In early 2020, when the world was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was expected that all nations would be preoccupied with fighting the pandemic. As India went into a lockdown mode, little did it expect that its northern neighbour would mobilise troops and conduct a series of transgressions across its borders, resulting in casualties for the first time in several decades. China was at the time just coming out of the first wave of the pandemic and a massive and unprecedented lockdown.
India’s border dispute with China had seen flare-ups prior to this in 2017 during the Doklam crisis, when Indian troops rebutted the intrusion of Chinese troops into the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. However, the rising tensions were quickly buried under the high-profile visits of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in 2018 and the return visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in 2019 to India. But the border clash of 2020 turned into a prolonged standoff, affecting almost the entire western sector of the India-China border.
In late 2022, the embers turned red even in the sensitive eastern sector. As a result of these developments, confidence building measures on the borders have witnessed a complete breakdown; standoffs of a grave nature have become more a norm than an exception; and the border dispute has once again replaced trade and investment as the dominant factor in the bilateral relations.
China’s threats to India come not only from across the border. The asymmetric nature of the bilateral trade heavily benefits China at India’s expense. China has also been trying to intrude into India’s critical information infrastructure, as well as pose a grave threat to its security. China’s efforts to gain a strategic foothold around India in its challenging neighbourhood is today a clearly visible reality. Moreover, India is not alone in facing China’s aggressive tendencies. The pandemic period has seen several such moves from China that affect its immediate neighbourhood as well as the world at large. The broad trend, however, precedes the pandemic by well over a decade and has increasingly been recognised by a substantial part of the international community.
China’s stature and conduct
The roots of China’s aggressive predisposition can be traced even before the ascent of Xi Jinping to power. In fact, it can be seen developing shortly after China went global through its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to become the factory of the world in the first decade of the 21st century and made the world dependent on it. By the latter half of that decade, China started sending its naval forces on an increasingly regular basis to the maritime areas it considers as “far seas”, such as the Indian Ocean. Simultaneously, it worked towards creating an “Anti-Access/Area Denial” capability to keep hostile forces off the Second Island Chain in the Western Pacific. By the time Xi Jinping took over the mantle as China’s leader, the country had already charted for itself a course marked by militaristic territorial expansionism, demonstration of strategic capabilities, and display of global leadership ambition, increasingly shorn of any restraint or inhibition.
China has utilised historical claims to militarily take over large swathes of territory in the South China Sea, showing complete disregard for international law and raising concerns in maritime Southeast Asia. It has also bolstered its claims over parts of East China Sea vis-a-vis Japan and has even hinted at resurrecting old claims over the Russian Far East vis-a-vis its strategic partner, Russia. Taiwan has been facing an existential threat due to China’s territorial aggression, as the latter wants to reunify the former with itself at the earliest at all costs and with all options on the table. This intent was on stark display in mid-2022 when Taiwan witnessed a historic visit by Nancy Pelosi, the then United States Speaker of the House of Representatives; in response, China showcased massive military drills aimed at blockading the island. Therefore, what India is facing from China at the border is part and parcel of what the rest of the world is experiencing from the country as it transforms into a major power.
On the strategic capabilities front, China has been building it up at a fast pace. Its space programme leads the world in launches and it has a well-entrenched military component which is growing rapidly. China conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007, the debris of which still poses critical threats to satellites. Moreover, China has also expanded its intermediate range missile forces to make it the largest in the world today; the same can be said about its naval fleet. It has demonstrated unprecedented hack-proof quantum communication capabilities which can even be based in space and has recently claimed to have developed quantum computers capable of cracking existing encryption systems. China has also demonstrated its capabilities in cyberspace against its rivals through cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.
China’s People’s Liberation Army today has been restructured by Xi to enable integration and readiness to fight and win wars. China has utilised its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to establish footholds in regions across the world by blending developmental, commercial, and military dimensions. China’s growing military bases in Djibouti, Tajikistan, Cambodia, and Equatorial Guinea, its ‘influence operations’ abroad such as in Australia, and the more than hundred ‘overseas police stations’ which have been recently uncovered have raised concerns across the world. These “110 Overseas” as they are called, refer to the extra-legal offices established by China in other countries to provide Chinese nationals abroad with assistance in visa renewals, online fraud, and so on. In 2022, the human rights group Safeguard Defenders alleged that these offices were used to intimidate Chinese dissidents and criminal suspects. Today, China’s strategic presence is increasingly becoming global in nature, covering all continents, oceans, regions, and domains.
China has increasingly shed any inhibition it had about its ambitions for global dominance. Xi Jinping has many a time referred to such goals, which seek to eventually displace the US and the disturbed world order it leads. Xi’s concepts like the “China Dream” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind”, as well as initiatives like the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank visibly resonate with such an intent. Xi’s speeches at various international fora reiterate arguments aimed at keeping the US out of Asia and projecting China as the leader of globalisation and the champion of multilateralism.
Most recently, China’s strict lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic and its “Dynamic Zero COVID” strategy of the past year during which it even held the Winter Olympics have been projected as examples of the superiority of the Chinese model of governance under the Chinese Communist Party. China’s diplomats have also cast off their cautious approach and have been adopting what has been termed as “wolf warrior” approach—an unabashed, combative style of diplomacy which fiercely defends China’s stance and unleashes an unrestrained attack on rivals.
China’s approach to the world today is marked by a proactive demonstration of confidence and strength. It seems to have discarded the late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategy—“observe calmly, stand firmly, respond carefully, hide one’s ability to buy time and do whatever necessary”. This strategy was formulated after the fallout of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when the world’s negative attention fell on China. It ensured that China focussed steadfastly on building its economy for the next two decades and endear itself to Western finance and investment despite the lack of political reforms. It facilitated China’s entry into the WTO, with the country integrating itself into the very core of global supply chains.
This was the time when China launched the confidence building measures and held border resolution talks with India and even became a strategic partner. However, a closer look at Deng’s directive indicates that it had an expiry date, which was presumably kept open for the future generation of China’s leadership to gauge.
The Chinese leadership under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (which was overshadowed by Jiang) abided by the directive. Nevertheless, they became increasingly aware of the necessity to eventually take Deng’s directive to its logical conclusion. China sought to seize the window of opportunity which developed when the US got entrenched in fighting endless wars post 9/11. The growing unilateral moves by the US in the post-Cold War era also allowed China an opening. Finally, the moment came with the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis—as the hitherto dominant Western economies fell hard, China signalled its leadership intent to the world with the Beijing Olympics. The ensuing decade, as mentioned before, saw China ramping up its strategic buildup in an effort to rush to the summit of the international power structure.
It was at this point that Xi Jinping took control over China’s political system and he increased the momentum by almost completely breaking out of the Deng-era inhibitions. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that China did a U-turn on its border rapprochement with India during this period and went on a gradual and consistent pace of incremental expansionism, referred to commonly as “salami slicing”. From renewing claims on Arunachal Pradesh to tightening its hold over the Depsang plains and using the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the BRI for implicitly questioning India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and Ladakh, China kept destabilising the status quo in the border areas, leading to the eventual clash during the pandemic.
Implications and imperatives
The transformation of China’s approach to its neighbourhood and the rest of the world inevitably led to the growth of negative attitudes against China. As the changing strategic thinking in China became increasingly apparent, it became easy for the Donald Trump administration in the US to make a major policy reversal and decouple its economy from China after inciting a “Trade War” in 2018. The rise of the “Indo-Pacific” concept, a natural outgrowth of the Barack Obama-era “Rebalance to Asia”, the revitalisation of the Quad grouping comprising the US, India, Japan, and Australia; the AUKUS; and the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum; along with other associated initiatives came up subsequently. There is an increasing acknowledgment among Western powers that China is a systemic rival and they are recalibrating their four decades of close engagement with China. The much discussed “renewal of major power rivalry”, or the “New Cold War/Cold War 2.0” reflecting the contemporary geopolitical zeitgeist is essentially a result of this series of developments centred around China.
As far as China’s near and extended neighbourhood is concerned, its hostile actions against India, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the past decade have eroded trust and adversely impacted bilateral ties. The morphing of BRI investments into debt traps has added to concerns about China’s investments in the Global South, where it seeks to reign as the de-facto leader.
Thus, it can be seen clearly that India’s issues with China are part of a much wider phenomenon. To deal with the situation, India has to, and is currently pursuing, a major re-look at its foreign and security outlook in a holistic manner. India, no doubt, has to work more closely with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure that their common interests are secured and not undermined by China.
India’s ties with the Global North have also significantly improved, as its interests are increasingly dovetailing with its growing Indo-Pacific orientation. India now has tremendous scope to mobilise the support of the Global South in the wake of China’s discredited model of developmental assistance by presenting an alternative approach involving other partners. Moreover, there is a growing emphasis on diversifying supply chains away from China after the trade war and the pandemic, from which India stands to benefit a lot. Also, in the current era of renewed major power competition, India is well placed to gain immensely on the economic and diplomatic front, as demonstrated in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Regardless of India’s growing partnership with the US and its allies, there are always limitations on what such partnerships can deliver. There is certainly no substitute for self-strengthening, on which there is a lot that India needs to do in a holistic manner—improving the economy, upgrading strategic infrastructure, boosting defence capabilities, and ensuring social stability.
India’s efforts at curtailing China’s moves to gain 5G spectrum contracts and access to the vast troves of data being generated in the Indian market through its ban on Chinese apps and restrictions on Chinese electronics hardware have been key moves in this regard. However, this needs to be followed up consistently as the nature of the threat keeps evolving, such as the recent crackdown on predatory loan apps which had roots in China. To sum up, India’s best way to deal with the China challenge is to ensure that its internal and external balancing efforts are well optimised.
Dr V. Anand is the Coordinator of the China Study Centre at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. The views expressed in the article are personal.
- In early 2020, as India went into a lockdown mode, little did it expect that China would mobilise troops and conduct a series of transgressions across its borders.
- China’s threats to India come not only from across the border. The asymmetric nature of the bilateral trade heavily benefits China at India’s expense.
- The roots of China’s aggressive predisposition can be traced shortly after China went global through its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to become the factory of the world in the first decade of the 21st century.
- China has utilised historical claims to militarily take over large swathes of territory in the South China Sea, showing complete disregard for international law.
- India’s best way to deal with the China challenge is to ensure that its internal and external balancing efforts are well optimised.