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China’s India-Policy: Deciphering China’s Long Range Intentions

Paper No. 5914                                Dated 13-Apr-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

China’s India-policy formulations and China’s long range intentions need to be deciphered in view of Indian PM Modi’s visit to China next month. China’s long range intentions pertaining to India are neither benign nor friendly and this must never be lost sight of.

China’s India-policy seems to be premised on the following conclusions which India itself has not taken any deliberate steps to disabuse China’s mind-sets on India: (1 ) India’s political leaders lack the will to stand upto Chinese provocations and brinkmanship on the Himalayan  borders (2) India’s lack of strategic and military infrastructure in the border regions and incomplete Indian military inventories limit strong responses from India, even if political will was there (3 ) India’s successive policy establishments avoid taking hard decisions against China and seek ‘soft solutions’ in crisis situations, and (4) India lacks the political will and strategic audacity to stand upto China ‘alone’ and stand strategically tall.

Contextually, in light of the above Chinese perceptions of India, it is hoped that PM Narendra Modi during his forthcoming visit to China would set right these flawed Chinese misperceptions of India otherwise and stand tall, bold and even audacious in his dealings with China. China respects boldness and audacity and it is fervently hoped that India under the stewardship of PM Modi would not be found wanting.

Indian PM Modi’s arrival in China is a month hence and China’s pronouncements at different levels and forums are already divergent from India’s expectations and defensive on the border and territorial disputes.

China’s differences on strategic and political issues with India are widely divergent. The Indian Prime Minister is looking forward to make gains in the economic relations by attracting Chinese FDI in India’s infrastructure sector in the absence of any headway on the border and territorial disputes.

Indian strategy seems to be to put aside strategic and political divergences aside and concentrate only on economic gains, presumably where there are no disputes other than trade imbalances in China’s favour.

Media reports suggest that China is not receptive to this Indian approach and insist that any momentum in China-India relations can only be made by intertwining both political and economic issues. So that is a brake on India’s economic expectations from China.

Further latest reports from China suggest that China is not willing to make any commitments on Chinese investments in India until China has studied and feels assured that Indian laws are not restrictive if trade disputes boil down to arbitration.. In other words China is not willing to press on the accelerator to at least impart momentum in the economic and trade spheres.

China’s current India-policy stands fixated on keeping India off-balance strategically, politically and militarily. There are no optimistic indicators hovering on the horizon of China-India relations which suggest otherwise.

China’s strategy to keep India off-balance is through the instrument of keeping alive the issue of disputed borders and illegal claims to large tracts of Indian Territory extending from Aksai Chin region in the North and the whole of Arunachal Pradesh in the East.

Chia is unlikely to discard this strategy or arrive at compromises which will rob China of a potent coercive weapon against India.

Regrettably, when Indian political leaders and their security advisers talk of an ‘orbital jump’ in China-India relations or ‘out-of-box’ solutions on long- shelved territorial disputes by China, both entities seem oblivious to China’s long range intentions pertaining to India.

To those in India who constantly harp on peaceful relations with China, one can only point out, that such assertions are admirable at seminars but when measured against China’s intentions as manifested on the borders with Tibet, such assertions do not pass the test of credibility.

To these China-apologists I would like to point out that the onus of ‘Orbital Leaps’ and ‘Out-of Box’ solutions to resolve China-India border issues lies squarely on the shoulders of China. It was China which needlessly generated border and territorial disputes after brutal military occupation of Tibet and it devolves on China to offer comprises which accommodate India’s security concerns.

At first instance, deciphering China’s long range intentions would require a credible answer as to whether China is ready or even remotely inclined to change its existing formulations or demands on the India-Tibet border issues and her other legally untenable demands to Indian Territory under Chinese occupation or her new-found claims to whole of Arunachal Pradesh.

China has no intention at all to arrive at any compromises or adjustments of the Indian borders with Tibet. Barring an economic upheaval in China, its Comprehensive National Power is increasing by the day. This would make China even more militarily intransigent with India on the border and territorial issues. India therefore should give up all optimism on arriving at solutions on border and territorial issue, and concentrate on improving its defensive postures on its borders with Tibet.

The acid test of China’s good intentions as a first step towards normalisation of relations with India would be to agree to demarcate the Line of Actual Control on the ground along the entire length of India’s borders with Tibet. This could help greatly in reducing border tensions and likelihood of limited armed conflict due to Chinese military intrusions which has become an irritable regular feature.

China neither currently nor in the long range future would ever agree to a physical demarcation on the ground of the Line of Actual Control between India and Tibet. Any Chinese agreement to do so would rob China of the tactical advantage of shifting constantly the Line of Actual Control into Indian Territory to China’s advantage by military intrusions.. It would also rob China of her political and military coercive power against India. Perceptional interpretations on where the un-demarcated Line of Actual Control stands, offers a plausible exit to China to get away with its military transgressions/intrusions in Indian Territory.

Besides he border and territorial issues that have escalated into unbridgeable disputes, the next weapon that China employs to keep India of-balance strategically and militarily is China’s unholy alliance with Pakistan. The sole motive of China here is two-fold. China with its massive infusion of military aid, equipment and nuclear weapons and missile technologies to Pakistan has created Pakistan as the regional spoiler state and Chinese proxy in South Asia to checkmate India.

Militarily, China has enlisted Pakistan to jointly pose a “two-front threat “to India with all its attendant security complications. Can India expect that in the overall ambit of normalisation of China-India relations and as a long range intention, would China give up its strategic stranglehold over Pakistan in which it has invested so heavily as a regional spoiler state to checkmate India albeit even with diminishing returns?

China-Pakistan relations are entering a testing phase where Pakistan with diminishing support from United States and Saudi Arabia would have to rely heavily on China. Similarly, China would seek added reliance on Pakistan in view of being strategically cornered in East Asia. Therefore the strategic marriage of convenience between China and Pakistan portends greater strengthening and reinforcement. China in no case is likely to dilute its heavily strategic relationship with Pakistan. That is a “given’ which Indian policy establishment has to accept and factor-in in its policy approaches to China. India needs to draw firm ‘Red Lines’ here.

The last issue which I would like to dwell on is the issue of Tibet. China has declared Tibet as a “Core National Interest” to be defended by military might, if required. It is also forgotten in India, thanks to Nehruvian mind-sets that “Tibet is also India’s Core National Interest” and no scope exists for India to keep on acquiescing to a historical distortion that Tibet is a part of China. PM Narendra Modi would be well advised not to reiterate this as past Indian Prime Ministers have been parroting it on their visits to Beijing.

China’s borders would never have rested on India’s borders with Tibet, had India under Nehru as Prime Minister not meekly surrendered its inalienable rights in Tibet as the successor state of British India. Tibet lies at the core of competing and adversarial relations between China and India. Is China capable of any ‘out-of-box” solution over Tibet’s future in the interests of long-term betterment of China-India relations?

Short of massive political upheaval in Tibet, China is unlikely to give up its colonial stranglehold over Tibet. Over-militarisation of the Tibetan Plateau and merging greater parts of Tibet in China Proper highlights China’s intentions. China indulged in forcible military occupation of Tibet to push China’s borders to “Strategic Frontiers” rather than adhering to centuries-old and historical borders. India has to live with the stark reality that China will continue to be an overbearing and adversarial neighbour of India.

Tibet as a ‘Core Issue’ for both China and India has generated an arms race in which both China and India are presently engaged which has both Asian security and global security implications.

The last issue that needs to be addressed in terms of China’s long-range intentions in terms of China’s India-policy is the wide chasm of “Strategic Distrust” between the two countries as the spillover of China’s perfidious 1962 military aggression against India.

Reflected in my earlier SAAG Paper was the reality of the psyche of the Indian public opinion being deeply scarred by China stabbing India in the back, despite, India in the face of international opinion, espousing China be accepted in international forums. Reflected therein was also the assertion that China would really have to make more than magnanimous amends to the Indian nation to get over the 1962 scars. Is China capable of such a magnanimous initiative?

China in her present heady ascendant power trajectories would not be inclined to attempt any initiatives that could dilute the “Strategic Distrust” that pervades heavily in China-India relations. Nor would China plagued by its self-perceptions as a superpower stoop to offer any magnanimous gestures to soothe the Indian psyche over 1962.

So what is PM Narendra Modi and his advisers left with during the China visit in May 2015? China would throw some economic sops to India at the Beijing meet and the Indian policy establishment would gloat over it seconded by the Indian electronic media in the absence of any other substantial outcome from the Beijing Meet.

The above analysis does not imply that China should not be engaged by India. India must engage in dialogues with China but not let China dictate terms in such dialogues.

Endless rounds of dialogues at various levels and with regular frequency have yielded no results for over half a century. No indicators exist to suggest that this will be otherwise in the China-India Summit Meet in May 2015. The Indian disappointment in strategic dialogues with China came out starkly during photo-ops in the recent exchange in New Delhi. The Chinese State Councillor was definitely beaming with smiles whereas the Indian National Security Adviser appeared decidedly glum and disappointed.  It presents a most truthful representation of prevailing realities of China’s India-policy.

Concluding, while one concedes that the show with China must keep going-on, but with the caveat, that Indian political leaders and their advisers must never lose sight of the reality that China and India seem pre-destined to an uneasy “Cold War” or “Cold Peace” state of strategic environment in their relations, even in the long term perspective.

China’s overall strategic postures towards India and China’s intentions are not benign and politically mature. India needs to factor-in this strategic reality in its own China-policy responses.

 (Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at