Managing the Rise of China and its Collusion with Pakistan

India’s foremost national security challenge in the 2020-30 timeframe will be to successfully manage the rise of a militarily assertive China. Its feverish quest for a ‘favourable strategic posture’ will hamper the ability of India and its strategic partners to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Now that China has completed its ‘four modernisations’, it has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy to ‘hide our capacity and bide our time’ and has begun to flex its military muscle. Beijing senses the emergence of a security vacuum in the Indo-Pacific and is rushing to fill it – alone.  With its growing military power and a preference for resolving territorial disputes through coercion and the use of military force, the probability of China displaying militarily irresponsible behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region, including against India, cannot be ruled out.

Though China has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it does not recognise the procedures provided for the resolution of disputes. Hence, it could decide to intervene militarily in the South China Sea to establish its presence on some of the disputed Spratly or Paracel islands (it has already been engaged in building air strips on reclaimed land), or to occupy one or more of the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands.

China could even decide to resolve the remaining territorial disputes with its neighbours, like those with India, by using military force. Troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have transgressed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) many times in the last three years.

Also, China has deep internal faultlines due to socio-economic disparities and ethnic tensions. Its rapid economic growth, now slowing, has been fairly uneven and non-inclusive. While the coastal areas are relatively well-developed, the hinterland has been left behind. There is a growing sense of resentment among the people against the leadership of the Communist Party for the denial of basic freedom. 

The discontentment simmering below the surface could boil over and lead to a spontaneous implosion that may be uncontrollable. The recent crash of Chinese stock markets and continuing volatility also point to the possibility of a meltdown.

Both the contingencies – implosion and military adventurism – have a low probability of occurrence, but will be high-impact events with widespread ramifications around the Indo-Pacific, should either of them come to pass. 

Both contingencies will shake up the stock markets, result in millions of refugees and lead to a blood bath. India and its strategic partners will need to cooperate closely to deal with the fallout and to manage the disastrous consequences if either of these contingencies unfolds.

Closer home, in southern Asia, China is engaged in the strategic encirclement of India by making deep inroads into each of India’s land neighbours. As part of its “String of Pearls” strategy, it is acquiring port facilities from which the PLA navy can operate in the northern Indian Ocean. Chinese submarines have been spotted in the Bay of Bengal.

In a grossly unfriendly act, in June 2016, China virtually vetoed India’s application for the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on the specious ground that the criteria for membership need to be established first. The growing China-Pakistan nuclear warhead-ballistic missile-military hardware nexus is a matter of concern not only for India, but also for the region. 

China is now engaged in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to link Xinjiang with Gwadar on the Makran coast as part of its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Involving an investment of $46 billion, the project is designed to give a fillip to the Chinese economy, create an alternative route for oil and gas supplies and counter US influence in the Indo-Pacific. 

Strategic partners
India must join the US and other strategic partners, such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, to establish a cooperative security framework for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, for the security of the global commons and to deal with contingencies like those described above. 

In this context, the India-US strategic partnership makes eminent sense as a hedging strategy for both countries. In more senses than one, it is India’s ‘principal’ strategic partnership, as then prime minister Manmohan Singh had described it. 

His predecessor, A B Vajpayee, had gone further stating that India and the US were ‘natural allies’. Whichever term is used to describe the relationship, clearly, the US cannot be expected to pull India’s chestnuts out of the fire, and vice versa. Only when the vital national interests of both are simultaneously threatened, will the two countries come together and act in concert.

The Indo-US defence cooperation, a key component of the strategic partnership, must be taken to the next higher trajectory to enable the two countries to undertake a joint threat assessment. 

It can also include contingency planning for joint operations, sharing of intelligence, simulations and table-top exercises besides training exercises with troops, coordination of command, control and communications, and planning for operational deployment and logistics support. All of these activities must be undertaken in concert with India’s strategic partners in Asia. 

If China is willing to join a cooperative security architecture, it should be welcomed. However, as China still suffers from the Middle Kingdom syndrome, it is unlikely to do so. While China is too large to be effectively contained, India can and must raise the cost for China’s pursuit of its grand strategy that seeks to confine India to the backwaters of the Indian Ocean as a subaltern state. India should do this through astute diplomacy and pro-active defence cooperation with its strategic partners. Also, the armed forces should keep their powder dry.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)