What Does China Want?
There is widespread speculation about China’s motives after its troops encroached into Ladakh and camped there before the forthcoming visit of the Chinese Premier Mr. Li Keqiang. I present my take on the subject. I know of course that it is only of academic interest. It is futile to discuss foreign policy as long as moronic puppets continue to dominate India’s political scene. To assess Chinese motives there is need to appraise the personality of China’s new leader Mr. Xi Jinping; China’s new priorities in a changing world; and Beijing’s assessment of India in the perspective of China’s future global role. I shall briefly dwell on these aspects to assess Chinese motives in the latest episode. And only then, purely for academic interest, I shall offer a view about what the Indian response should be.
China’s muscle flexing on the border contrasts with the cooing sounds emanating from its diplomats. This in no way indicates any dichotomy between Beijing’s civil government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). That is a closed chapter. This brings us to the nature of the new leadership in China. Not since the halcyon days of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping has China had a leader more in control. Unlike Mr. Jiang Zemin, Mr. Xi is a princeling capable of asserting full moral authority over the Han super elite that has traditionally dominated the PLA. Unlike most other princelings in and out of the army he experienced also deprivation because his father became a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Also, his father was a liberal on the question of Tibet. The impact of Mr. Xi’s lineage becomes evident from the comparative ease with which he acquired control over both the civil government and the PLA by becoming simultaneously President and Chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC). So, what might one expect from China’s new all powerful leader?
For that consider Beijing’s new priorities in the changed global context. Very simply and bluntly Mr. Xi as a hard headed strategist will discard several aspects of China’s past approach and adopt new measures to achieve China’s new goal. What is that goal? For China to emerge as the eventual number one superpower in the world would be a reasonable ambition given that nation’s cultural and hegemonic history. China therefore in the first phase will replicate and acquire all the influence and global reach that America possesses. That is what China’s new emphasis on naval power to allow PLA presence in the far corners of the world signifies. I foresee also China adopting a softer diplomatic demeanor to compete with America for global influence. Why, then did Chinese soldiers encroach across the disputed border of Ladakh?
My guess is that Beijing has created a mini-crisis as the prelude to initiate meaningful and clinching peace talks with India. Beijing would prefer a settled neighbourhood in order to better pursue its distant global ambitions. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang may well help set the foundation for a serious future dialogue to be pursued in subsequent meetings. I do not think that Beijing encroached into Ladakh to further encircle India or exercise a display of power. India is sufficiently demoralized and compliant to the wishes of Beijing to render any such further Chinese moves superfluous. Beijing would worry only if a democratic revolution were to change the mindset of the Indian government. Of that there is as yet no sign. But for a successful resolution of meaningful normalization talks, Beijing would have to promote and secure its core interests in the region. Time is ideal for settling with corrupted, subverted India. Before outlining India’s own core interests for normalizing ties with China let us first consider Beijing’s core interests.
In a recent perceptive newspaper article security analyst Mr. Pravin Sawhney, editor of Force magazine, drew attention to how Beijing in phases reduced the disputed border with India from being 4056 km long to only 2000 km. How did Beijing do this? By its reckoning 2000 km is the border of mostly the middle sector. Beijing has ruled out disputes in the western and eastern sectors. In the western sector Beijing does not consider J&K as part of India therefore there is no Sino-Indian border. In the eastern sector Beijing claims Arunachal Pradesh to be part of China therefore there is no disputed Sino-Indian border! From this Mr. Sawhney has concluded in his article that Chinese encirclement of India is intensifying. The truth could be more complex.
It might be recalled that in 1960 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai made a peace proposal to Pandit Nehru. He sought a simple exchange of Aksai Chin in the western sector to China for Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA) in the eastern sector to India. Nehru treated the border dispute as a chess game divorced from army presence on the ground because of his mistaken belief that China would never resort to a military attack. He rejected Zhou’s offer. The rest is history. But Zhou’s offer revealed Beijing’s core concerns. Aksai Chin offers access between Xingjian and Tibet. Beijing therefore considers it vital for strategic reasons. Before liberalizing society domestically Mr. Xi must consolidate China. Beijing’s claims on Arunachal therefore might be considered as bargaining leverage although the deteriorating situation in Tibet may have now heightened its importance. But in the final analysis it is likely that Beijing might consider its claims to Arunachal expendable. This is borne out by its written assurance in the agreement with India in 2005 that it would refrain from disturbing settled populations while resolving the border dispute. Subsequently Beijing reneged on this written assurance.
By rejecting India’s claims on Kashmir Beijing ensures that the vital access route joining Xingjian to Tibet remains secure. As a proxy state Pakistan is fully compliant. In a final peace settlement Beijing would therefore attempt an agreement with India by which it can play the big brother in South Asia by either making Kashmir independent in return for ending Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism against India, or by outright ceding Kashmir to Pakistan. Beijing would not attempt any settlement with India that jeopardizes its relations with Pakistan. Apart from Aksai Chin in Kashmir it also requires Baluchistan for its access to energy rich Iran and an outlet to sea through the Gwadar port it has helped construct. If this surmise is correct, how should India define its own core interests for a final peace settlement with Beijing?
First, there is no question of either ceding Kashmir to Pakistan or making the whole of Kashmir independent. If all other matters can be satisfactorily settled India might at most reach a time-frame agreement with China giving it on lease the passage that links Xingjian to Tibet. There is a precedent created by Imperial Britain’s agreement with China on Hong Kong as well as its agreement with Afghanistan on the Durand Line. Secondly, China must not stand in the way of Pakistan and other SAARC members forming a South Asian Union however long that takes to fructify. That can happen only if Pakistan severs its military ties with Beijing and enters into a joint defence treaty with India. Next, China must abandon all claims on Arunachal Pradesh. Finally, China may have trade ties jointly with the proposed South Asian Union nations accepting common tariffs and terms. This may appear over ambitious for any government in New Delhi to aspire. There is a common perception that India has no leverage and therefore must cooperate with Beijing. This is a wholly mistaken view. India has plenty of leverage through diplomatic measures against both China and Pakistan.
Against Pakistan India can cut all trade and cultural ties and reduce its diplomatic contact to a bare minimum. At the same time India can announce moral support for Baluch claims for independence. India can also endorse the provisions of the Durand Line Treaty supported by all the factions in Afghanistan by which territory in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province reverts to Afghanistan. Against China India can revise its stand on Tibet in the light of continuing protest and instability among Tibetans. India can treat Tibet as a dispute between Beijing and the people of Tibet to be resolved through mutual consent. In a semi-official move the Indian government can give a nod to the opposition or to powerful and credible social organizations to conduct negotiations with Tibet’s government in exile to delineate the entire Indo-Tibetan border. After all India has no border with China but only with Tibet. India can cut all imports from China. It can divert all trade and investment from China to firms in America, Japan and Europe. That will hurt China most. India should not fear military reprisal by China. India has sufficient ground strength to defend its borders. It has sufficient nuclear power to create deterrence. India needs to further develop its missile range and cyber power. India does not need to aim for victory in any war with China. It requires only sufficient capability to inflict unacceptable damage to China to deter aggression. That is very much in India’s reach.
All this is conjecture about Chinese intentions of course and could be mistaken given the opaque system in Beijing. Also, unforeseen events could alter the script. But Indians certainly need to clarify their minds about the nation’s core interests as well as its capabilities to ward off threats by neighbours. After all, this government will not remain in office forever.
By Rajinder Puri