by Arun Sahni

The events of 2017 were a watershed for the bilateral relations between India and China and may actually define/influence the future course of the 'blow hot-blow cold' relationship. Being neighbours — each in possession of aspirational growth plans, there are bound to be periods of stress between the two countries. Continued and unconditional support to Pakistan, at times unreasonable, resulting in emboldening Pakistan to continue its support to terrorists terrorism and China's efforts to bracket India and Pakistan on international forums, whether NSG or support to internationally-proclaimed Pakistani terrorists, are also major contributors in the underlying distrust in India-China bilateral relations.

The key takeaways from some of the landmark events of the past year will assist us in being conscious of our actions and reactions in future bilateral relations with our northern neighbour.

The first of these events was India being conspicuous by its absence from Chinese president Xi Jinping's landmark summit event for the world leaders, to launch his much-publicised 'Belt-Road Initiative' project. Irrespective of the criticism by homegrown experts in our country on India's selected course of action, it ensured that the country was not witness to the signing away of its territory. The event was the platform used by Xi to formally launch the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This was an affront to India, as it was solemnised between an illegal occupant of territory ie Pakistan with China — a country that stated that the alignment of their initiative will be only through undisputed territory.

The message that came out loud and clear is that in the world of realpolitik, India needs to take decisions that protect its interests even if it means swimming against the tide. The country needs to be firm in making intentions clear without being overtly hassled by the existing asymmetry with the other country, in this case, China. The Indian stand was in harmony with India’s oft repeated requirement that the connectivity initiative should be anchored in transparency, recognised norms, rule of law and must be pursued in a manner that respects territorial integrity and sovereignty. Needless to say, the final outcome of this augurs well for the country's image and will have a positive impact on the national psyche.

The next event of significance was the 73-day-long military standoff between the armies of the two countries at Doka La. The standoff began in June last year over PLAs plans to build a road in area claimed by Bhutan. India’s resolute stand sent the right signals to to our neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia that India is willing to 'walk the talk' when the chips are down. We upheld our commitment to Bhutan while safeguarding against increasing the sensitivity to our vulnerability of the 'Siliguri corridor', the link between the North East of India to the rest of the country.

There is no doubt that the incident brought to fore the robustness of the military leadership for its timely intervention at Doka La, but it needs to be highlighted that there was a strong lobby within the establishment in the corridors of South Block that recommended early withdrawal/de-escalation. The reason attributed to it was that it came too soon after the last dissonance of India's absence from the BRI event. It is here that a major lesson comes out for us in India, ie the importance of political leaders and not bureaucrats being involved in 'hands-on' decision-making on issues of national security. The political astuteness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this case resulted in a favourable outcome. It also unequivocally displayed India’s resolute nature and reaffirmed to the comity of nations, our firm resolve to honour the essence of our CBMs and maintaining the 'status quo' along the Line of Actual Control.

The other event of significance was the maturity displayed by both nations after the period of strife, during the recently concluded Special Representatives' talks between the Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval and China's State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The relevance of this mechanism and its ability to resolve the border issues is debatable, but its importance to provide a forum to communicate at the strategic levels and debate contentious bilateral issues for peace along the 4,000 kilometres of unresolved/disputed border is indisputable.

The previous year saw back-to-back changes in the PLA and other military establishments and this is indicative of its priorities and eventually may impact the kind of conflict/threat for which India needs to be prepared. The focus on asymmetric mediums of cyber, electronic warfare and psychological operations, and an examination of the capabilities of key military leaders recently elevated, indicates changing emphasis on the conduct of conflicts by the military hierarchy of the PLA.

The indicators reflect a transition towards 'co- linear' wars, ie a combination of kinetic and asymmetric means for early capitulation of the adversary.

This trend to move away from attrition warfare and rely on the asymmetric domain requires India to get its act together with respect to developing capabilities. Suffice to say that this is a subject in itself and will be tackled separately. For far too long has the political hierarchy been receiving inadequate inputs on external threats, as key advisors on security have been former diplomats or uniformed men who dealt only with internal security challenges. The experience of the armed forces has been sidelined and the security czars render advice based on their perceptions and understanding of the challenges astride the nation's underdeveloped and harsh frontiers, which is not the same. Also, advice is sought from those who will not rock the boat.

In conclusion the key to understanding how the Chinese really think is to appreciate the nuances of their ancient board game of Wei Qui, in which the aim is to capture space. The game anchors on long-term gains instead of quick tactical advantages. So let us be more perceptive in carving our future engagements.

The writer is a former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Indian Army