Dealing with the Dragon
By Lt Gen Ashok Bhim Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM
China’s rise over the past two decades has sought to alter the landscape of global politics and created volatility. The Dragon seeks to challenge the rules-based international system with its growing economic, military, and geopolitical influence. China’s rise and assertive international posturing about territorial disputes both on land and at sea need to addressed at two levels; global level and regional level. Both based on collaborative and mutually inclusive arrangements. The global effort will thus have to be led by the USA at the global level and India at the regional level, to prevent competition spiraling into conflict.
At the global level, the focus must be encouraging China’s integration into the rules-based global order, while hedging against Dragons behavior that might undermine it. The Chinese leadership, however, remains increasingly suspicious and awry of Western powers threatening to subvert the Chinese people, undermine political unity, and its global status. China’s foreign minister says the Trump administration has fabricated too many lies about the Asian powerhouse. Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said that relations between China and the US were at risk of deteriorating to the point of a “New Cold War” becoming a reality. The global effort must be to bridge this trust deficit with China and work on global commons like environment, culture, trade as the starter block. Towards this end, building for a free and open Indo–Pacific sustainable architecture addressing concerns all of the nations is essential. Also, both multilateral arrangements like ASEAN and QUAD dialogue along with bilateral arrangements of the US particularly with India and Taiwan must be mutually strengthened for both security concerns and economic arrangements. Eventually, China must emerge to liberalize, to re-engage in economic reform, and to pursue a norms-based approach to its relations with China that applies international legal precedents and international agreements.
Another sphere is the inclusive remodeling of international organisations like the UN, IMF, WHO for more equitable power distribution, and present veto system which is a concern. On the diplomatic, informational, and military front, global cooperation requires a long-term approach that is not perceived antagonist but seeking world equilibrium. On May 20, 2020, the White House issued what history may record as one of the most important foreign policy and defence reports since 9/11: “The United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.” This report recognises the long-term strategic competition between the two countries and professes to engage with China in a respectful yet clear-eyed manner, challenging Beijing to uphold its commitments. It professes USA competitive approach to the PRC has two objectives: first, to improve the resiliency of our institutions, alliances, and partnerships to prevail against the challenges the PRC presents; and second, to compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital, national interests and those of our allies and partners. At the same time, the Department of State issued a detailed progress report on the implementation of our whole-of-government strategy for the Indo-Pacific region: “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision”. These along with the post COVID world order presents both opportunities and risks for global peace and prosperity in managing the rise of China. The Dragon only respects strength and so the global strategic message is clear. Its belligerence and aggressive overtones threatening peace and development will not be acceptable.
At the regional level in general and the Sino-India context in particular, dealing with China has always remained one of India’s biggest foreign policy challenges. China’s emergence as one of the pre-eminent powers in the international system has immense consequences for India because of a host of factors, like geographical proximity; historical memories; the unresolved border dispute; the presence of Dalai Lama in India; the Tibet question; Chinese military modernization; uncertainties regarding Chinese intentions; its relation with India’s neighbors, especially Pakistan; the potential expansion of China’s maritime power into the Indian Ocean; growing economic inter-dependence between the two countries; its string of pearls strategy, sharing of river waters; issuance of stapled visas to Indian citizens of J&K; denial of visas to Indian residents of Arunachal Pradesh, and the potential for resource competition in West Asia, Latin America and Africa. The present policy mechanisms in dealing with the Dragon are not paving the path of professed peace. Thus it merits a review.
Nevertheless, it must be clear that China needs India more than India needs China, particularly in the next decade or so. India’s youthful population and growth, indicate the accumulation of the world’s largest middle class and its economic trajectory. The challenge lies in managing China both in peace and war, which requires collaborative military, economic, informational, diplomatic, and political levers. The underlying fact is that the dragon-like its all-season friend Pakistan, can never be trusted and is prone to backstabbing, like the recent Himalayan transgressions in COVID times. China’s periodic forays in peacetime to undermine India, will thus continue in the future too, but will have to be countered by matching strength and resolve, and denied any psychological gains with credible military deterrence, agile diplomacy, and astute political decisiveness. India must thus make any such misadventure cost-prohibitive for China and a source of humiliation in the comity of nations. This would be an important aspect of strategic messaging and the desired end state in itself for India. In tune with Joseph Nye’s conception of ‘Smart Power’, India needs to combine its resources into a successful strategy through the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defence, development, and other tools of hard and soft power. India, therefore, must improve both its ‘Comprehensive National Power’ and ‘Comprehensive National Capacity’
India must also endeavour to improve its regional and global linkages and dependencies based on multilateral alignments foundational on common regional and global concerns. It can ill afford to lose its dwindling ‘Strategic Space’ in the neighbourhood. Chinese growing influence and investments in the immediate neighbourhood will in turn adversely impact the security calculus. India also needs to leverage Dragon’s contradictions/weakness to its advantage in an active but measured approach concerning destabilizing the present relations. These include its debt diplomacy; atrocities in Xinjiang province, human rights violations, and the socio-economic disparity with Han dominated mainland and underprivileged hinterland, greying population, playing Tibet and Taiwan card, CPEC vulnerabilities and now the Wuhan virus.
On the strategic front, global powers have tended to pitch India as a countervailing force against China which results in creating thaw in the relationship. India needs to develop interest-driven collaborative bilateral partnership linkages with US and multilateral SE Asia and East Asia arrangements, while soft balancing through the management of differences with China. Therefore India needs to intelligently balance this strategic calculus. As the US and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts will determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia. India’s response must perforce center on its key role in the Indo-Pacific. India, therefore, needs to develop stronger partnerships with the region’s middle powers, while also inducing its strategic partners in the “Quad” to adopt a broader security perspective which includes India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. The India-U.S. strategic partnership to that extent must be a key component of India’s Indo- Pacific vision, both mutually reinforcing and ensuring regional stability across the Indo-Pacific.
However, the Indo -China pendulum will have to be managed from competition to cooperation without a flare-up to confrontation. The theme must be partners rather than rivals, for a mutually beneficial future. Therefore, even as India continues to engage with China to promote better understanding on border management, trade, climate change, global governance and a host of other issues of mutual interest, it needs to put in place a reviewed robust strategy to defend its territorial integrity and its interests in the region and the world. Simultaneously India must pursue pragmatic self-interest-based cooperation on global issues. This entails deepening high-level engagement with the Chinese leadership to build trust and building institutionalizes mechanisms for structured, purposeful, and agenda-driven dialogue as opposed to convening informal summits. India and China must also converge on areas where interests coincide, such as in pushing trade, economic relations, transnational terrorism, and climate change. People to people engagement are another area of perception management and bridging trust deficit. It must be endeavored irrespective of the ongoing dynamics, that both countries focus their energies on the resolution of border dispute by clear demarcation and delineation beyond the present fragile arrangements. Indeed Indo China’s relationship must be built on respect and trust for mutual benefit, yet must cater to the adverse winds not casting a cloud of strategic surprise.
Militarily China respects strength and any future warming of relations should in no way undermine the importance of India’s military modernization and improvement of border infrastructure. The dragon talking peace and backstabbing has been historically proven and reinforced by the latest Himalayan strike. The lesson is Dragon cannot be trusted. While the Himalayas remain strategically important, India must never undermine the strategic leverage of the Indian ocean in its credible deterrence calculus. Our deterrence has to be based on the three key factors of Capability, Credibility, and Communication. Capability implying possessing sufficient military forces able to carry out plausible military retaliatory threats while ensuring its territorial integrity. Credibility defined by the declared political intent, decisive capability, and demonstrative political will to protect interests. The deterrent should be committed to use force beyond any doubt, but more importantly, the aggressor must believe beyond any doubt that deterrent threats will be carried out. Communication relating to a potential aggressor the capability and intent to carry out deterrent threats. Communication should include adversary actions considered unacceptable, the response to any of those unacceptable actions, and the will to carry out the deterrent threat. We have displayed these against Pakistan but not sufficiently against China. Our future challenge will remain on how to manage China and for this, we need a greater focus on our defence capability building. This must not get adversely impacted by receding defence budgetary allocation or pandemic diversion. The wise must never forget that the Dragon’s pendulum could swing in quick time, from cooperation to competition to confrontation and conflict, as in the past. Indeed, the art of managing the Dragon will be to tame it without fighting, and if forced to fight, deny its politico-military objectives, which will be an embarrassment for the Dragon and a notion of victory for India.
The Dragon in its new belligerent prodigy is here to stay. The effort must manage China’s rise, as preventing or containing it is not an option. The key issue remains a pragmatic review of India’s China policy both from foreign and defence policy perspective. There is adequate space for all nations to grow peacefully. Yet compromising military might to stymie any evil intentions, will be at the cost of national security. The immediate need is to establish world equilibrium, prevent territorial expansionism and economic exploitation as an objective by China. These objectives must be addressed both at multilateral and bilateral levels. Thus, contradictions, hegemony, and potential confrontations must be solved through a formula of symbiotic realism. This remains a challenge both at the global and regional levels.
Lt Gen Ashok Bhim Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM Commissioned in the 7th Light Cavalry, Lt Gen A. B. Shivane was General OfficerCommanding of an elite Strike Corps under the aegis of Army’s south western command at Mathura before taking over as DG, Mechanized Forces in Oct 2015. The views expressed are his own
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Courtesy: Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS)