stake in the German robotics manufacturing firm KUKA.
Disengagement and de-escalation at the Ladakh border through negotiations with China would be a happy outcome. However, China may bristle at legitimate enhancement of India’s infrastructure along its frontiers and continue camping on Indian territory. The stark reality is that India needs greater collaboration with the West for its defence requirements. Russian sensitivities have to be kept in mind but Russia too is apprehensive about China’s inroads economically and demographically particularly into its far eastern regions. To sum up, the omelettes of enhanced Indian military capability cannot be made without breaking the eggs of China’s hubris and the brittle sense of self-esteem and sanctimonious morality of some in India’s officialdom.