Tackle China with firmness

The real issue that needs to be debated is not whether India’s policy towards China is weak or strong; the issue is whether the policy promotes India’s national interests. China is rapidly emerging as a hegemon in Asia. It has grown out of Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to its leadership to “hide our capacities and bide our time”. It has also given up all pretensions of a “peaceful rise” and is now an unabashed regional bully that loses no opportunity to flex its growing military muscles.
Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level. Economic relations are much better now than they were in the past —bilateral trade has crossed $60 billion even though the balance of trade is skewed in China’s favour. The two countries have been cooperating in international fora like WTO talks and climate change negotiations. There has been limited cooperation in energy security. However, at the tactical level, China has been exhibiting a markedly aggressive political, diplomatic and military attitude. China is clearly engaged in a carefully thought-through and meticulously orchestrated policy aimed at the strategic encirclement of India.
China’s objections to India’s oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea are only the latest manifestation of China’s diplomatic aggressiveness. The government-controlled Chinese media’s comments after the incident were bombastic. The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, thundered: “China may consider taking actions to show its stance and prevent more reckless attempts in confronting China.” Earlier the paper had warned that prospecting for oil in China-claimed waters would “push China to the limits”.
The relatively more moderate People’s Daily also did not mince words: “China must take practical and firm actions to make these projects fall through. China should denounce this agreement as illegal. Once India and Vietnam initiate their exploration, China can send non-military forces to disturb their work, and cause dispute or friction to halt the two countries’ exploration.”
The China Energy News said, “India is playing with fire by agreeing to explore for oil with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea… its energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool.”
Recently, China asked India to cancel the international Buddhist conference in Delhi, or to at least stop government functionaries from attending and to prevent the Dalai Lama from participating in it. Such assertiveness needs to be countered with firmness.
While the probability of conflict over the unresolved territorial dispute is low, strategic competition between India and China is inevitable. India must develop its comprehensive national power, including military power, to neutralise China’s quest for dominance in Asia.
India must also, simultaneously, develop leverages that can be exploited to keep China at bay. For example, India should sell or gift ballistic and cruise missiles to Vietnam and forge strong strategic partnerships with democracies in China’s neighbourhood in order to promote its long-term national interests.
The author is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi