India emerges as a roadblock in China’s march to Persian Gulf - IV
by Ramtanu Maitra on 23 May 2021 2 Comments

Are India-China Relations Beyond Repair?


As pointed out earlier, China must have realized by now that India is a growing, confidant nation - a far cry from what it was in 1962. Still, China refuses to consider India as an equal. As the Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, Yun Sun puts it: “China believes in power politics and its own natural superiority. Beijing’s vision for Asia is strictly hierarchical - with China at the top - and does not consider India an equal. Recognizing India’s historical influence in South Asia, its capability as a regional power, and its global potential, China’s policy toward India has largely followed a pattern of balancing India in South Asia by propping up Pakistan and developing ties with small countries in the region” (China’s Strategic Assessment of India: Yun Sun: War On the Rocks: March 25, 2020).


In recent years China has advanced its pro-Pakistan policy, and it has gone beyond “balancing India in South Asia by propping up Pakistan” to virtually incorporating Pakistan into its own geostrategic plans and objectives. Even if meant to balance the power structure in South Asia for the stability of the region, Beijing’s pro-Pakistan policy has undergone a sea-change since China began to grow in leaps and bounds in the second decade of this millennium. China is now economically the second most powerful nation in the world and wants to dominate the world scene. Deng Xiaoping led the shift from stay-at-home policies in the 1970s to begin moving out. In the subsequent decades China developed rapidly. During its rise, the West’s conventional wisdom said that China would act rationally and respect other nations’ interest; as it rose, China would become more “like us.”


The United States chose to be the lead proponent of this illusion and acted on the conventional wisdom for decades. One US administration after another short-changed its own population and influenced the population around the world, preaching incorporation of a rising China into the established international order was a prescription for the world’s stability. This failure of American policymakers was pointed out by James H. Baker, who directs the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, during a private talk before a Japanese-US audience in July 2017. It is “not clear that US elites across the political spectrum understand the danger that China poses as a competitor,” Baker stated, noting that the Chinese Communist Party wants to dominate the world. “Comparative military advantage remains with the United States (and its allies), but is being systematically undermined by increased Chinese investment, focus, training and basing,” Baker added (U.S. ‘being systematically undermined’ by China as ‘radical tendencies’ go unchallenged: Washington Dailies: Mar 14 2021).


China’s determination to dominate the world was presented most lucidly by none other than President Xi Jinping himself. Addressing the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi declared that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” and that it was now “blazing a new trail for other developing countries” and offering “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” By 2049, Xi promised, China would “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” and would build a “stable international order” in which China’s “national rejuvenation” could be fully achieved (What Does China Really Want? To Dominate the World: Hal Brands: Bloomberg Opinion: May 20 2020).


Clearly Xi’s words will remain the driving spirit of the risen China. China will pursue its grandiose plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, and will try to push off, or even step on, any country that comes in its way. One such nation China has in the cross-hairs is India.


After almost three decades of a nonviolent approach to resolving who is where on the non-demarcated Line of Actual Control between India and China, the PLA engaged in a violent clash with Indian army personnel in Eastern Ladakh in June 2020 for the first time and claimed sovereignty over the entire Galwan Valley, a claim that China had not ever made. The situation stabilized when New Delhi responded quickly. The temporary peace that prevails now in the Pangong Tso area is likely to be replicated in Eastern Ladakh. However, that must not be read as China climbing down from its high horse. China will pursue the undermining of India’s security, no matter what.


One indication of that can be found in the recently published report by Recorded Future, a privately-owned cybersecurity company based in Massachusetts, USA. The report notes of a campaign conducted by a China-linked threat activity group it calls ‘RedEcho’, which targeted the Indian power sector through malware. Recorded Future said the targeted activity was identified through a combination of large-scale automated network traffic analytics and expert analysis (Did Chinese Hackers Cause Mumbai’s Power Failure in October?: The Wire Staff: Mar 1, 2021). 


The Feb 28 report by Recorded Future suggested “10 distinct Indian power sector organizations, including 4 of the 5 Regional Load Dispatch Centers (RLDC) responsible for operation of the power grid through balancing electricity supply and demand, have been identified as targets in a concerted campaign against India’s critical infrastructure. Other targets identified included 2 Indian seaports.” The report raised questions about a possible link between the clash and a power blackout that brought India’s financial capital Mumbai to a standstill in October. However, the Indian government denied any data breach due to the Chinese malware attack brought to light by the Recorded Future report.


Today cyberattacks can have unanticipated consequences and cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Cyberattack is, in fact, a clever form of aggression. Should China succeed in disrupting India’s power grid, even for a short period of time, if Indian authorities can identify the origin of the attack, they are powerless to retaliate directly - unlike the case of a military strike.


There have also been reports of the presence of PLA personnel at forward posts along the Line of Control on the Pakistani side of Kashmir. The Indian army has reportedly spotted senior PLA officials at the forward posts opposite Nowgam sector in North Kashmir (What is Chinese army doing at LoC in Pak-occupied Kashmir? March 13, 2016). These are obvious danger signals.


Some Antidotes


India’s realization that China has become increasingly aggressive in recent years has led New Delhi to adopt certain antidotal measures. The most notable among them is India’s change in attitude vis-à-vis participation with Australia, Japan and the United States to bring the Quad back to life. Alarmed by China’s aggressive approach in the Indo-Pacific region, these four nations have now committed to engage in strategic dialogue and to promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.


According to a statement on March 5 by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to reporters in Sydney, the new US administration headed by President Joe Biden has given Quad a central role in maintaining the “peace, prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific.” “The Quad is very central to the United States and our thinking about the region, and looking at the Indo-Pacific also through the prism of our ASEAN partners and their vision of the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Biden to Join First-Ever ‘Quad’ Leaders Meeting, Morrison Says: Jason Scott: Bloomberg: Mar 5 2021).


Earlier, on Oct. 27, 2020, the United States and India inked an agreement that will help New Delhi get real-time access to American geospatial intelligence. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) was a result of the 2+2 ministerial dialogue between US and Indian defense and foreign affairs chiefs, following a trend in recent years of deepening military cooperation geared toward pushing back on China’s increasingly assertive policies in the region (Spurred by China Rivalry, U.S., India Deepen Strategic Ties: Vikram J. Singh: USIP: Dec 9, 2020)


In addition, one of India’s allies in the Indian Ocean region, Maldives, signed a “Framework for US Department of Defense-Maldives Ministry of Defence Defense and Security Relationship” in Philadelphia on Sept. 10. The framework sets forth both countries’ intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean, and marks an important step forward in the defense partnership. Maldives had been heavily courted by China earlier to set up a naval base.


It is expected that an agreement between Beijing and New Delhi on the respective troop positions in the Depsang Plains will be reached soon. It is also a certainty that China will carry on with its two-faced approach toward India. Having failed to achieve its objective militarily in the northern part of Eastern Ladakh, Beijing will undertake fresh efforts to lull New Delhi into trusting it again.


In fact, that process has already begun. On March 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Han Chunying put out the bait, saying: “China and India are each other’s friends and partners, not threats or rivals. The two sides need to help each other succeed instead of undercutting each other; we should intensify cooperation instead of harboring suspicion at each other.”         


On the same day, addressing his annual press conference, China’s State Controller and Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated that India and China should not undercut or be suspicious of each other, adding: “The right and wrongs of what happened in the border area last year are clear; so are the stakes involved. It again proves that initiating confrontation will not solve the problem. Returning to peaceful negotiation is the right way forward” (India, China friends, but ‘rights and wrongs’ of border friction clear: Wang Yi: Sutirtho Patranobis: Hindustan Times: Mar 7 2021).



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