Dealing with China’s increasing assertiveness

Let the facts speak for themselves


India can expect no respite from Chinese strategic pressure, but to adroitly manage its relationship with Beijing, it must let facts speak for themselves, says Brahma Chellaney


The Economic Times

September 17, 2010


The prime minister has underscored concerns over the perceptible hardening in China’s stance towards India. With its defence spending having grown almost twice as fast as its GDP, China is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle. Rising power is emboldening Beijing to pursue a more muscular foreign policy not just against India, but also in the region extending from the South China Sea to Northeast Asia.


This has been exemplified by several developments — from China’s inclusion of the South China Sea in its “core” national interests, an action that makes its claims to the disputed islands non-negotiable, to its bellicose reaction to the South Korean-US joint anti-submarine exercises in the Sea of Japan. And just the way China has staked its claim to India’s Arunachal Pradesh, it has asserted its sovereignty over Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which were part of Japanese territory all along, even during the US occupation of Japan.


Little surprise China’s neighbours are increasingly uneasy about the implications of its growing power. Beijing aspires to shape a Sino-centric Asia, but its actions hardly make it a good candidate for Asian leadership. Leadership can come not from brute force, but from other states’ consent or tacit acceptance.


China’s belligerence, significantly, poses a greater threat for India than for any other Asian nation for several reasons. One, China is mounting both direct military intimidation (as underlined by the abnormally high level of continuing cross-border incursions) and proxy threats against India, including by shoring by its longstanding strategic nexus with Pakistan. Two, the largest real estate China covets is in India. Arunachal is almost three times bigger than Taiwan. Three, India has no formal security alliance with any other power and thus must depend on its own defence capabilities. And four, by seeking to badger India on multiple fronts, China is signalling that its real, long-term contest is more with India than with the US. The countries around India have become battlegrounds for China’s moves to encircle India. By assiduously courting these countries as proxies in its geopolitical competition with India, China has managed to make deep inroads into India’s strategic backyard from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, and Nepal to Burma.


Yet, the world knows more about China’s moves in the South China Sea and East Asia than its actions against India. At international conferences, even some experts on Asia are surprised when told simple facts, such as China’s increasingly assertive claim to an entire Indian state and its cross-border military incursions.


It is now a year since the Indian government put a lid even on the domestic press coverage of the Himalayan border situation. It was in September 2009 that senior government figures, from the PM down, spoke out against the strident Indian media reporting on Chinese border incursions. Since then, sources of information have dried up and newspapers and television networks have carried little news. It is not that the Chinese cross-border forays have ended or even abated. It is just that Indian media organizations have little information to report, even though the incidence of Chinese incursions remains high.


Suppressing news on the border situation serves no interests other China’s. It suits the Chinese agenda that the border situation is kept under wraps.


Even in the pre-1962 period, India had made the same mistake by playing down China’s aggressive moves along the border. In fact, there are important parallels between the situation pre-1962 and the situation now. Border talks have regressed, Chinese claims on Indian territories are becoming publicly assertive and Chinese cross-border incursions are common. In fact, commentaries in military journals suggest that some in China believe that a swift, 1962-style victory in a border war with India is attainable to cut to size a peer rival.


Take another example: It was in June that the Chinese notified their refusal to allow the Indian northern army command chief to visit Beijing. But the Indian side leaked it to the press only in late August. It is still unclear what has been India’s response to the snub. Beijing has said flatly that it “has received no word that India has stopped military exchanges between the two countries.”


In the midst of such developments, the Indian foreign minister gratuitously reiterated on August 21 that Tibet is “part of China.” That the Tibet issue remains at the core of the India-China divide is being underlined by Beijing itself by laying claim to additional Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links to them, not any professed Han connection. There is absolutely no need for India to periodically renew its commitment to a “one China” policy when China not only declines to reciprocally make a one-India pledge, but also mocks at India’s territorial integrity openly. Little thought has been given that by bringing India’s Tibet stance in complete alignment with China’s demand, New Delhi has undercut its own leverage while boosting China’s.


Without contributing to the rising tensions with China, India has to gently allow facts to speak for themselves — whether on the border situation, or Tibet’s centrality, or China’s overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo. Facts indeed are an anathema even to schoolyard bullies. By not hiding its intent to further redraw the frontiers, Beijing only highlights the futility of political negotiations. After all, a major redrawing of frontiers has never happened at the negotiating table in world history.


India should learn how Vietnam has managed to turn the diplomatic tables on China by not shying away from spotlighting the latter’s aggressive designs. In the process, China stood isolated at the last ASEAN Regional Forum meeting.


A stable equation with China is more likely to be realized if India puts premium on leveraged diplomacy and avoids a trans-Himalayan military imbalance. More broadly, China’s trajectory will depend on how its neighbours and distant countries like the US manage its growing power. Such management — independently and in partnership — will determine if Chinese power does not slide into arrogance.


Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins USA, 2010).

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