When communist China adopted a calibrated liberal policy to develop its economy in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping, it moved on the path of fast economic growth. The western powers were hopeful that once China grew economically it would adopt liberal values and democracy. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
At the turn of the century China joined WTO which further expedited its economic growth. However, all this while its Communist Party of China (CPC)-led political system remained intact. This raised concerns among Western powers that saw no commensurate change in the Chinese political system. To allay their fears, the Chinese floated the concept of “peaceful rise of China.” They argued that China’s rise would not threaten world peace.
But now that China’s trade and economic interests have spread far and wide, it is now trying to transform itself from being just a continental power to a maritime power as well. Its foreign and security policy has become extremely aggressive threatening world peace.
The Indian economic growth had a delayed start in comparison to China. It started in 1990 with the adoption of liberal economic policies. The continuation of this economic growth required a peaceful neighbourhood so that India could draw foreign capital and multinational companies. Peace was also required to keep the focus of domestic policies on economic growth and not expend scarce resources disproportionately on defence and military matters.
It has often been argued that India should focus on economic growth at least for next few decades and ignore the trouble created by Pakistan and China on its borders. However, it appears that China and Pakistan may not allow India this luxury and the country will have to simultaneously prepare itself to face any possible military and security challenge emerging from these countries.
The nature of security threats posed by China and Pakistan is different. Though Pakistan tried to capture Indian territory in 1999 and was evicted after the Kargil War, the general approach of the country has been to use terror groups as its proxy. By using these terrorist groups, it wants to keep the pot boiling in Kashmir. It hopes to bring world attention to Kashmir through this policy. On the other hand, China has been using tactics of salami slicing and grabbing Indian territory bit by bit over a period of time.
The approach adopted by China and Pakistan to grab Indian territory or create trouble in Kashmir suffered a setback when the Modi government abrogated Article 370 and created two new centrally administered provinces in the form of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The changed constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and the abrogation of Article 370 indicated strong political will of the Indian state to fully integrate territory of Jammu and Kashmir state of which Ladakh was a part.
This made China that was slowly eating away territory of Ladakh concerned. The reorganization of Ladakh meant that the previous strategy of salami slicing would not remain effective. Besides, China was also concerned by the building of infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC. So far, good infrastructure was a privilege of only the Chinese. But once Indians started doing the same, the Chinese felt that it would create another hurdle in their strategy of grabbing Indian territory. Obviously, these developments were not to their liking.
China is now in a hurry to become the leading power of the world. It is not surprising that it does not want any other comparable power to rise in Asia. To keep China developing and to bridge the gap with the US, President XI Jinping has conceptualized its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) program. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship project of this BRI program. However, a significant part of this project is in a disputed territory that is claimed by both India and Pakistan. China wants to ensure the future of this project by capturing as much territory as possible in Ladakh.
Until a few years ago, the issue of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) was not raised by India seriously. It was almost assumed that PoK would remain with Pakistan while it would keep making its claim on the remaining areas of Jammu and Kashmir. This situation has now significantly changed with the change in constitutional status of J&K and Ladakh. Though this step does not change international boundaries of the two new Indian provinces, it does change their internal status. It is hoped that it will now lead to their closer integration with India. This has irked both China and Pakistan.
Perhaps this has prompted China to go for premeditated and planned intrusions in Ladakh as China’s “all weather friend” Pakistan is too weak to indulge in similar activity. It is done with the objective to change the facts on the ground violating all previous agreements. Through this step China is also trying to probe the political will of the Indian state to use military as an option.
There is a growing view among Chinese policy makers that since differences in perception about the border are huge, no meaningful solution of the border issue is likely through talks. The Chinese have been moving their border westward gradually. But they are now apprehensive that this policy may not work. The improving infrastructure on the Indian side may also make the task difficult. Thus, it is not surprising that the Chinese have chosen to intrude into Indian areas when countries are facing difficulty due to the coronavirus.
China’s aggressive posture is going to be the biggest challenge of Indian foreign policy. India has been trying to hedge its policy against China in the past despite its provocative behaviour. India and China now share the largest undemarcated border. China has purposely kept this border undemarcated so that it can move its border westward gradually.
China is now moving into a new era of foreign and security policy where it is no longer shy to show aggression in foreign and security policy. China now thinks that it has achieved considerable economic progress and built a strong military over the years. It may want to use this military to achieve its political, economic or territorial objectives. China may not allow other countries – especially those it perceives as its competitors – to rise peacefully.
The writer is Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.