The Quad (US, Japan, India, Australia Security Dialogue) : Updates and Discussions

randomradio

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French polynesia : An area of 2.5x10^6 km^2

It's one of the central issues right now, considering Chinese deals with many islands surrounding French territory. But I'm guessing Macron will decide to twiddle his thumb instead of militarising the Pacific.
 

RISING SUN

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Dec 3, 2017
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Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad
India may be nowhere near turning its partnership with the United States into any sort of formal or informal military alliance, but their growing strategic engagement dominates China’s discourse on India. Next week’s Tokyo summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad—a loose grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is therefore bound to be of special concern in Beijing.

On the face of it, China’s persistent campaign against India’s ties with the United States, its characterization of the Quad as an “Asian NATO,” and its blistering attacks against the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct embraced by New Delhi and its partners in the Quad seem unnecessarily alarmist. Its top diplomats have castigated the Quad members for “ganging up in the Asia-Pacific region, creating trilateral and quadrilateral small cliques, and [being] bent on provoking confrontation.” China focusing its outrage on the Quad looks odd considering Beijing has long lived with real U.S. alliances and hard security commitments on its periphery, including U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

Two factors, however, help explain China’s aggressive campaign against the Quad and, especially, nascent U.S.-Indian ties.

The most obvious factor is India’s sheer size and potential power to shape China’s strategic periphery. Although China has rarely seen India as a peer competitor, Beijing is acutely conscious that India could create significant problems for China if aligned against it with other powers. Keeping India—a potential superpower—from aligning with the United States is thus a first-order strategic goal for Beijing.

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That China’s concerns about a potential U.S.-Indian alignment have recently taken a paranoid turn reminds us of Beijing’s endless rants about New Delhi’s strategic collaboration with Moscow during the 1960s and 1970s. Beijing worried about Russian imperialism aligning with India’s own hegemonic ambitions in South Asia. Chinese leader Mao Zedong was at his vulgar and pithy best in a poem describing the Soviet Union’s relationship with India: “The bear flaunts its claws / Riding the back of the cow.” Then, as now, China did not like to see India’s relations with other powers looking better than its own mostly failed attempts to win allies.

Chinese rhetoric intensified after the Trump administration revived the Quad in 2017.

Second, Beijing is playing to the gallery of entrenched anti-American sentiment in New Delhi that insists on Asian solidarity and avoidance of Western coalitions. Although the weight of this sentiment—a product of India’s history of anti-colonialism, quasi-socialism, and Cold War alignment with the Soviet Union—has begun to decline, there are many in the Indian establishment who worry that getting too close to the United States might provoke China. Beijing is betting that its warnings might stoke further unease in New Delhi.

China, of course, has a much longer history of partnership with the United States, beginning under former U.S. President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. In New Delhi, on the other hand, keeping a reasonable distance from Washington has been a long-standing policy. Even as India warmed up to the United States in recent years, New Delhi has insisted that its policy of “strategic autonomy” remains unchanged—currently demonstrated by India’s refusal to join its Quad partners in denouncing Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

Beijing’s obsession with Indian-U.S. relations also stands in contrast to the fact that China has rarely objected to Pakistan’s intensive, formalized military partnership with the United States over the decades. China seems to have no issues reaching out to Pakistan despite the latter’s bilateral military cooperation agreement with the United States and former membership in the Central Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization—two alliances sponsored by Britain and the United States, respectively, in the 1950s.

Despite occasional hiccups, the U.S. military partnership with Pakistan endured through the decades but drew little criticism from Beijing. When the United States declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally in 2004, it evoked little protest from China—on the contrary, Beijing continues to celebrate its “all weather” partnership with Islamabad. This stands in sharp contrast to China’s ballistic rhetoric in 2007, when India invited Australia, Japan, and Singapore to join its annual Malabar naval exercises. Beijing called the event the precursor to the formation of an Asian NATO. Chinese propaganda along these lines has had some measure of success in India in the past; the narrative of Washington trying to engineer an Asian NATO resonated with Indian nationalists and leftists who shared the Chinese idea that Asian security must be shaped by Asian powers. In September 2007, Beijing’s campaign against a U.S.-led Asian NATO triggered large-scale protests by the Indian communist parties and played a role in the eventual collapse of the coalition, backed by the left, supporting the Manmohan Singh government.
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Since 2007, the “Asian NATO” moniker has stuck in the Chinese discourse on India’s partnerships, especially its military relations with the United States. Chinese rhetoric intensified after the Trump administration revived the Quad in 2017—and gained additional salience when the Biden administration gave the Quad fresh momentum by organizing a flurry of summits and policy initiatives. The upcoming Tokyo summit is the Quad’s third since Joe Biden became president.

Barely a year ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was still dismissing the Quad as mere “sea foam”—here this moment and gone the next. Now, China can’t stop denouncing the Quad as a dangerous manifestation of “small cliques” seeking to undermine Asian security.

India’s arm’s-length relationship with its Quad partners, however, creates a problem for Chinese analysts. They are torn between denouncing Indian military engagement with the United States as a dangerous threat and ridiculing U.S. strategic illusions about India. On a good day, Beijing welcomes New Delhi’s foreign policy of nonalignment and its continuing refusal to become a junior partner to Washington. On a bad day, China attacks India’s growing alignment with the United States.

For some Chinese analysts, India’s strategy is a mirror image of China’s own strategic maxim in the 1970s and 1980s: “align with the far”—the United States—“against the near”—the Soviet Union. Today, it is India’s turn to draw closer to the United States to fend off the much nearer threat from China. In their informal interactions with the Indian strategic community, some Chinese scholars have expressed their concern that New Delhi is leveraging Sino-Indian military tensions over the disputed border in Ladakh since 2020 to ramp up military cooperation with Washington.

Few Chinese scholars are ready to concede the flip side of their proposition: that China’s aggressive actions on the border are driving India closer to the United States. The official Chinese position, which Wang repeated during his visit to India in March, is that the countries’ border tensions should be kept separate from the larger challenges of building a multipolar world that limits U.S. power. That remains unacceptable to India.

But Wang also offered some assurances that China’s vision of Asia is not unipolar, as India fears, and acknowledged India as a major regional power. To his interlocutors in New Delhi, Wang dangled the bait of working together on a response to the Russia-Ukraine war and its threat to the global order.

India is not ready to bite, insisting that resolving border tensions must precede any cooperation with China on larger issues. Similarly, Beijing’s new Global Security Initiative—a sweeping statement designed to counter U.S. global influence—has drawn little interest in New Delhi.
Almost a century ago, at an anti-imperialist congress in Brussels in 1927, Indian and Chinese nationalists had their first formal encounter.

Together, they swore their shared commitment to overthrowing Western colonialism and building a new Asian order. Since then, both countries have struggled to deal with the West’s enduring power, but their policies have almost never been in sync. When China seemed to be drawing closer to the West, India was raging against it. When it was India’s turn to warm up to the West, China was taking up cudgels against it.

There were two brief exceptions. In the 1950s, then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had romantic ideas about building an Asian “area of
peace” in partnership with China, but relations quickly deteriorated over China’s militarization of Tibet and border claims, ultimately culminating in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, Indian and Chinese interests briefly realigned when each worried about the so-called unipolar moment. But the Indian leadership soon decided that a unipolar Asia dominated by a rising China would be far worse than a unipolar world led by the United States.

India’s tactics are wrapped in incrementalism, but its strategic imperative lies in deeper cooperation with the United States.

Barely a decade after 1927, Indian and Chinese nationalists were confronted with World War II, but the two sides could not agree on a joint approach. Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek visited India in early 1942 to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to align the Indian nationalist movement with China and Britain to fight Japanese imperialism. Gandhi was not impressed. He was more interested in getting the British out of India right away—though he stopped short of aligning with the Nazis and Japanese to that end, as other Indian nationalist leaders did.

With Sino-Indian relations defined by violent border disputes after 1962, New Delhi looked to Moscow to balance Beijing. As the United States and China drew closer in the 1970s, India doubled down on its partnership with Russia. Similarly, as China and Russia align with each other today, India has steadily tilted toward the United States.

Is India’s tilt toward the United States irreversible, or could it be reversed by India’s refusal to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and join its Quad partners in sanctioning Moscow? These questions animate both Chinese and American analysts.

The Biden administration probably recognizes that Russia is about India’s past—a long and deep relationship it can’t unwind overnight—and not its future. The rivalry between India and China is structural and unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. China could break the logjam on the border but doesn’t appear to be willing to let go of its only strategic leverage against India.

For India, the trick is to move slowly to strengthen its regional position. India’s tactics are wrapped in incrementalism, but its strategic imperative lies in deeper cooperation with the United States. The Quad summit in Tokyo next week will give us a better sense of how the geopolitics of Asian realignment will play out.
 

RISING SUN

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Dec 3, 2017
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China’s Evolving Strategic Discourse on India​

From Doklam to Galwan and Beyond

India has significant influence over Chinese strategy, which New Delhi should better leverage against Beijing.

The China-India border standoff that began in May 2020 continues to date at various friction points in the mountainous terrain of Ladakh in the Himalayas. A deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, which was the worst fighting in over four decades and resulted in fatalities on both sides, has come to define the crisis. Almost two years into the standoff, there is still little clarity on its fundamental cause. However, a close analysis of China’s domestic debates on India in the years preceding the Galwan clash and thereafter provides a clear understanding of the Chinese perceptions that underlay the border crisis. This analysis also offers clues on the way forward. The standoff reveals China’s policy dilemma over India. Beijing wants to effectively check a rising New Delhi by asserting its strength and psychological advantage in bilateral ties. But on the other hand, China is anxious about the impact of the current crisis on its regional and global geostrategic objectives. New Delhi should recognize its prominence in Chinese strategic debates and better leverage its position to shape Beijing’s behavior and extract benefits from it.

Executive Summary
The China-India border standoff that began in May 2020 continues to date at various friction points in the mountainous terrain of Ladakh in the Himalayas. A deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, which was the worst fighting in over four decades and resulted in casualties on both sides, has come to define the crisis. Almost two years into the standoff, there is still little clarity on its fundamental cause. Much of the existing discourse is unable to provide a complete picture of or explanation for the development.

However, a closer look at China’s domestic debates and discussions on India in the years preceding the Galwan clash and thereafter provides a clear and comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that might have led to the border crisis and also offers clues on the way forward.

While situating the ongoing border crisis within the overarching framework of Chinese foreign policy and global strategy, this paper makes two key arguments: first, the border standoff in Ladakh is likely the outcome of an intensifying conflict between two Chinese strategies towards India— its Major Power Diplomacy (of wooing India to hedge against the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and making it a key partner in the Belt and Road Initiative) and its Neighborhood Strategy (of securing a China-centered regional order with Beijing as the sole leader or rule-maker in the region). Second, the standoff reveals China’s policy dilemma over India — on the one hand, Beijing wants to effectively check a rising New Delhi by asserting its strength and psychological advantage in bilateral ties. But on the other hand, China is anxious about the impact of the current crisis on the realization of its various regional and global objectives in the Indian Ocean Region that necessitates cordial ties with India. In the end, the lesson for India is to look beyond the lens of the power differential between the two Asian giants when dealing with China. New Delhi should come to terms with the fact that it has leverage with China due to its increasing strategic value to Beijing, whether in the realm of China’s foreign policy or its development strategies, and utilize it to shape Beijing’s behavior and extract benefits from it.

Introduction​

The China-India border standoff, which began in spring of 2020, continues to date at various friction points in Eastern Ladakh, notwithstanding the important breakthroughs in February and August 2021, when troops from both sides mutually withdrew from the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso and, possibly, also at the Gogra Post.

Almost two years into the standoff, there is still little clarity about the fundamental cause of the ongoing crisis at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de-facto border between India and China. Was it a Chinese reaction to India revoking the special semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir2 or was it a response to Indian construction of strategic border infrastructure, particularly the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road?3 Was it a Chinese ploy to divert attention from the loss (economic or reputational) inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic? Or was it Beijing’s effort to unilaterally define the border between China and India along the controversial 1959 claim line, mirroring recent episodes of Chinese power projection in the entire Indo-Pacific region under the intensified US-China competition?

While analysts all over the world, including in India, have been vigorously debating the merits of each of these arguments, some Chinese strategists have sought to craft a propaganda counter-narrative, de-emphasizing and de-linking Chinese actions from the situation on the border with India and thereby providing academic support to the Chinese government’s official stance on the issue. They put the blame squarely on New Delhi, citing the impact of internal political dynamics like rising Hindu nationalism, a sinking economy, and worsening conditions due to the coronavirus epidemic as reasons for India’s “aggressive” behavior at the border, which they argue is in line with deterioration in India’s relations with its other neighbors in the region, including Pakistan and Nepal.

As insightful as these arguments are, a major shortcoming in the present discourse on the ongoing China-India standoff at the LAC is that it is based on isolated facets of China-India relations, i.e., either the endogenous China-India bilateral differences or the exogenous regional rivalry or impact of each country’s ties with the United States. Thus, much of the existing discourse cannot provide a complete picture of or explanation for the present crisis. However, a closer look at China’s internal debates and deliberations on India in the years preceding the Galwan clash and thereafter provides a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that might have led to the ongoing border crisis and offer important clues on the way forward.

India is a country that features concurrently in all three focus areas of China’s strategic outlay (considered the foundational framework of Chinese diplomacy), i.e., Major Power Diplomacy, Neighborhood Diplomacy, and Developing Country Diplomacy. Chinese strategists, working closely with the Chinese government, often analyze relations with India through multiple lenses at the same time, namely China-India dynamics, South Asian geopolitics, China-U.S. strategic competition, and ultimately through the paradigm of China’s rise. This has produced a large body of rich literature on China-India relations, mostly in the Chinese language, which remains somewhat under-explored in the mainstream analysis of dynamics between the two countries. This paper reviews both English and Chinese language journal publications, news reports, op-eds, interviews, and commentaries by Chinese strategists and experts on India and South Asia as well as generalists associated with important Chinese governmental and semi-governmental institutions that influence Chinese policymaking, to put the present border crisis and its impact into proper perspective.

While situating the ongoing border standoff within the overarching framework of Chinese foreign policy and global strategy, this paper makes two key arguments. First, the ongoing border crisis in Ladakh is likely the outcome of an intensifying conflict between China’s Major Power Diplomacy (of wooing India to hedge against the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and making New Delhi a key partner in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its Neighborhood Strategy (that of securing a China-centered regional order with Beijing as the sole leader or rule-maker in the region) vis-à-vis India. Second, the standoff lays bare China’s policy dilemma over India — on the one hand, Beijing wants to effectively check a rising India by asserting its strength and psychological advantage over New Delhi. But on the other hand, China is anxious about the impact of the current crisis on the realization of its various regional and global objectives in the Indian Ocean Region that necessitates cordial ties with India.

China’s pre-Galwan Strategic Discourse on India​

Improving ties with all its neighbor’s, particularly India, was officially determined as one of China’s topmost foreign policy agendas during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012. However, there has always been a difference in opinion within the Chinese strategic community on how to cooperate with India – one section of the community argues that China needs to induce India into cooperating, preferably by offering non-core economic incentives and concessions, while others advocate the Maoist philosophy of cooperation through struggle (以斗争求团结,则团结者存。以妥协求团结,则团结者亡). This philosophy essentially means that cooperation achieved through the use of force is long-lasting while that through compromise is fragile and short-term.11 For this group of analysts, the 1962 border war between China and India is the ideal, which brought decades of peace for China and thus, they recommend forcing New Delhi to cooperate as a superior option.

Even as China-India interactions have become more high-profile and significant, clashes at the border became more severe and long-lasting, indicating that two distinct but contradictory schools of thought dominate China’s India policy.
This lack of consensus within Chinese strategic circles ensured that China’s outreach to India remained episodic at best, marked by alternate periods of camaraderie and conflict and of hope and despair. For instance, in a symbolic move, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang chose India as the destination for his maiden foreign visit in 2013, but the potentially historic trip was overshadowed by an over three-week confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces on the western part of the border. In the following years, even as China-India interactions became more high-profile and significant, clashes at the border became more severe and long-lasting, indicating that two distinct but contradictory schools of thought dominate China’s India policy.

The section below explores how both strong optimism and an equally staunch pessimism towards India coexisted in post-Doklam China, with the pessimistic school of thought eventually gaining greater ground, particularly in the months leading up to the Galwan clash.

China Sought Cooperation with India as Competition Grew between FOIP and BRI​

After former U.S. President Donald Trump officially introduced the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting during his first trip to Asia in November 2017, the Indo-Pacific became a popular strategic concept globally, though the idea was originally conceived of by Japanese leader Shinzo Abe. Since then, various countries such as France, India, and Indonesia have developed their own Indo-Pacific strategies, with the latest examples being from Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

However, China, which has much at stake in the geopolitical churn within the Indo-Pacific, had, for all these years, maintained a relatively muted stance on the concept officially, with very few open assessments by high-ranking Chinese officials. Before the October 2020 Wang Yi statement, asserting that the Indo-Pacific strategy is a “huge underlying security risk” to the region,13 it was last in 2018 when the Chinese foreign minister spoke on the issue, dismissing the concept outright by likening it to “sea foam” in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean that would quickly disappear.

In the following years, China’s state media stuck to this official stance and often strove to shrug off the Indo-Pacific or the Quad as a “paper tiger”(纸老虎), a “stillborn,” a hollow strategy (虚招多实招少), calling it “bubbles in the sun”( 阳光下的泡沫) and predicting that it is “doomed to fail.” (注定会失败).

However, downplaying the Indo-Pacific at the official level belied the alarm and attention China accorded to the concept internally. In China’s domestic circles, the idea pushed a panic button and in popular Chinese-language discourse, the Indo-Pacific came to be seen as “a big pit dug for China” ( 美国用印太战略给中国挖了个大坑), “the most dangerous geopolitical framework facing China” ( 中国面临的最危险的地缘框架), “a concept more vicious than the island chain containment theory” that poses “an all-round challenge” (全方位挑战) to China and neutralizes its every bid to achieve an overwhelming power advantage in Asia.

At the military level, the Indo-Pacific strategy was seen as potentially targeting the “going out” strategy of the Chinese Navy and a ploy to block China’s access to the seas by creating a second island chain. In the political and economic realms, Chinese analysts saw FOIP as a way to challenge China’s BRI, deter Chinese industrial upgradation, attack its development model, and threaten its energy lifeline. Many in China came to believe that if implemented in its entirety, the Indo-Pacific strategy could force China into a state of isolation in the affairs of the region and the only way to break through the isolation would be to make major concessions in regional affairs. Some Chinese strategists even questioned the Chinese government’s evasive or passive attitude towards the Indo-Pacific and advocated for greater acceptance of the idea, better preparation, active participation, and a bigger say in the grouping to dilute its adverse effects for China.

In the Chinese strategic thinking, the Indo-Pacific concept was not just about the containment of China or maintenance of “U.S. hegemony” in the Asia-Pacific in a cost-effective way. It was also about acknowledging the rise of India as a counterweight to China. It is argued that if the Asia-Pacific was centered on China, the Indo-Pacific is centered on India. If the United States is the leading force of the Indo-Pacific strategy and China the main target country, then India (located at the junction of Asia, Middle East, and Africa, and sharing a boundary with China), is the main country the United States depends on to balance Beijing, observed Wu Shichun, President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). Ambassador Yuan Nansheng, who once served as Chinese Consul General in Mumbai, agreed. “Among all the big powers, India does have the capability to balance China. Given its geographic location and its military strength (particularly having more than one aircraft carrier), it does have the ability to block the Strait of Malacca,” he argued. Therefore, in the Chinese assessment, the United States, Japan, and Australia are all seen as relying on India to a certain extent to build pressure on China in the Indian Ocean, causing a disadvantageous two-front conflict situation for Beijing.
In the Chinese conception, India has been the “key variable” (关键变量) which would determine the success or failure of the Indo-Pacific strategy as “without India, there is no Indo-Pacific.”
But despite many convergences in interest, a U.S.-India alliance was not seen as inevitable by Chinese strategists. They believed that India remained the weakest link of the Indo-Pacific grouping or the Quad (which many Chinese strategists refer to as a three-plus one and not a quadrilateral) because of New Delhi’s own “great power complex(大国情结),” its unwillingness to be subservient to the United States, and the complicated history of U.S.-India relations. Therefore, in the Chinese conception, India has been the “key variable” ( 关键变量) which would determine the success or failure of the Indo-Pacific strategy as “without India, there is no Indo-Pacific.”

A section of the Chinese strategic community also valued India as the only “fulcrum country” that did not originally exclude China from its Indo-Pacific conception. In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, where he stated that “India does not regard the Indo-Pacific region as an exclusive club with limited members targeting any one country” was appreciated in China. Some Chinese strategists even advocated that China should first enhance its relationship with India under the framework of the Indo-Pacific strategy and then gradually seek to expand cooperation with other member countries. They argued that the focus should be on integrating and connecting China’s existing strategies and policies, particularly the BRI, with the Indo-Pacific strategy, ensuring that China has a greater say or role in shaping the strategy and thereby eliminating its adverse impact on China.

Apart from its relevance in China’s hedging strategy against the FOIP, India, one of the largest markets in the world, with the greatest development potential, located right next to China, figured prominently in Beijing’s Belt and Road in South Asia, its Western Development Strategy, its “Liang Yang Chu Hai ( 两洋出海)” or Two Oceans Strategy. All these strategies comprised China’s own version of Indo-Pacific, meant to connect the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions and open up an economically viable, major Indian Ocean exit for China, to overcome its Malacca dilemma and bypass what it calls the U.S. island chain strategy in the South and East China Seas. It is important to note that all of China’s mega connectivity initiatives in South Asia under the BRI like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), the China-Nepal-India Trans-Himalayan Corridor, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, either in their present form or as per plans in the future, include India. In the Chinese conception, even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which India publicly opposes, would in the long-term become a China-Pakistan-India-Iran-Afghanistan-Kazakhstan Corridor, which along with other Chinese connectivity initiatives in the region would open up South Asia and form a new trans-Himalayan economic growth zone for China.

Chinese strategists well understood that to pursue China’s strategic objectives in South Asia, India’s cooperation is crucial, due to several factors: 1) the geography of the subcontinent (the fact that most South Asian countries are not directly connected to China or to each other, and most of the connectivity options in the region would need to pass through India), 2) the India-centered asymmetric power structure (以印度为中心的非对称性安全格局) in the region, 3) the various levels of dependency on India among South Asian nations, and 4) India’s advantageous position in terms of closer ties with other great powers operating in the region like the United States, Japan, and Russia. Thus, cooperation with New Delhi under various frameworks, such as ‘China, India+1,’ ‘China + SAARC,’ or SCO was seen as the most viable option for a hassle-free and cost-effective implementation of Beijing’s BRI or Two Oceans Strategy.
The year 2018 saw Chinese optimism regarding India reach a crescendo. There were even some discussions in the Chinese press on whether a compromise could be reached such that China would support India’s key aspirations like joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group in return for India hopping onboard BRI.
Overall, many Chinese strategists saw (and continue to see still) India as the “most critical node” in the competition between the U.S. FOIP and Chinese BRI. As a result, they advocated that China should strive to: 1) improve ties with India by looking for more common ground, reducing the destabilizing factors in the relationship and ensuring smooth ties; 2) drive a wedge between India and the other three Quad members and reduce or restrict the strategic interaction between New Delhi and these Indo-Pacific democracies; and 3) play a role in shaping the Modi government’s strategy towards the Indo-Pacific, encouraging India to practice non-alignment and strategic autonomy.

The year 2018 saw Chinese optimism regarding India reach a crescendo. The dominant narrative in policy circles was that China needed to moderate hostility towards India and that “China’s India policy should not lack warmth and goodwill” because “China-India relations can still be improved” (对印度不要过于“敌意”,中印关系可以搞好). There were even some discussions in the Chinese press on whether a compromise could be reached such that China would support India’s key aspirations like joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group in return for India hopping onboard BRI. These efforts were part of China’s pursuit for a “new path and new thinking for strategic coexistence between China and India” (中印战略共处的新路径、新思维). The idea, aptly put by veteran Chinese historian and Indologist Tan Chung, was: “If China invests in peaches, India will surely return with plums.” (中国投之以桃,印度必会报之以李).

Conflict in China’s Major Power and Neighborhood Diplomacy vis-à-vis India​

However, even as there was much interest in China to extend an olive branch to India and secure a “China-India Datong” or a dragon-elephant dance in the face of growing competition between FOIP and BRI, some sections of the Chinese strategic community remained deeply disgruntled. India’s actions, they argued, were running counter to Chinese expectations.

These expectations are best articulated by Ye Hailin, director of the Center of South Asia Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of China’s most influential think-tanks, in a piece written shortly before the Galwan clash in June 2020. He argued that an “optimal state of China-India relations” would mean that the bilateral structural issues between Beijing and New Delhi can be resolved to China’s satisfaction, that India accepts China’s presence in South Asia (including within India) under the banner of the BRI, and that India and China join hands to oppose “U.S. bullying” and build a community with a shared future for mankind.

However, if this optimal state cannot be achieved due to the changing international landscape and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, Ye Hailin argued that a ‘sub-optimal’ state of relations would mean that the structural contradictions in China-India relations are effectively managed and an outbreak of fierce conflict between the two sides can be avoided when China does not want it. At the same time, India has adopted an attitude of tacit acceptance towards China’s South Asia strategy and the construction of the Belt and Road, at least not publicly obstructing it. In addition, India can oppose U.S. actions against China on certain occasions, or at least remain neutral.”

In other words, what the Chinese side had hoped for was an association with India that facilitated or guaranteed the rise of a China-led economic and political regional order in Asia and that eliminated U.S. interference from the region surrounding China, oft-considered the first crucial step towards China attaining global dominance. However, in actuality, they were displeased to see that at the global level, India and the United States were getting closer under the Indo-Pacific framework, particularly in the realm of defense cooperation, and the Quad was making steady progress. Regionally, India had consistently and publicly rejected the BRI, and in areas of bilateral strategic contradiction between China and India such as trade imbalance, the territorial dispute, Pakistan, and Kashmir, India had adopted what they called an “aggressive, high-risk, adventurist” stance through its problematic “issue-based diplomacy” (问题外交). Chinese strategists further complained that Beijing’s various goodwill gestures like agreeing to list Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist in May 2019 (after blocking the move thrice since 2009) or initiating a manufacturing partnership with India during Xi’s India visit in October 2019 were little appreciated in India and were, in fact, “misinterpreted” as outcomes of India’s growing clout. On the other hand, much to Chinese resentment, the Modi government had been unwilling to “shelve the disputed border” and consistently stressed that China-India strategic cooperation must be based on the proper settlement of bilateral differences, especially the border dispute.

The conclusion drawn by this disgruntled group was: 1) U.S. rejection of China at the global level had offset China’s power advantage and diluted its psychological advantage over India, so much so that India was no longer restrained by the gap in its absolute strength vis-à-vis China; and 2) that China-India cooperation potential was hard to realize and that Beijing may have overestimated the possible benefits of wooing India or prioritizing peace and stability at the LAC, which was only giving undue advantage to New Delhi.
A 2019 report, jointly released by some of China’s top think tanks, argued that even as India “undoubtedly” occupied a very important position in China’s strategy for responding to the Indo-Pacific concept and beyond, Beijing needed to ensure that India did not become an “excessive diplomatic liability” that would extract high costs for disproportionate benefits.
It was becoming clear that China’s Major Power Strategy was increasingly in tension with its Neighborhood Strategy. A blue book on the Indian Ocean, jointly released in late 2019 by some of China’s top think tanks, further deliberated on how the progression of the Indo-Pacific from an ambiguous concept to a concrete mechanism had put China’s Neighborhood Diplomacy and Major Power Diplomacy strategies vis-à-vis India to a major test. Any Chinese overreaction, they asserted, would accelerate the actual realization of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad and underreaction would further embolden India and others. The report argued that even as India “undoubtedly” occupied a very important position in China’s strategy for responding to the Indo-Pacific concept and beyond, Beijing needed to ensure that India did not become an “excessive diplomatic liability” that would extract high costs for disproportionate benefits. If that happened, the authors asserted, China’s rise would be impacted, and its regional and global ambitions jeopardized even before the Indo-Pacific posed any real threat to China.

Meanwhile, an argument that simultaneously began gaining currency within Chinese strategic circles was that the Indo-Pacific strategy had so far remained restricted to the realm of posturing and had not been able to cause an immediate deterioration of the participant countries’ bilateral relations with China, largely due to China’s deterrent actions and its muscular stance and tough positioning on issues involving territoriality, territorial waters, and sovereignty. By making it clear that any country that tried to follow the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy against China would face corresponding costs and risks, Beijing had ensured “rational” behavior from respective countries.

A flavor of this argument in the China-India context came from Ye Hailin, as he assessed China’s options while dealing with an allegedly overindulged India, enjoying a greater room for maneuver, in a new favorable international environment. The South Asia research head at one of China’s premier think-tanks, considered the closest to the Chinese government, clearly pointed out in the October 2019 issue of the Indian Ocean Economic and Political Review journal published by the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics that it is no longer possible for China to repel “a pompous and vain” opponent like India and its provocative actions by solely relying on bloodless frontier confrontations similar to that in Dongzhang Waterfall (Chumi Gyatse Falls in Arunachal) or Doklam.

It is in the backdrop of this churn in China’s strategic thinking vis-à-vis India that the 2020 Ladakh standoff broke out.

China’s post-Galwan Strategic Discourse on India​

On June 15, 2020, a deadly skirmish broke out between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, causing casualties on both sides for the first time in nearly 45 years, marking a new unpleasant turn in China-India relations. The gruesome clash caused public outrage in India, and anti-China sentiment reached its peak. Meanwhile, in China, a sense of shock over the rapid deterioration in China-India ties was palpable.
The section below examines a wide spectrum of Chinese narratives on India post this violent clash, with two opposing schools of thought emerging once again. A portion of the strategic community defended Beijing’s actions on the border with India, while another offered strong criticism of Chinese behavior. However, both groups agreed that it was in China’s interest not to publicly project India as an “enemy.”

Exhibit Strength and Strategic Resolve, Forcing India to Cooperate​

In the months following the Galwan clash, analysis by eminent Chinese South Asia strategists, like Hu Shisheng and Lou Chunhao (Director and Deputy Director respectively of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations) , as well as Lin Minwang, (Deputy Director of Fudan University’s Centre for South Asian Studies), suggested that the coronavirus pandemic and the pandemic-induced intensification of competition between China and the United States were an immediate trigger for the sudden downturn in China-India ties. These strategists noted with concern that even as the pandemic had put China under unprecedented international pressure and competition, it had produced more opportunities than challenges for India and opened up significant diplomatic space for the country.
Lou Chunhao noted in the November 2020 issue of Contemporary International Relations that turning the COVID crisis into an opportunity, India had strengthened its participation in the realm of global governance and had been vigorously promoting the concept of reformed multilateralism, aimed at positioning itself as a leading power on the global stage. India, he added, was strengthening its strategic investment in the Indo-Pacific region and was carrying out “industrial chain diplomacy” in the hopes of reducing its dependence on China and improving its position in the global value chains.

The key allegations leveled against India by these strategists were that India had been taking advantage of intensified Sino-U.S. competition to fuel its own rise, taking opportunistic and pragmatic diplomatic actions to overtake China, and continuously sending strong confrontational signals on issues involving Beijing’s core interests.

Meanwhile, they argued, China’s restraint at the LAC, out of its concern over an imminent India-United States rapprochement, was proving counterproductive. It has further emboldened India, which has now become more confident to pressure China on various issues in a cost-effective way and simultaneously bargain with the United States on advanced weapons, technology, security guarantees, and whatever else required to enhance its own strength vis-a-vis China. The greater India’s national strength and international status became, they warned, the more its self-esteem and self-confidence would grow, and that much louder its demands for more concessions from China would be. Therefore, they asserted, it was no longer possible for China to maintain stability in its relations with India by simply continuing its “cooperative strategy” of the past or merely releasing deterrent signals. China needed to reassert its strength advantage and force India to accept Chinese superiority through committed actions.

Do Not Push India towards the United States​

The sheer magnitude of the Galwan incident, the high number of casualities, an unprecedented level of perceived escalation by India, and the global attention around the development caused much unease within Chinese strategic circles. In one of the first major interviews after the incident, renowned Chinese scholar Zheng Yongnian, Founding Director of the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen and a well-known Chinese government advisor, lamented how Beijing lacks understanding of a rising India and its importance to China. He lamented the lack of recognition in China that the Beijing-New Delhi relationship would get as the most important relationship after the Beijing-Washington relationship. He was also critical of Beijing’s India policy still being managed at a comparatively lower level in terms of policy/military planning, thereby exhibiting a tactical, reactive, tit-for-tat nature, without a substantial strategic intent. This, he warned, was counterproductive for China as it stoke nationalism in India and might eventually draw China into an untimely military conflict.
The sheer magnitude of the Galwan incident, the high number of casualities, an unprecedented level of perceived escalation by India, and the global attention around the development caused much unease within Chinese strategic circles.
His key argument was that India’s rise is not necessarily detrimental to China’s interest as this would prevent further polarization of the world and ease the pressure on China. If China managed its relationship with India well, New Delhi would never fully invest in the United States, just like it never fully invested in the Soviet Union and the security situation on China’s western frontier, both land and maritime, would improve significantly. But if China-India ties are impaired beyond repair, India alone or in association with other countries could cause endless trouble for China in the future. For instance, an openly hostile India, in his assessment, could make active efforts to prevent China from reaching the Indian Ocean, be it through Pakistan or Myanmar. On the other hand, any decoupling of China-India relations would only strengthen the anti-China alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries, whose key objective was to reshape global industrial chains, use the Indo-Pacific strategy to check China’s military and economic power, and expand international organizations such as the G-7 to weaken China’s influence in international affairs

Other Chinese strategists of repute like Ling Shengli, Director of the International Security Research Center of the China Foreign Affairs University, and Sun Xingjie, Deputy Dean of the School of Public Diplomacy of Jilin University and Deputy Director of the Institute of International Relations, concurred with this analysis. This group posited that the least China could do was not further push India into the U.S. camp. They warned that at a time when the Chinese and U.S. economies are apparently decoupling, if New Delhi and Washington were to establish closer economic ties, it could result in China losing its position in many industrial supply chains. The combination of Japanese capital, American technology, and Indian labor force through the Indo-Pacific economic cooperation model, they stressed, could spell “big trouble (大麻烦)” even if China’s economic aggregate becomes the largest in the next few years.

Pressure to repair the relationship with India also came from the public in some ways. Due to worsening relations with the United States, tensions soaring at the border with India, relations with Australia nose diving, and the controversy over Beijing’s role in the coronavirus pandemic, public sentiment in China was considerably dampened over the country’s deteriorating external environment. So much so that Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng had to reassure the Chinese people that China still had friends all over the world, with its friend circle growing and not shrinking.

Some observers worried that China itself was creating the conditions for severe competition with India, which may lead to a repetition of history. Just like in 1979, when the China-Vietnam war marked the complete breakdown of ties between China and the former Soviet Union to accelerate China’s reform and opening up, if there is a military conflict between China and India in the current international environment, regardless of which side wins, it would lead to the actual realization of the Indo-Pacific strategy. A widely-shared article on the Chinese internet warned that India would usher in a new wave of reform and opening up once the pandemic is over, with assistance from the international community, and there will be a real decoupling between China and the world. Certain political commentators and social media influencers with millions of followers such as Du Jianguo directly called out the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership for mishandling China-India relations over the last 60 years (现在的冲突都是在为六十年前的处置不当埋单). He argued that by falsely playing the victim card in domestic circles (when in reality China has never suffered any loss at the hand of India), unnecessarily being tough, exaggerating differences, and by amplifying conflict with India, the Chinese leadership had put the country into an unfavorable two-front situation, even though China and India have never shared any historical grudge or hatred towards each other. This, he argued, was the greatest disservice to China’s primary agenda of reunification with Taiwan. China might have grown stronger than ever before, but it is self-destructive to be an enemy of half the world (中国国力是强大了很多,但是和半个世界为敌是自毁。), read one of his widely commented upon tweets.

At Least, Do Not Turn India into an Enemy​

While there may not be an agreement as yet in China on whether to compel or induce India to consider Chinese interests, there does seem to be overall consensus within Chinese strategic circles about the need to prevent a complete rupture in China-India relations and not turn India into an “enemy.” Even the staunchest critics of India in China, would agree that an openly hostile India, regardless of whether it allies with the United States or not, can drastically deteriorate China’s overall security environment and prevent China from putting its full concentration towards the Pacific to deal with the overall pressure of the United States and its alliance system. As Feng Chuanlu, Associate Professor at the Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies at the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics observed, India’s tough actions on the China-India border send a clear signal to Beijing’s various adversaries, including the United States, that its southwestern border is destabilized, which might prompt them to take more radical actions against China in different domains.
Therefore, rather than openly projecting India as a key threat to China, analysts argue that it may be wiser to treat India as an occasional partner on specific issues. Correspondingly, there has been a concerted effort at all levels, from Chinese diplomats to think-tank scholars to the Chinese media, to deliberately play down the Galwan incident and divorce the ongoing border stalemate from the overall functioning of the China-India relationship. In fact, in the post Galwan era, China’s leading South Asia strategists like Ye Hailin, Zhang Jiadong, Hu Shisheng, and Lou Chunhao have all advocated for a new model of China-India relations, one which prioritizes a “normal state-to state relationship” where India is neither a friend nor a foe of China. Under this framework:
  1. China accepts greater U.S.-India cooperation under the Indo-Pacific framework because India has already rejected China’s presence in the Indian Ocean and is unlikely to change its posture of treating China as a strategic opponent;
  2. Border confrontation or even conflict with India becomes the new normal and there is likely to be a continuous struggle, a long-term see-saw between forces, for actual control of disputed territories till a redline for both sides is “hammered out” and this red line eventually becomes the LAC in the absence of a mutually-acceptable international boundary;
  3. China intensifies its engagements in South Asia, in a way, seeking to isolate India in the region and thereby building up pressure on India; and
  4. Despite the volatile border and steep competition in South Asia, India and China strive to maintain “normal ties” and even explore opportunities to maintain or expand cooperation when the need arises, though India does not try to overtake China in its pursuit of development.”
Interestingly, some Chinese observers themselves doubt if such a framework would appeal to India. They rightly believe that New Delhi might find such a model more favorable to China, with nothing substantial on offer for India. They also argue that the Indian side might presume that having a stable relationship with New Delhi is currently a greater need for China than the other way around and that India’s non-cooperation strategy could hurt China more. However, they warn that this is only a temporary window of strategic opportunity for India. In the long- term, given the common identity of both China and India as developing and neighboring countries, neither can completely bypass each other nor rule out the possibility of common interests in the future.

Conclusion​

As evidenced above, the ongoing China-India border standoff is not an ordinary, sporadic confrontation but the manifestation of an intensifying conflict between China’s Major Power Diplomacy (of wooing India to hedge against the U.S. FOIP strategy and making New Delhi a key partner in the BRI) and its Neighborhood Strategy (that of securing a China-centered regional order with Beijing as the sole leader or rule-maker in the region) vis-à-vis India.
By taking a leaf out of China’s own playbook and consistently emphasizing India’s fundamental and growing importance in determining Chinese strategic outcomes – no matter which foreign and defense policy India adopts toward China – Indian policymakers can potentially influence their Chinese counterparts toward greater concessions and conciliation.
China seeks India’s cooperation to weaken the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, because, in the Chinese assessment, India is the “key variable” ( 关键变量) determining the success or failure of the strategy. On the other hand, Beijing’s Western Development Strategy, its BRI or Two Oceans Strategy, that is, China’s own version of Indo-Pacific, aimed at connecting the Pacific and Indian Ocean economies under Chinese leadership and opening up a dedicated Indian Ocean exit for China, rests heavily on India. Not to mention, good relations with India give China peace and stability on its western frontier and allows Beijing to keep its entire strategic focus and concentrate its resources on the intensifying rivalry with the United States and its allies. Overall, it is well understood within Chinese strategic circles that India’s cooperation can secure Chinese gains of vital geopolitical and economic consequences, and its non-cooperation can pose the biggest hurdle to China’s South Asia strategy and advancement of its Indian Ocean footprints.

But to solicit this Indian cooperation, China is unwilling to pay a strategic cost or make any real tradeoff, such as accommodating India’s concerns or aspirations on the disputed border or South Asia or concerning its membership of international organizations. That is likely because deep down, China recognizes India as a key threat that can intercept its energy lifelines, has the potential to replace it in global supply chains, and can compete with China in various international bodies, thereby challenging China’s ability to achieve an “overwhelming power advantage in Asia.” One of China’s key concerns is: “what if India manages to get these concessions from China, but still chooses to cooperate with the United States?”

To break the deadlock, China seems to be exploring a new India strategy that rests on exhibiting its strength advantage (by normalizing border conflicts like the Galwan Valley clash) alongside tactical cooperation (by ensuring that there isn’t a complete breakdown in bilateral ties and keeping the door open for working together when it is in Chinese interest). The key idea is to strike a new balance or equilibrium: where through “controlled conflicts” at the disputed border, a “rising and confident” India is brought under check, and China’s strength and psychological advantage in bilateral ties are restored. But at the same time, escalation of tensions or a full-scale conflict is carefully averted so that the United States, whom China considers its principal adversary, does not get to reap a “fisherman’s benefit” from the situation.

However, not all in China are convinced by this approach and there is widespread anxiety about the impact of such policy on; a) the actual realization of the U.S. FOIP strategy and the Quad with whatever political, military, and economic implications it will have for China, including the issue of reorganization of global supply chains; b) the fate of BRI connectivity projects in South Asia and China’s long-term plan for a major Indian Ocean exit; c) the future of China-India economic ties with the Indian technology sector likely being off-limits and Indian market access more challenging for Chinese companies; and d) its effect on China’s overall security situation as an active LAC publicly puts Beijing in an inconvenient multi-front strategic challenge, which it had successfully averted for a long time and which makes it vulnerable in various directions and may even jeopardize China’s plans regarding the reunification of Taiwan.

For India, the lesson should be to no longer fall for China’s long-standing and highly successful propaganda strategy of outwardly trivializing India’s capability and role, while creating an impression globally that “India does not feature prominently in Chinese strategic calculations” , that it views India primarily “through the American lens”. This has convinced many scholars, from India and beyond, that, unlike India, Beijing has little to gain from cooperation with India, and thus it has little obligation to be sensitive to India’s concerns or concede anything to India. That, there is an “asymmetric threat perception in China-India ties,” so much so that China can easily afford to teach India a lesson and come out largely “unscathed.” Indian policymakers ought to realize that as long as New Delhi approaches the relationship with Beijing solely through the lens of the power differential between the two countries, it will continue to find itself in a disadvantageous position with limited options to deter China. India would do well to come to terms with and perhaps leverage its increasing strategic value to China, whether in the realm of China’s foreign policy or its future development strategies (the BRI/the Western Development Strategy/the Two Oceans Strategy etc.), allowing it to shape Beijing’s behavior and extract adequate benefits from it. By taking a leaf out of China’s own playbook and consistently emphasizing India’s fundamental and growing importance in determining Chinese strategic outcomes – no matter which foreign and defense policy India adopts toward China – Indian policymakers can potentially influence their Chinese counterparts toward greater concessions and conciliation.