Narendra Modi‘s spirited efforts to bring up the Ladakh border incursions with Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to make much of a difference to what the Chinese have been doing so far – and will continue to do in future. When Modi said we need an understanding to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border, Jinping merely noted that “there may be some incidents as the area is not clearly demarcated”. He also made a vague reference to resolve the issue “at an early date.”
It won’t happen. For China is not keen on peace with status quo. The two sides have different ideas of what we want settled. The power equation is also heavily tilted in favour of the Chinese, even though, if it ever comes to war, we are unlikely to be as unprepared as we were in 1962. We have emerged from Nehruvian woolly-headedness, but we are far from having a long-term strategic understanding of how to deter the Chinese.
To deal with the Chinese, we need to know what they want, what we want, what their geopolitical worldview is, how they see India-China power equations evolving over the next few decades, and what levers we have to counter them and they us. Above all we need to understand Chinese history and what drives them to do what they do.
So, what do we want from the Chinese? Unfortunately, there is no mystery about it. Even the Chinese know the answer: we want status quo, and an assurance that China will respect current borders and areas under our control. No one, not in India or in China, believes we are actually expecting a return of the real estate they grabbed from us in 1962.
But China is not a status quo power in the Indian sub-continent. This is the first thing we need to understand about their intentions. They want to change the status quo, while we want to preserve it.
And, what do the Chinese want? The Chinese want several things: they want to be the hegemons of Asia. They want a Pax Sina where they are the Asiacops and all other powers are subservient to them. Anyone who is willing to accept Chinese supremacy will be showered with their largesse. They want control of the South China Sea and all the sea routes and undersea resources around the Chinese coast. This brings them in conflict with almost the whole of Asia, but having the whole world for your enemy does not deter them. They believe they have the power to enforce their writ. This is why they will do almost anything to prevent a Japan-India-Vietnam power axis from forming.
But this is their general geopolitical goal in Asia. In the Indian subcontinent, they want three things from us: more areas in Ladakh so that their roads to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan-occupied Jammu & Kashmir, and to Tibet have greater defensible depth (this is why they want India out of Siachen, and they are using Pakistan to propel this idea of demilitarising Siachen). They also want Tawang – which houses the second most important Tibetan monastery – and more of Arunachal Pradesh, maybe all of it. Overall, they want India to play by Chinese rules. It is to put pressure on India to settle the border on Chinese terms that they are doing big infrastructure deals with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Myanmar and Maldives.
Where does Pakistan fit into the India-China equation? Apart from the above string-of-pearls alliances with countries in the Indian sub-continent, the Chinese clearly use Pakistan as their attack dog. Whatever China wants achieved coercively from India, it will do so through Pakistan. We need to understand that the China-Pakistan relationship is merely a patron-client one. When China says bark, Pakistan will bark. When it says bite, Pakistan will bite.
This does not mean Pakistan is a great ally or that the Chinese have any respect for Pakistan. Absolutely not. Just the reverse. The Chinese have only contempt for Pakistan because they know it is a basket case and a future danger to their north-western borders, where the Uighur Muslim minority is emerging as a more potent threat than restive Tibetans. The Chinese regard Pakistanis as “very useful idiots” in their strategy to keep India tied down and pressured to settle with them. If we ever agree to Chinese terms of settling the border and accept their supremacy, they will almost immediately change their tune on Pakistan. The Pakistanis know this, but can’t do much because they are pariahs in the eyes of the rest of the world. The world knows Pakistan is the snake-pit of global jihad. Pakistanis are holding on to China for dear life. It suits China to use Pakistan against us.
It is thus in India’s interest to let Pakistan break up and deal fairly with the remnant states. West Asian and Indian history teaches us that Islam has never been able to bind countries and people on the basis of religion. This is not just my view, but that of Maulana Azad – the only Indian Muslim who could see the damage partition would do to Muslims in India.
As long as Pakistan remains a vassal state of China, it will be inimical to India and ever willing to be used as a pawn against us. Already it has ceded territory close to Siachen to the Chinese in order to strengthen the Karakorum route.
Why is China such an aggressive neighbour? Partly it comes from their history. The Chinese have gone to great lengths to be a unified state, and they have fought brutal wars among themselves to achieve this end. Long before the world had heard of nation states, the Chinese created one as early as 221 BC, with the arrival of the Qin dynasty. The Chinese political development has been one way – from thousands of small tribes to One China. Around 2000 BC, the Chinese had around 3,000 groups of peoples or polities, according to Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order. In 1500 BC, this was down to 1,800, by 1200 BC to 170, dropping down to 23, seven and finally One China by 221 BC.
In contrast, India achieved political unity only under the British – and more formally 67 years ago.
Unification and state-building always is achieved through war. As Fukuyama writes: “In both China and Europe, state formation was driven primarily by the need to wage war…..War was without question the single most important driver of state formation during China’s Eastern Zhou dynasty. Between the beginning of the Eastern Zhou in 770 BC and the consolidation of the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, China experienced an unremitting series of wars that increased in scale, costliness and human lives.”
What this tells us is that the Chinese went through many brutal wars to achieve unity and this means they are always willing to go to war to achieve a political purpose. They see unification and homogenisation as an end in itself. Hence their belligerence on Tibet and Taiwan. They consider Arunachal Pradesh as southern Tibet.
Does this mean we will ultimately have to go to war with China?
No, what this means is that they will do so if they perceive us as weak. They only respect power, and India has to steadily build its economic and military power in order to deter the Chinese.
As a lonely power – Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls both America and China as fairly friendless superpowers – China sees red whenever other powers get together. This is why when Modi planned a Japan visit, the Chinese President quickly came a-calling.
The only other thing China respects apart from hard power is India’s soft power. India and China are two of the world’s oldest civilisations. As such, India’s soft power in the world can rival China’s. Moreover, given our completely different power trajectories, the world fears China but sees no harm, even welcomes, the rise of a more powerful India.
The strategy for India to follow vis-à-vis China must thus comprise the following elements.
One, faster economic growth and steady improvements in military capability.
Two, regular engagement on the border and other disputes with China. This is to prevent misunderstandings from leading to skirmishes.
Three, building a China containment coalition along with Japan and Vietnam.
Four, steady projection of India’s soft power in the west and south-east Asia to counter China.
Five, maintain internal unity by avoiding needless talk of Hindutva and other such divisive issues.
Six, keep trading with China for mutual benefit, but insist that they must start closing the trade gap. Whatever the level of trade, Chinese political aims will not change towards India.
The Chinese know that Indians have not traditionally been strategic thinkers. It is up to us to prove them wrong.
The purpose of Xi Jinping’s visit was to test Modi’s nerves and check out what stuff he is made of. He landed in Gujarat to see if Modi can be flattered to go soft on China. Hopefully, he found out that was not the case.