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Bridging the power gap with China – analysis


Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla said on September 4, “We have an unprecedented situation on the India-China border, we have never had this sort of situation since 1962”. He demanded a reversion “to the status quo that existed before such aggressive actions took place”. However, neither he nor anyone else in government, nor official statements of military-to-military talks nor of diplomatic engagements has given a comprehensive account of either the “situation” or how the status quo has been broken.

Details that have appeared in the media have been based on off-the-record briefings or leaks. Official statements have been imprecise. For instance, the ministry of defence statement on the defence minister’s recent discussions with his Chinese counterpart in Moscow held China responsible for the current difficulties for attempting to unilaterally alter the status quo. Have these attempts succeeded? If not, what is implied by reversion as demanded by the foreign secretary?

While the precise nature of China’s territorial transgressions has not been officially clarified, what is clear is that Beijing’s actions have “transgressed the territory of trust”, as former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh accused Pakistan of doing in violating the Line of Control (LoC) during the Kargil conflict. And, this transgression by China has been enormous and grave.

It follows then that India’s China policy, which was put in place in 1988 by Rajiv Gandhi and maintained by all successive governments, is no longer valid for its very premise was trust. That approach rested on a peaceful Line of Actual Control (LAC), finding a solution to the border problem, and uninhibited development of India-China relations in other areas, including trade.

In seeking elements to guide the formulation of a fresh policy, it is essential to admit the great overall power differential between India and China. A comparison, in the regional context, admittedly crude though not simplistic, is the following: Pakistan is to India what currently India is to China. The crucial word is currently, for while Pakistan’s resource potential will remain permanently inferior to that of India, that is not true of India vis-à-vis China. India has a lot to catch up but it has the wherewithal to effectively bridge the gap which has grown over the past four decades. This will require a national consensus, but it can and must be done.

As long the Pakistan-India-China power differentials remain as they are now, it would be useful to consider Pakistan’s India policy. It is rooted in permanent confrontation and a general avoidance of developing cooperative mechanisms including in the commercial and economic spheres. Significantly, in 1996, the then Chinese president Jiang Zemin advised Pakistan to pursue the Sino-Indian model of relations — to normalise and advance relations in other spheres while addressing mutual differences.

Jiang Zemin’s views were disregarded because the Pakistan army obviously felt that commercial and economic relations would give India leverage to cause disruptions in case of open hostilities and even otherwise. Further, such a web of ties would be a disincentive for India to address the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Pakistan decided to continue to rely on essentially a three-pronged approach: The development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, maintaining an effective military balance along LoC, and the instrument of terror. The overall consequence of its India policy has contributed immensely to Pakistan’s impoverishment over the past three decades.

It would obviously be necessary to avoid the pitfalls of Pakistan’s India policy. Certainly, the use of terror or low-intensity conflict in dealing with a larger neighbour, even if possible, is counterproductive. But there is a need to pay far greater attention to upgrade India’s strategic programme to develop manifest deterrence through a triad. The hardening of defences all along LAC to prevent Chinese adventurism has to be undertaken on a priority basis. This will require financial investments but that cannot be avoided despite the current economic troubles.

The other elements of China policy need greater consideration and dexterity. These relate to economic and commercial ties. Currently, India’s dependence on some supply chains emanating from China has strategic implications. This applies to a range of industries such as pharmaceuticals. These have to be reduced to a minimum and domestic production, as envisaged in Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar (self-reliance) programme, has to be fostered on an urgent basis. Other sources have to be developed even at a greater cost but the trade door should not be shut.

Greater and open cooperation with major countries equally troubled by Chinese aggressiveness and lack of respect for global rules has to be actively cultivated. India must give up its traditional reluctance rooted in ideology, bearing in mind that it is too large to act as any power’s subordinate ally.

Finally, the Sino-Pak nexus has to be addressed through working on the vulnerabilities of Pakistan.

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat

The views expressed are personal

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