6th Xiangshan Forum showcased China’s international clout
Beijing: The 6th Xiangshan Forum held here from October 16 to 18 amidst heightened tensions between China and the United States over the disputed South China Sea was a 1.5 track (officials and experts) military diplomacy. What set it apart was its grand scope and scale and that it was organised by the Peoples’ Liberation Army itself.
For the nation which commenced military transparency in 2008 by setting up the ministry of national defence (MND) spokesperson system, China, in a short span, has mastered a novel communication method of allowing debate on security and defence matters on an official platform amongst global stakeholders. As an invitee to the Forum, this writer got a ringside view of what was said and what was left unsaid by the participants.
The focus was on South China Sea. It is the litmus test of whether China’s rise would be peaceful as professed by it or whether China would join the zero-sum game with the US. Following a different format of power politics based on economic rather than military power, China is determined to portray its growing national power as benign meant for the security of the general good. Asserting that China’s rise is ‘irresistible’, China’s long serving vice minister of foreign affairs in the Eighties and Nineties, Qian Qichen wrote in his book Ten Episodes in China’s Diplomacy, “as long as (China’s) overall national strength (to include its economic, technological, national resources, military power and diplomacy) continues to grow, Sino-American relations will change in our favour.” China with a distinctively different strategy not witnessed in history is resolved to emerge as the leading power in the world.
The Forum had over 350 delegates including eight defence ministers (notably Pakistan’s defence minister Asif Khawaja), deputy defence ministers, senior military officials and experts from 49 countries. Notable absentees to the Forum were defence ministers from Vietnam and the Philippines, which have openly protested against China’s territorial aggression in South China Sea (other ASEAN nations with maritime dispute with China are Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), and serving officials from the United States. (President Xi Jinping was scheduled to visit Vietnam in November 2015).
The Forum differed from the last one in 2014 in two respects. One, China had invited ASEAN defence ministers to a separate China-ASEAN defence ministers meeting to diffuse regional tension coinciding with dates of the Forum so that they could participate in public diplomacy as well. The Malaysian chief of defence forces, Gen. Tan Sri Dato’ Sri disclosed that China’s defence minister, Chang Wanquan had proposed a confidence building measure protocol in the form of joint drill with ASEAN nations for Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to ward off maritime miscalculations (the Chinese and the US’ navy follow the CUES protocol). China also proposed building a community of common destiny for ASEAN nations by the end of the year. This is not all. China offered to hasten joint efforts to advance the agreed DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea) to COC (Code of Conduct for parties in the South China Sea).
China’s strategy was meant to create division within the ASEAN nations who have staked claims in South China Sea. Since ASEAN works on consensus, and since all ASEAN nations have intense trade and commerce with China, it would be difficult for them to seek too much comfort in the US’ rebalance to Asia for freedom of maritime navigation and over-flights over the disputed islands.
Commenting on the Chinese offer, the Malaysian chief of defence forces said, “The major obstacle is that mutual trust has not occurred.” According to him, while the DOC between China and ASEAN was signed in 2002, it has yet not translated in an agreed and legally binding COC because of “the mismatch of philosophy of time of China and other nations.”
And two, the Forum was upgraded officially. While the Chinese defence minister (a ceremonial figure responsible for relations with foreign nations) had given the keynote speech in the fifth Forum, this time a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, Gen. Fan Changlong did the honour indicative of the increased importance China attached to military diplomacy.
Gen. Changlong’s address was also meant to pre-empt the US’ imminent action in South China Sea. While conceding that ASEAN claimants had strengthened their territories in South China Sea, US defence secretary, Ashton Carter in May had accused China of reclaiming 2,000 acres land (making five islands in less than 18 months) and of building military runways and port facilities there. The immediate trigger for provocation was the building of two multi-functional light houses in October despite US’ warnings in the disputed Spratly islands by China. Following this, the US had announced considering ‘Freedom of Navigation’ (FON) operation by sending its surface ships within 12 nautical miles (the territorial limits) of Chinese reclaimed land unless China agreed to dismantle the light houses and halt further reclamation. While cautioning the US against provocation, China had refused to dismantle light houses as it would dent credibility of its growing military power.
The high ranking Chinese general gave China’s response to possible US’ FON manoeuvre contextualising it against the military reforms underway in the PLA in support of President Xi Jinping’s China Dream. According to Gen. Fan, “China will never adopt war-like policy,” adding that “we will not recklessly use force even when the issues affect our sovereignty (referring obviously to reclaimed land). Some countries (the US) worry that the construction is not for peaceful purposes. The projects were mainly intended for civilian use and the projects will not affect freedom of navigation in South China Sea. Instead, they will enable us to provide better public services to aid navigation and production in the South China Sea.”
Delving into history, Gen. Fan said that, “China had made huge sacrifices and learnt lessons from the past. We believe that justice and peace should prevail and the principles of United Nations charter must be maintained. Yet, the shadow of war is hovering (US’ doings). China is at a crucial stage of its peaceful development. China wants peace and will never seek expansionism. China’s Active Defence strategy (white paper on military strategy released in May 2015) is meant to cater for the changing (geo-strategic) situation which requires the PLA to adopt new roles and missions. The new strategy will remain defensive and safeguard world peace.” To support his point he referred to Xi’s statement of reducing 3,00,000 troops (over five years) and of contributing more PLA forces for United Nations Peacekeeping (UNPK). “China will contribute 8,000 troops for Peacekeeping and train 2,000 Peacekeepers from other nations over five years,” he added.
In his speech, Gen. Fan had made a few important points: China will fight back only in self-defence; while China will not get unduly provoked (by US’ hostile military action), it will never give up on what it considers historically its territory (South China Sea); its new Active Defence strategy which seeks larger (maritime and land) roles will remain defensive, peaceful and non-expansionist; and China would abide by the UN charter and work for world peace and development.
On the issue of China’s provocative action in South China Sea, two responses from the Chinese speakers settled the matter. The blunt response came from the Chinese member of the foreign policy advisory board, WU Jiamin. According to him, “China has historical rights to these islands. China is on the rise. Its claims are indisputable as China was the first to come to these islands. Unlike the earlier rising powers like the US, UK and France which expanded their territories, China has never done it. It has not objected to other claimant (ASEAN) nations strengthening their areas. Since China is the largest trading nation (in the region), is it possible for China not to have presence in South China Sea?”
A more nuanced answer was provided by the director, Centre on China-American defence relations, Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu. According to her, “China is the largest stakeholder for safety and security of SLOCs as since 2013. China’s trade (mostly maritime) exceeded four trillion dollars which is 12 per cent of the world trade. China has largest trading partnerships with 120 countries and it has the largest shipping fleet. Moreover, China has learned lessons from the Eighties Iraq-Iran war and the earlier Suez crisis on the importance of having secure SLOC especially at choke points like the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz. Then there are piracy, natural disasters and environment challenges to contend with. China opposes militarisation of SLOC and would like a play a larger role for making rules for maritime security.”
Within 10 days of the Forum, the US, on October 27, carried out the FON within 12nm of China’s reclaimed land in South China Sea. While the event passed off peacefully with two Chinese vessels tailing the guided missile frigate USS Lassen at a safe distance, the Chinese Admiral Wu Shengli cautioned the US chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson against similar provocations which could ‘spark war’. With both sides having done their bit — China not dismantling its military facilities and by declaring to hasten building of infrastructure and the US’ showing military resolve to both support allies and freedom of navigation in the region — it was back to business for both. Both sides confirmed that as a part of the planned military-to-military cooperation, US’ top official in Asia-Pacific, PACCOM commander, Admiral Harry Harris would visit China in November.
Against the backdrop of hostile moves and counter-moves in the South China Sea, what does Chinese military diplomacy and military reforms mean and how they would impact on India’s Act East policy and overall bilateral relations are issues worth reflecting. For this, the start point should be to understand Chinese statecraft and how it relates to Xi’s China Dream unveiled in 2013.
To the world steeped in the discourse of the Cold War where words like ‘combative’ and ‘coexistence’ appear incompatible, Chinese strategy is baffling. Can a major power employ an oxymoronic strategy of ‘combative coexistence’ and proclaim its rise as peaceful?
While most policy-makers and analysts would disagree with such contradictory postulation, a long time China-watcher, Henry Kissinger believes China to be in a different league from the western way of strategizing. Chinese strategy, according to Kissinger exhibits three characteristics: ‘meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options, and detached exploration of operational decisions.’ This approach to statecraft, he believes, is in sync with Chinese distinctive military theory where ‘Chinese thinkers develop strategic thought that places a victory through psychological advantage and preaches the avoidance of direct conflict.’ As China puts high premium on political and psychological victories rather than pure military triumph, its diplomacy has little difficulty in pursuing peace and hostility at the same time.
Even if such theorising is difficult to accept, it does help explain Chinese President Xi Jinping’s China Dream anchored upon a new approach to international relations, based not upon a zero-sum game but a win-win mutual cooperation, mutual trust, and mutual understanding.
China Dream implies rejuvenation (rise) of the Chinese nation through better life (material and cultural) for the Chinese people. This requires bilateral, regional and global cooperation in economy, trade, investments, energy and strategic security; in turn, benefitting the people of Asia and the world.
China Dream is premised on two fundamental issues: One, China has sought greatness through ‘rejuvenation’ which harks back to history and traditions. Since the formation of Mao’s Communist China in October 1949, this approach also denotes continuity implying that no single leader or a generation of leaders (Chinese leadership changes every 10 years) is responsible for transformational changes in China.
In Mandarin, the word China derives from ‘Zhong-guo’ which literally means the Middle State, a state which straddles both north-south and east-west of the universe. According to Chinese scholars, China once dominated the East Asia international system with its ancient Confucian cultural thoughts (based upon the sayings of Chinese philosopher Confucius who lived in sixth century BC). This system was based upon neighbouring countries’ tributary obligation towards China though China neither ruled nor plundered nor conquered them by force. In its present day avatar, the Confucius thought would mean that China as a risen major power would expect its neighbours, both near and far, to pay deference to Chinese viewpoints. The return of Confucianism is exemplified by China having set-up over 66 Confucius institutes in Asian countries by 2012.
The policy of continuity by Chinese leadership was showcased during the 3 September 2015 grand military parade held in Tiananmen Square to mark China’s victory over colonist Japan in the Second World War. In a meaningful gesture, Xi took PLA’s salute with two predecessors — Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — standing next to him. This was Chinese leadership’s method of conveying that Xi’s strategic plans — which threaten to upstage the western system of governance set up after the Second World War after his anointment as the President, Communist party leader and chairman of the CMC on the conclusion of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012 — had its origin under the earlier leaderships. For example, looking back, the year 2008 appeared as the turning point when China decided to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s approach of lying low and silently building national power by integrating itself globally through trade and commerce.
The great economic crisis of 2008 with its origin in the west led China to believe that its own systems which showed continued robust economic growth were good. Then, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games where China won maximum gold medals demonstrated its soft power through the will and discipline of Chinese people. Moreover, the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed the muddled western, especially US’ thinking, on war and peace. China concluded that it was time for it to conduct its foreign policy based on actual rather than perceived or potential national power.
A manifestation of this important conclusion was the expanded roles and missions of the PLA under the new defence policy. China set up its official spokesperson system in the MND in 2008 for increased transparency. Anti-piracy voyages by the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to faraway Gulf of Aden traversing the entire Indian Ocean region started the same year. It was also in 2008 that China took the decision to take on combat roles for its Peacekeeping forces under the UN; until then, for two decades, China’s contribution was limited to providing hospital and support staffs.
During this writer’s visit to China at the invitation of the PLA in August 2012, the MND spokesperson Colonel Yang Yujun had added two new threats facing PLA in addition to the existing two, namely, the imbalance in strategic military power which had increased China’s land and maritime threats, and social transformation where China had to guard against the three evils of terrorism, extremism and secessionism.
The new threats were to ‘China’s interests and facilities abroad, and China’s investments abroad’. At that time, Colonel Yujun did not elaborate on the new threats for the PLA (then responsible for continental defence only) because he, as a middle level officer, was probably unaware of the planning ahead. China’s May 2015 military strategy paper has made clear that, ‘the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.’
In hindsight, the PLA’s preparations had started in 2008 for the new fifth generation Chinese leadership (under Xi and Li) to unfold the China Dream and its visible manifestation: One-Road-One-Belt (OBOR). This also explains why Xi, unlike his predecessors, on assuming power in November 2012 took over as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission so that PLA reforms keep pace with progress on the OBOR. As an aside, numerous (US) analysts who declared that Xi, since Mao, had assumed personalised dictatorship and moved away from the path of institutionalised system of governance as advocated by Deng may not be entirely correct.
The other issue underpinning the China Dream is OBOR. While playing upon its stupendous economic might and by downplaying its military strength which, at present, is little match to the US or Russian military power, China has decided to put its best foot forward through Xi’s strategically important OBOR economic plan, which has equally, though hidden, major political and security ramifications for the world.
The OBOR was unveiled by Xi in September 2013 in Kazakhstan as the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (the land component), and in October 2013 in Indonesia as the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ (the maritime component). Earlier, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang had offered the ‘Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM)’ to India in May 2013, and proposed the setting up of the ‘China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)’ on his visit to Pakistan the same month. The BCIM and CPEC were suggested by the Chinese leadership before the OBOR grand plan into which they are meant to be integrated.
The uniqueness of OBOR is that it combines the visions for British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder who in 1904 gave the theory of Eurasia landmass being the pivot of the world, and the American thinker Alfred Mahan who expostulated the strategic importance of seas. The OBOR vision is about connecting land (One Belt) and sea routes (One Road) running through Asia, Africa and Europe through roads, rails, coastal and ports infrastructure, and oil and gas pipelines, supported by China-backed BRICS New Development Bank, Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank, silk route fund and so on.
According to China’s National Resource and Development Commission — responsible for the OBOR — report released in March 2015, “the initiative to jointly build the Belt and the Road enhancing the trend towards a multi-polar world, economic globalisation, cultural diversity and greater IT application, is designed to uphold the global free trade regime and the open world economy in the spirit of open regionalism.”
PLA Roles and Missions
The imbalance in strategic military power which had increased China’s land and maritime threats that Colonel Yujun had referred to in August 2012 were translated into specific threats by merging China’s core and major concerns by the Xi regime. These included Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Diaoya Island with Japan, and the South China Sea.
The import of these issues was explained by Xi himself when commenting on the South China Sea he said, “All other countries, please do not expect that China will trade off its core interests, nor expect that China will swallow the bitter pill of being injured in terms of sovereignty, security and prosperity.” (Interesting, the 3,488km disputed border with India is neither a core nor a major concern for Beijing.)
The South China Sea issue got complicated by the US’ announcement of re-balancing to Asia (which was interpreted by Chinese scholars as zero-sum game) as China was suddenly pitted against the most powerful nation. The ASEAN nations caught between the US’ and Chinese manoeuvres were compelled to exercise patience since too much was at stake in antagonising China. Saying as much, the Malaysian chief of defence forces ruminated that “while time will tell if the Chinese build-up (in South China Sea) was an answer to the US’ rebalancing, the need is to exercise patience.”
The US former ambassador to China, J Stapleton Roy took pains at the Forum to explain that US’ rebalance was much more than a pivot (military connotation) that it was made out to be. According to him, “the purpose of rebalance was to reassure friends and allies that US had the hard will and resources to stay engaged in the region. The rebalance was meant to be compatible with China’s rise in the region. Unfortunately, because of budgetary cuts, the non-military aspects (to be run by the US state department) did not get funding while military activities got the funding.” He added that, “the Trans-Pacific Partnership will now provide the economic aspect to rebalancing and China is open to join it.” Questioning the Chinese interpretation of US rebalancing, Roy asked, “How can US contain China when it has a USD 500 billion annual trade with it?”
Perceptions matter. Numerous US prestigious think-tanks have since 2013 been analysing the credibility of the US pivot pitted against existing PLA capabilities in South China Sea as a zero-sum game. China by successful military diplomacy (at 6th Xiangshan Forum) took full advantage of the war-like scenarios painted by the US thinkers to project itself as an altruistic nation seeking peace and development through the China Dream.
Unlike the East China Sea dispute where China is pitted against Japan, the South China Sea case is strategically critical as an established military power is pitted against a rising regional military power. China’s ‘combative cooperation’ strategy towards the US appears to be doing well as it has confounded the powerful US military to play ball on an unfamiliar turf.
China’s military diplomacy through the MND official spokesperson system, bilateral visits, joint exercises, and multi-lateral forums like Xiangshan has been assisting the PLA to raise its profile. This is in conformity with the new (out-of-area or contingency) roles and missions for the PLA in support of OBOR needed to secure China’s interests, investments and infrastructure in the new security architecture spawning across Asia and beyond. PLA’s UN Peacekeeping in combat roles since 2008 (to help train for securing One-Belt corridors) will complement Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) role of securing One-Road sea route with experience gained since 2008 anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Interestingly, China’s One-Road route follows the one taken by commercial vessels sailing across the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. In this context, Xi’s repeated calls for cleansing the PLA of corruption are to ensure its positive image abroad.
To perform new roles and missions, the PLA needs major organisational reforms to adapt from ‘winning local wars under conditions of informationization’ (which refers to continental defence) to ‘winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime Preparation for Military Struggle’ (which means out-of-area operations as disclosed in the May 2015 paper on military strategy) in support of OBOR architecture across Asia, Africa and Europe.
According to China’s 2010 National Defence policy, ‘the primary goal of accomplishing mechanisation and attaining major progress in informationization is to be done by 2020.’ Simplified this means that by 2020 the PLA would have achieved desired network-centricity (where PLA commanders at all levels will have complete real time pictures of all land, air and sea-based assets) for continental and coastal defence. However, network-centricity for all out-of-area operations across continents where OBOR would spawn would take longer.
Besides network centricity (for information, surveillance reconnaissance, and precision navigation), the shift from continental defence to out-of-area operations would also require a bigger operational role for the PLAN and PLAAF (Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force).
This requires reduction in PLAA (Peoples’ Liberation Army Army) strength by both non-field force and field force rationalisation as announced by Xi (according to the MND, the 3,00,000 troops cut would primarily be from non-field or support staff forces), and more involvement of PLAN and PLAAF officers in the General Staff Headquarters (GSHQ), which comprises all three services. This is not all. There are indications of reducing the seven Military Area Commands (theatre commands with elements from all services under a single commander) to five, and importantly to review the present system where all MACs are headed by PLAA officers.
The MACs, at present, have a unique command and control system which is different for peace and war. During peacetime, the PLAAF has its seven air commands co-located in each of the seven MACs. Under this arrangement, the PLAAF does both single service training (to hone core competencies) and combined exercises with the PLAA (for joint operations and better understanding of other services’ core competencies). The joint operational planning is done by the MAC commander with advice from his PLAAF commander and the plans are then cleared by the GSHQ while retaining sufficient operational flexibility with the overall MAC commander. The MACs responsible for defence of coastal areas have a similar arrangement between PLAA, PLAN and PLAAF with a few variations.
During war, the PLAAF will come under direct command of the MAC commander. Instead of air commands, they would then be referred to as aero-commands emphasising joint-operations.
This operational arrangement is fine for continental defence, but would be inadequate for out-of-area or contingency roles and missions in support of OBOR. Different command and control, resources and capabilities would be needed for PLA’s additional tasking. For example, PLAN troops in the open seas far away from coastal waters would need to be under a MAC headed by PLAN instead of PLAA commander.
Mobile intra and inter-services integrated forces, better lift capabilities, better network centricity, good electromagnetic spectrum control, good space-based ISR capabilities, and command and control vesting in domain competent commanders rather than PLAA commanders are a few issues which require attention for conventional deterrence.
Since the PLA would embark on security (and military operations if needed) of OBOR well outside its geographical space, China would need to modernise and upgrade its nuclear deterrence, something it has announced in the May 2015 military strategy paper.
India at the Forum
Much of what PLA does or intends to do will be pronounced at fora like the Xiangshan Forum to remove misunderstandings and mishaps. Thus, given the importance of the Forum, and the fact that India is directly affected by PLA’s military reforms, India was poorly and inappropriately represented at it. Moreover, considering India under the Modi government had announced its Act East policy in November 2014 (a supposed robust version of the Look East policy of the earlier Manmohan Singh government) suggesting both the East Asian region becoming a foreign policy priority and indicating a commonality of interest with the US’ rebalance to Asia, this was ironic. It was more so as India, in January 2015 had signed the India-United States Joint Vision statement on responsibilities in Asia-Pacific region.
India was officially represented by Maj. Gen. Jaiveer Negi (information warfare) from the Army Headquarters. Since the agenda of the Forum sent well in advance to delegates was on safety and security of Sea Lanes of Communication, especially in the contentious South China Sea, shouldn’t India have instead sent a senior naval officer to better understand maritime nuances as they relate to China’s rise? This assumed importance considering at present 40 major sea-going ships (accounting for most of blue water surface fleet) of the Indian Navy are involved in naval diplomacy across Asia-Pacific and the world. Moreover, since defence minister Manohar Parikkar (who was invited) had declined to attend, a junior minister or a senior bureaucrat from the defence ministry should have headed the Indian delegation to convey India’s interest in the region.
India’s reasons for doing so were explained by a senior official to this writer. According to him, since India’s emphasis is on the land border dispute, an army officer was sent. Moreover, India did not prefer having its defence minister as one amongst many at the Forum. It was decided that the defence minister’s visit to China should be exclusive and reciprocal after the Chinese defence minister (or equivalent) had visited India.
However, if the border issue was India’s core concern, it did not show. To the question from a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, Barry Desker, on what were India’s challenges to an early resolution of the border dispute with China, India’s former National Security Advisor (from January 2010 to May 2014 when he participated in Special Representatives talks for border resolution with China), Shiv Shankar Menon’s, a panellist at the Forum, response was disconcerting. He said, “The border is not settled because things are going well. Both sides have done a remarkable job. It (border dispute) has not inhibited the overall (bilateral) relationship from growing.”
Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The border dispute cannot be settled because India cannot give what China wants. Moreover, as China’s national power and political stature grows, let alone a catch-up which under the present circumstances is not possible, even managing the bilateral relationship so that it does not impact adversely on India’s rise, will become increasingly difficult for India. A badly handled border dispute by India would impact negatively on other bilateral contentious issues, something that is already happening. By not acknowledging that the border dispute rankles and is unresolvable, India cannot explore options to mitigate its deleterious effects in order to build a win-win relationship based upon mutual trust with China.
India’s political leadership remains comatose to the Frankenstein’s monster in the form of border dispute staring in the face, and the bureaucracy appears nonchalant. According to India’s well-regarded former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, “One cannot see a solution that diverges significantly from the existing alignment of the Line of Actual Control, and the longer the status quo continues the more likely is the LAC to eventually morph into a settled boundary.” In reality, the opposite is true.
Consider this. India says that its disputed border with China is 3,488km long, while China maintains it is a mere 2,000km. The discrepancy of 1,488km between the two stated positions is India’s Ladakh border (Jammu and Kashmir) with China. Now, if China asserts that it does not have border with India in Ladakh (by implication, China now has a border with Pakistan in Ladakh), the LAC there — which is a military line which can be altered by force — become untenable to maintain in the foreseeable future. This is why most Indian analysts who believe that China is a long term challenge or threat are not correct. China’s excellent border management has made it an immediate threat because it has the military power for successful coercion (demonstrated in April-May 2013 Depsang plains in north Ladakh).
On the one hand, India cannot give so much land for peace. On the other hand, military threat to Ladakh (from China and Pakistan), which is evident in the form of increased PLA intrusion in the area, have increased.
This is not all. China says that its 2,000km disputed border with India, which is the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, belongs to it. Indian bureaucrats believe that like in the past, this is China’s stated position. China does not really want the entire state, but the Tawang tract alone. This contention may or may not be correct. However, since China’s national power is growing at a faster pace than India’s, why would it accept the minimalist position? It would do so only if India is able to draw a strategy which becomes unfavourable to China’s rise.
Thus, India’s present options on the border dispute being dealt with bilaterally on the twin track of border resolution and border management appears severely constrained. This is not because more cannot be done, but because India has brushed the truth under the carpet.
The border resolution being handled by the two Special Representatives under the 2003 bilateral agreement is in three parts. The first and easy part — the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the India-China border question — were mutually agreed on 11 April 2005. The second part was the framework agreement which involves mutual give-and-take, and the last part was the drawing of the acceptable border based upon the agreed framework. Given China’s hardened position on the border dispute, it is apparent that an agreed framework involving give-and-take is not possible.
To place this matter into perspective, China, on 21 July 2008 resolved its outstanding territorial dispute with Russia under the agreed 2004 proposal of Russian President Vladimir Putin of a 50-50 division of disputed islands. China did this because it grasped the importance of close ties with Russia for both strategic and military-technology gains. Today, Russia, however reluctantly, is China’s partner in the OBOR as well as the alternate security architecture that Beijing is building in Asia.
Thus, the possibility of softening the Chinese position on the border dispute exists. Until India wakes up to the reality that China ought to be its foreign policy priority with the border dispute at the heart of the matter, the long shadow of this issue will continue to fall on other bilateral matters disallowing their optimal fruition. India’s hesitancy to catch the bull by the horn has weakened its political, economic and diplomatic options when dealing with outside powers. This squarely impacts on India’s strategic autonomy policy and desire to become a leading power.
Meanwhile, the four bilateral issues where the two sides could have done better if India had handled the border dispute properly are worth considering. While India’s Act East policy and China sponsored OBOR and BCIM are about trade liberalisation, financial integration, better connectivity and policy coordination amongst Asian nations there is deep suspicion and reluctance on India’s part to jump on the Chinese bandwagon. India has three serious problems with OBOR. One, its key artery, the CPEC, runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir which India considers its territory. India’s objections to this were brushed aside by China saying it was a commercial venture meant to improve peoples’ lives. Two, India worries that joining the BCIM which might connect with China’s OBOR’s land route would incentivise Beijing to push Delhi to join the One-Road or the Maritime Silk Route also (India insists that the BCIM and OBOR are separate issues). India considers the One-Road which passes through its backyard and connects with the Gwadar maritime hub in Pakistan as detrimental to its security.
And three, India believes that joining the China supported connectivity projects, when it has a few of its own, would undermine its own Act East policy. In what is seen as a belittling of India, China has offered that India’s maritime projects like Mausam and Spice Route become part of its Maritime Silk Route project. While India has joined China supported AIIB and BRICS New Development Bank (the official argument is that India with its large economy will benefit these China-backed institutions), it is hesitant to be a part of Chinese agenda.
This explains India’s dilly-dally on the BCIM, which was offered by China before its expansive OBOR plan unfolded. India, since 2013 has still not completed its half-track-study (by a joint secretary) to conclude whether it should join the BCIM. Delhi’s grouse at a deeper level is that China has not endorsed its Act East policy.
The other bilateral issue where suspicions linger is China’s Zangmu hydropower dam over the Brahmaputra River (called Yarlung Zangpo River in Tibet) which was completed in October 2015. This is the largest dam built at a high-altitude and is reported to provide 2.5 billion kilowatts of electricity per year. China says it is run-of-the-river project and has agreed to share hydrological data and assistance in emergency management (flood data) with India, as it is the lower-riparian state. It has however turned a deaf ear to India’s demand of providing it with lean period data and that a cooperative framework be worked out between the two sides to assuage India’s apprehensions. For instance, India fears that China may divert the river water or build large water storage facilities. Both of these will affect India’s entire north-eastern region which is fed by the Brahmaputra River.
Another issue where the unresolved border issue looms large was the first bilateral meeting on disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control held in April 2015 in Beijing, ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s China visit in May. China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council which does not accept India as a state with nuclear weapons and continues to demand that India sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state as per UN Security Council resolution 1172 of 6 June 1998. It was after years of prodding by India that China agreed to take the first baby step where the two sides exchange views on global technology regimes and conference on disarmament held under UN aegis.
As China does not recognise India as a nuclear weapon state, it has refused to discuss bilateral issues like respective nuclear doctrines, proliferation of Chinese nuclear and restrictive technologies to Pakistan, and more recently, China’s White Paper on the Indian Ocean Region. Even as India legally remains outside the NPT, Delhi hopes to eventually have a full-fledged dialogue on nuclear and conventional doctrines with China, which at present does not appear to be possible.
Yet another bilateral issue affected by the border dispute is military diplomacy. The fifth Hand-in-Hand exercise held in October in Kunming was a part of bilateral agreement to have counter-terrorism exercise in India and China each year. A total of 175 Indian troops had participated with the GOC 33 corps and the director general military training being part of the observation group. The ultimate aim of these exercises is symbolic, exemplified by the presence of general officers for what are essentially company level counter terrorism manoeuvres aimed at improving interoperability.
The focus of military diplomacy is to plan more exchanges between the two armies, an endeavour which has not gone far. For example, the two sides had agreed to set up a hot line (to ease border incidents) between the Indian Army Headquarters and PLA’s General Staff Headquarters in Beijing in May during Prime Minister Modi’s China visit. The Chinese have reportedly been dragging feet as even the memorandum of understanding for it has not been signed. Similarly, India has been reluctant to accept the PLA offer of joint naval and air forces exercises besides Hand-in-Hand. The contention is that India has a land-centric dispute with China. This may not remain true once China’s One-Road joins with the Gwadar hub.
India should plan ahead on the biggest military threat and strategic challenge confronting it — how to compel China to moderate its stand on the disputed border which comes in the way of India’s rise in Asia. Greater transparency through military diplomacy would be an important component of this exercise.