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'China is an opportunity and a challenge'

By Shivshankar Menon
Last updated on: May 05, 2015 09:49 IST
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'We should not flatter ourselves that China is fixated on encircling India. She has greater goals, becoming the pre-eminent power in the world, and India as a major power is dealt with as part of that strategy.'

Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon explains the India-China relationship.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mahatma Gandhi's Ashram in Ahmedabad. Photograph: MEA/Flickr

To look at India-China relations as a zero-sum game, which is what happens when you look at it only in terms of the boundary dispute or as a tabulation of military force or economic data points, is to miss the wood for the trees, to miss the reality of what has happened over the last 50 years and to misunderstand the situation we face today.

I will discuss the India-China border, on China as both a challenge and opportunity for India, and on what our strategy should be.

The India-China Border

The fact is that the India-China border is the most peaceful border that India has today. This is in complete contrast to the Line of Control between us and Pakistani forces in Kashmir.

The LoC in Kashmir is agreed, drawn on a map and has international legal sanctity. And yet, this is the line across which terrorists come, shooting and artillery fire occurs and people die, and where, on several occasions, the Pakistan army has attempted to change the status quo.

The Line of Actual Control with China, on the other hand, has never been jointly demarcated or delineated on a map, or described in detail by either country, and is on no officially published map.

And yet, both India and China have by and large respected it and kept the commitment that they formally made in the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement to respect the status quo.

Where incidents occur, or when either side feels the other has violated the status quo, there are agreed standard operating procedures, mechanisms and confidence building measures (CBMs) that work and have prevented the situation on the border from deteriorating.

(When the Chinese set up a tent at Depsang in May 2013, for instance, those mechanisms worked and restored the status quo, as they were designed to.) The result is that the LAC is peaceful. The last death on the China border was in October 1975 at Tulungla, and that was by mistake.

You will ask why then do incidents take place on the China boundary? They occur because as each side improves its capabilities and its activities on what they think is their side of the line, they enter into areas that both sides think are on their own side.

I know that this is not what your impression is because this is not what the media tells you. Sadly, the truth does not always make a good story. And when the Indian Army or defence ministry tries to tell the truth, as it does regularly in Parliament, most recently on February 27, it is ignored.

Good news is no news. But ask yourself, what threat to the security of India are four men and a dog pitching a tent at 18,000 feet in a remote Himalayan valley for two weeks, as happened at Depsang in May 2013.

They may be an assertion of sovereignty, but even that was neutralised by India's protest and by the fact that they withdrew in two weeks.

Today, a conflict on the border is in neither side's interest. We both have other, more important, preoccupations. India's priority is to develop and transform India into a strong, prosperous and modern country. We do whatever we must to maintain the balance of forces on the border so that there is no temptation for a misadventure by our neighbours.

We have done more in the last ten years to improve our posture on the border than in any decade before that. And successive governments of India have been successful in keeping the necessary balance, as is shown by the fact that the border has been peaceful for 50 years. You have no reason to doubt India's capability to defend herself, despite what academics and journalists may tell you.

India-China relations today

The border and unsettled boundary is only one part of the China issue for India. China is rising, and is today our largest trading partner in goods, a source of cheap goods for the Indian consumer as well as a challenge to Indian industry in certain sectors.

China is both an opportunity and a challenge. If we today have the installed capacity (but not the indigenous fuel) to generate electricity sufficient to meet demand it is to a great extent because of the large scale import of cheap Chinese power plants in the last two decades.

She could now also be a source of capital and help in the construction of India's infrastructure if we tap into her excess capacity. We have issues of balance in the trade which we need to address.

To my mind the answer is to make ourselves more competitive, and to use our market size to get Chinese firms to manufacture in India, rather than to lock ourselves up behind protective walls.

Internationally China is a presence and a power with which we work together where we can, on issues like climate change, the World Trade Organisation negotiations and so on. At the same time our periphery is also their periphery where naturally we both rub up against each other.

Recognising that the boundary is only one part of the China issue, every government of India since A B Vajpayee's 1979 visit to China as foreign minister has followed a two track policy of negotiating the boundary question while developing the rest of the relationship wherever possible.

So we have a relationship where we both compete and cooperate. It may be complex, but that is life.

China is indeed the major external challenge to our foreign policy and national security calculus, but it is also an opportunity.

An Indian Strategy

What should India do about this?

I have no doubt that China wishes to be number one in the world. As patriotic Chinese, convinced that China was number one in the world order until the aberration of the last two centuries, it is natural that Chinese leaders will try to replace the USA.

A few years ago the Chinese Communist Party got Chinese State television to air a series on rising powers in history. This was after the Politburo had scholars study and learn lessons from past cases of rising powers, some of which succeeded in becoming number one, like Britain and the US, and some of which failed, like Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union.

The CCP wanted their own people to know the results of those studies. The studies showed that rising powers that made the mistake of taking on the reigning hegemon and challenging the existing order too soon failed, like Germany and Japan.

The Soviet Union, for its part, made the mistake of entering into an arms race with the USA that it could not win. Now look at China's strategy today vis a vis the USA. She privileges economy, diplomacy and force, in that order. There is much that we can learn from this approach.

The questions that I was sent said that China had an encirclement strategy for India, but India didn't have an encirclement strategy for China. We are today in a world where no one can claim an exclusive zone or area of influence, a globalised world where power reaches everywhere.

People's Liberation Army troops. We should not flatter ourselves that China is fixated on encircling India.

She has greater goals, becoming the pre-eminent power in the world, and India as a major power is dealt with as part of that strategy. In other words it is not a simple binary opposition, but a complex interplay between India and China in political, economic, security and other terms.

I am therefore less pessimistic, and certainly less willing to be emotional about China and some of these issues. Strategy consists of making the most of available means to achieve one's goals.

Our goal is to transform India. China, like the US, or the world economy for that matter, is a fact of life. We must learn to use it to achieve our goals. Where it is a hindrance, deal with it -- prevent it, eliminate it, work around it, divert it, and so on. That is strategy, not a listing of tanks and weapons.

In any case wars are won by men, ideas and weapons, and their combination, not just any one of those factors.

Avoiding war and attaining one's goals is the highest form of strategy by any tradition or book -- whether Kautilya, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli. And if you look at India's record over 68 years of Independence, we have not done badly in moving towards our main goal of transforming India.

And that requires that the national security calculus look at broader questions -- from technology issues like cyber security, to resource issues like energy security, apart from the traditional hard security issues.

China is far from India's only or most immediate security challenge. I firmly believe that the real challenges to our national security are now internal, not external to India.

There is no external existential threat to India.

For me the greatest security threat to India is represented by the forces that create and sustain the Naxalites and communal violence.

If you look at metrics of violence in India, (deaths due to cross border terrorism, Left Wing Extremism/Naxalites, and militancy in J&K, the North-East and the rest of India, and so on), they have all been steadily declining for the last ten years.

The only exception is the rise in communal violence and its resulting deaths in the last three years. And the rise is largely accounted for by a few large northern Indian states. This is worrying.

We are a young, aspirational society, where the pace of change, urbanisation and new ideas is profoundly destabilising socially. Violence against women, for instance, and the relatively new and welcome phenomenon of resistance to it by both women and men, is one of the consequences of the dizzying pace of change.

We think of social or internal violence in terms of law and order, as police business. But in the long run it is these which will determine whether we are successful in building a modern, strong and prosperous India for all its citizens.

Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, India's former National Security Advisor, spoke to students at the India Conference at Harvard University last week.

Images: Top: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mahatma Gandhi's Ashram in Ahmedabad. Photograph: MEA/Flickr
Bottom: People's Liberation Army troops.

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Shivshankar Menon