Can Modi make India, China friends again?

Gurmeet Kanwal
Gurmeet KanwalMay 11, 2015 | 16:56

Can Modi make India, China friends again?

For someone who lacked practical experience in the planning and implementation of foreign policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has achieved remarkable success in furthering India's foreign policy objectives during his first year in office. However, given India's troublesome relationship with China, his forthcoming visit to that country will be the acid test of his skills in diplomacy.

Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level. Though the territorial dispute remains unresolved, neither side appears likely to seek a military solution and not a shot has been fired in anger since the Nathu La clashes of 1967. The balance of trade is skewed heavily in China's favour, but bilateral trade has crossed US$ 70 billion and is expected to touch US$ 100 billion soon. The two countries have been cooperating in international fora like the WTO negotiations and climate change discussions.


However, China's political, diplomatic and military assertiveness at the tactical level is acting as a dampener on the larger relationship. In recent years, China has raised the ante by way of its shrill political rhetoric, frequent transgressions across the Line of Actual Control and unprecedented cyber attacks on Indian networks.

There has been little progress in the ongoing negotiations between the political interlocutors of the two prime ministers. Due to the Chinese intransigence, it has not been possible so far to demarcate the LAC on the ground and on military maps. The 18th round of talks held in March 2015, failed to break the deadlock.

China's India narrative has civilisational moorings and its thinking is driven by the Middle Kingdom syndrome. Its competition with India at the strategic level goes well beyond the territorial dispute, which is merely a symptom and not the cause.

China finds it difficult to accept India as a co-equal power in Asia and would like to confine India to the backwaters of the Indian Ocean as a subaltern state. As part of its grand strategy, China is engaged in a carefully orchestrated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India.


The nuclear warheads-ballistic missiles-military hardware technology transfer nexus between China and Pakistan is a major cause for instability in southern Asia. Without massive Chinese support, Pakistan would be in no position to wage a proxy war against India. Inasmuch as that, it is China's proxy war as well. China has "guaranteed Pakistan's territorial integrity". In the words of the leaders of China and Pakistan, their friendship is "strategic" and is "higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans and sweeter than honey".

President Xi Jinping announced plans for massive investment in the development of infrastructure for the China-Pakistan economic corridor linking Xinjiang with Gwadar port during his visit to Islamabad on April 20-21, 2015. The total investment on the proposed "silk road" corridor is expected to be about US $46 billion.

Chinese engineers and People's Liberation Army personnel have been present in large numbers in Gilgit-Baltistan for over a decade despite the fact that the area is recognised as a disputed zone that is part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). With China's ever increasing military and economic footprint and political manipulation, Pakistan is gradually moving towards becoming the 23rd province of China.

In the northern Indian Ocean, China is engaged in acquiring port facilities through its "string of pearls" strategy - now being called "maritime silk route" - to enable the PLA Navy to operate in the seas around India. It has built ports in Myanmar, Pakistan, Qatar and Sri Lanka. Gwadar port on the Makran coast of Pakistan has been leased to China for 40 years. China has also upgraded ports in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and Lamu in northern Kenya. These ports can be converted to naval bases in due course.


China's covert support for Indian insurgent groups operating from bases in Myanmar; efforts at making inroads into Nepal; increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal; relentless attempts to increase its influence in Bhutan and Bangladesh; endeavours to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and keep India out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO); are all indicators of its long-term strategy to bog India down in the quagmire of an unstable neighbourhood.

China has been rapidly developing military infrastructure in Tibet, including roads, airfields, missiles bases, communications centres and military camps. The Gormo-Lhasa railway line has been extended to Xigatse (Shigatse). It has been conducting military exercises involving the rapid deployment of airborne divisions. These developments will enable the PLA to induct larger military forces into Tibet in a shorter time-frame and sustain them over a longer duration.

Chinese transgressions across the LAC, like those at Depsang in 2013; and Chumar and Demchok in 2014 - even during President Xi Jinping's visit to India; and new claims on Indian territory, such as the one on the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh, have been increasing.

The next major transgression could flare up into a shooting match as either India's patience with Chinese intransigence may wear thin, or due to China's view of Indian attempts to build infrastructure and develop the border areas as the adoption of an aggressive forward posture. Hence, the possibility of a limited border war between the two Asian giants cannot be ruled out even though its probability is low. In fact, India faces a "two-front" threat from China and Pakistan.

India's military modernisation is constrained by its low defence expenditure. China's defence budget has maintained a double-digit rate of growth for over a decade and enabled the PLA to modernise at a rapid rate. There is a quantitative military gap between China and India at present. If Indian military modernisation continues to stagnate, this will soon become a qualitative gap as well.

China will then be in a position to dictate terms to India on the settlement of the territorial dispute. The Indian government must upgrade the military strategy against China from dissuasion to deterrence and give the Armed Forces the capability to take the war into Chinese territory so as to deter the adversary from initiating another border war.

So, what should Prime Minister Modi seek to achieve in his second one-on-one meeting with President Xi Jinping? Even as he seeks to secure Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in India on agreeable terms, the PM must highlight India's core concerns, particularly those pertaining to territorial sovereignty and the fragile security environment.

First and foremost, the PM must politely but firmly tell the Chinese president that the PLA must be reined in and told to stop vitiating the atmosphere by repeatedly launching trans-LAC incidents. He must impress on Jinping that the two countries must expeditiously demarcate the LAC on the ground and on military maps so that transgressions can be minimised.

Even though its claims are baseless, China routinely objects to the visits of Indian leaders to Arunachal Pradesh, issues loose-leaf Visas to its residents and opposes development projects in the state. Its leadership must be told that Chinese military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan is not acceptable as it is an Indian territory under illegal Pakistani occupation.

Territorial and boundary disputes that are left over from history carry within them the seeds of future conflict. In the near future, a situation of tenuous peace and tranquility is likely to continue to prevail along India's Himalayan frontier. Even as India strives to seek a just and honorable solution to the territorial dispute, it must develop its comprehensive national power and keep its powder dry.

Only if there is stability and tranquility on the border, can the two countries move forward with trust and confidence in other fields of the endeavour. The world will wait and watch whether PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping can rise to the level of statesmanship by putting the animosity of the past behind them and agree to move forward in a spirit of cooperation for the benefit of their people and in the interest of peace and stability in Asia.

Last updated: May 11, 2015 | 16:56
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