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Whither India-China Relations in the 2020s

  • Geopolitics
  • 1 Years ago
  • 4 min read
India,  China,  Security

© NatStrat

Vijay Gokhale
Vijay Gokhale - Former Foreign Secretary of India

India-China relations stand at a crossroads. Over the past five years, events such as including Chinese activity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), have not only eroded mutual trust, but have also undermined the foundations of a framework that had been laid down by the two countries after the normalization of relations in 1988. That framework is irretrievably broken because the bilateral understanding that force will not be threatened or used while both sides strive for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement of the boundary question, has been violated in spirit and, possibly, in letter as well.

The hope for ‘peaceful co-existence’ may not be possible in the decade ahead. Instead, what is more likely to prevail is a state of ‘armed co-existence’. Each has enhanced its status-of-forces along the LAC. Both sides will need to carefully manage their overall relationship in a trust-deficient environment if this jostling along the LAC is not to spill into conflict.

Going forward, the Chinese playbook will likely be crafted by the key perception that India is tilting against China in the global strategic balance. Chinese actions in the decade ahead may thus be shaped so as to demonstrate that India has no alternative to co-habitation with China in the Indo-Pacific. The multi-pronged strategy they are likely to adopt is to engage in grey-zone warfare short of conflict along the LAC in order to keep India off-kilter and to heighten India’s sense of insecurity; to erode India’s regional position by competing for influence in the political and economic space in India’s South Asian neighbours; and to create sufficient doubt in the minds of other Indo-Pacific states that the US-India-Japan-Australia plurilateral platform will lead to regional de-stabilization, so that they do not bandwagon with QUAD in the Indo-Pacific.

Major military conflict is unlikely because they do not want to make India a long-term enemy. However, minor territory-grabbing efforts will escalate because it establishes a new power balance by means short of actual war. Therefore, we should prepare for action by the Chinese along the LAC in the middle and eastern sectors in a manner similar to what they have been doing in the western sector since 2013.

"Going forward, therefore, from India’s perspective risk management is likely to become a key term for the India-China relationship. The alternative might be unintended miscalculation leading to open conflict. Such risk management cannot be limited to containing the problem along the LAC alone, but should be elevated to the political level."

In our extended neighbourhood China intends to establish its strategic influence in South Asia in order to discourage American entrenchment with Indian support. South Asia will, therefore, become a front-line territory in the proxy rivalry between the two major powers. While China will press hard on our south Asian neighbours to tread carefully in their relations with the US, we will also see an escalation in Chinese attempts to isolate India through such initiatives as the China-Nepal-Pakistan-Afghanistan quadrilateral and the China-South Asia pandemic platform (minus India).

In the broader Indo-Pacific, we are seeing the beginnings of a serious Chinese maritime presence in the northern Indian Ocean. Thus far it has been limited to dispatching hydrographic ships and intelligence-gathering vessels into India’s EEZ and Continental Shelf. The likely operationalization of the third aircraft carrier by the PLA Navy and the possibility of additional military bases besides Djibouti could mean that, by the second half of this decade, the Chinese navy could be capable of conducting FONOPS in the Bay of Bengal. The objective will be to test India’s ability and willingness to challenge a greater Chinese presence to its south.

Going forward, therefore, from India’s perspective risk management is likely to become a key term for the India-China relationship. The alternative might be unintended miscalculation leading to open conflict. Such risk management cannot be limited to containing the problem along the LAC alone, but should be elevated to the political level. An important requirement for this is the resumption of political dialogue that has been suspended since the end of 2019. The prolonged absence of political communication between two large, populous and nuclear-armed neighbours increases the risk of mishap. Conversely, the resumption of dialogue reduces such risk without necessarily entailing a compromise on the core concerns of either party. Established mechanisms such as the NSA and EAM level dialogues could be re-activated. It will permit India to directly convey the basic steps that it expects China to take in order to bring the relationship back to the normal track.

Domestically, the post-Galwan policy of the government would need to focus simultaneously in two directions. First, on reducing our over-dependence on Chinese exports and supply chains by identifying third-country sources or by developing local alternatives in a planned way. Secondly, by enhancing military capacities in order to deter Chinese actions along the LAC and to give the Indian forces the capacity for counter-response. Both will require significant policy initiatives and financing in a short-term time frame. This requires a Whole-of-Government Approach coordinated through the NSC with clear milestones to measure actual progress in real time.

 "As yet, despite the strains in the relationship, there are no grounds to believe that hostility is the only possible future direction. If China can respect that India is, both historically and in present times, a major political player with which it needs to find a modus vivendi, the relationship might return gradually to the normal track."

Risk-management at the ground level begins with an acknowledgement that the recent incidents along the LAC have exposed deficiencies in the existing bilateral border management framework. The 1993 and 1996 treaties that underpin the mutual efforts to keep peace and  tranquillity and to promote confidence-building measures in the border areas, are more than twenty years old. The actual situation along the LAC as well as the concepts and methods of border management have undergone significant alteration during these twenty years due to new technologies in outer space, cyber-space and autonomous weapons, that did not exist at the turn of this century. Re-working of the existing agreements, establishment of effective hot-lines between the theatre commands and a secure political channel to manage serious incidents are all urgently needed.

In terms of the broader geo-political scenario, India is expected to push its Indo-Pacific agenda that the Prime Minister had outlined at the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018. Efforts to build strong partnerships with both the Indian Ocean littoral states and important resident powers like the United States and France are likely to continue apace in keeping with India’s multi-alignment strategy. Re-engagement with key Indian Ocean countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Iran, Maldives, Mauritius, UAE, Saudi Arabia and the east African states are underway and will need sustained attention and provisioning. The suspended maritime dialogue with China should be resumed, since there is no moving away from the fact that China will have a semi-permanent presence in the Indian Ocean by 2035.

As yet, despite the strains in the relationship, there are no grounds to believe that hostility is the only possible future direction. If China can respect that India is, both historically and in present times, a major political player with which it needs to find a modus vivendi, the relationship might return gradually to the normal track. The leadership on both sides is mature and sober enough to make this possible, and a fresh diplomatic effort in this direction is required so that the process of building a new framework can begin.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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