Engaging the Dragon a decade hence

Prabhakar Gupta

Peoples Liberation ArmyIndo-China relations, of late, have been dominated by instances of intrusion into Indian territories by soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The first such intrusion that caught the media eye was in mid-April 2013, a little before the first visit of the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India. The matter dragged on for about 20 days and culminated when the Chinese went in for a full withdrawal a few days before the visit was to begin. Despite all the good words spoken during the visit, the Chinese were back to their old habits with yet another intrusion on July, 16. This time some 50 Chinese soldiers riding horses came into Chumar in Ladakh and displayed banners demanding India to leave the “occupied” area.

Indian patrols also go in to the disputed territory but reports of such “incursions” do not reach the Indian media resulting in a one sided reportage of what is happening at the line of actual control. It can be assumed that forces of both countries are playing out the age old game of “possession” which marks all land disputes. Possession is legally half the battle worldwide; even in matters that involve nations and vast tracts of land. A presence needs to be maintained in all disputed territory to give leverage on the negotiating table.

Now the Chinese have realised that free publicity is assured from the Indian media which can give proof of their presence in the disputed area they have increased the so called “incursions” and have started using some novel methods of garnering the lime light. The horseback drama, staying back for longer periods, sending larger contingents is all part of an overall effort to garner media attention and that too in India. India sadly, is too awed by China to come up with an adequate response to this gamesmanship.

It is necessary to look at the Indo-China relationship beyond the incursions and the land dispute. The core issue is the long term status that India will have or should have vis-a-vis China in the Asian neighbourhood and onwards in the global context. It would come as a surprise to some that China does not look upon India as a threat at the moment. It has eyes only for the United States (US) and Taiwan. The question that arises is – will the situation remain so a decade and a half hence when both Nations are projected to regain global economic eminence that they lost out on a few centuries ago? When both countries become dominant economic powers of the world, as is being projected, will the strategic engagement remain limited to these picnics that the two armies like to enjoy in beautiful cold desert waste lands? For any right thinking person the answer would be a big “No”!!

The time is not too far when a very stiff competition, not always healthy, will come up for control over trade and vital energy and water resources among others. India could become a major rival for China in the battle for influence in Central and Southeast Asia. It is well known that China has a maritime disadvantage; India can affect Chinese energy supplies while China cannot do so against India. That would be the time when China will look upon India as a potential adversary to be taken seriously.

Would China, under such circumstances, go for all out war to subjugate India? This may be a possibility since everything is possible in this world but it is not very likely. For one, China does not have a strategic culture of getting into all out war. Second, it may be having a far larger defence budget than what India can afford but it will not be well placed enough to walk through without a fight as was the case in 1962; both nations are also powerful nuclear powers. Then is the matter of global power play, in the eventuality of a faceoff between India and China it is India that the US will have to look at both ideologically and geographically, this factor will inhibit China and limit its options.

It would, however, be suicidal to take China lightly. Should an adversarial situation rise China will rely on its traditional patience to exhaust India where democracy leaves less space for protracted diplomatic engagement. It has placed its footprint in the neighbourhood and will use the same to go for a no contact conflict that it is most adept at. Now India has to face one Pakistan boosted by China then there will be Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc to contend with.

India needs to plan its counter strategy meticulously; it has to be rooted and inclusive of as many friends of the global community as can be garnered. The first prong, without doubt, has to be peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit. For this China has to be prevailed upon to address Indian concerns about its relationship with Pakistan to the extent that is detrimental to Indian interests. An aggressive China can be brought to heel only by playing the Tibet card and this should be done convincingly. In the second prong, India needs to exhibit the resolve and ability to meet the Chinese challenge militarily, ideologically and economically. The manner in which China is restructuring its armed forces points at a doctrine of short and decisive wars with early and complete disengagement. India has to be ready to meet this challenge.

India will need to not only build but also demonstrate its ability to meet the Chinese challenge in spheres of trade and commerce, territorial integrity, military and international relations. There is no language that the Chinese understand better than the language of power. Its notion of cultural superiority has to be broken effectively. In case a build up is to be made along the line of actual control it is not for protecting a few thousand miles of barren land; it is for protecting all that India stands for. The Indian Nation needs to see China beyond the incursions and prepare for a future that will make a wide ranging engagement with the Dragon inevitable.

 

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