China never feels comfortable when India appears to be pursuing partnerships which could enhance its strategic stakes

by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

An effect of Pulwama, Balakot and the general elections has been the dwindling focus of national security from other issues, primarily Sino-Indian relations. A good reminder is given by China’s Global Times, the organ that played the role of being the instrument of China’s psychological operations during the Doklam crisis. In a not too tersely worded article titled ‘US military ties could be a trap for India’, Global Times writes, “Given its desire for strategic autonomy in international affairs, India’s foreign policy can be characterised as non-aligned. However, in recent years, its deepening politico-military ties with the US have somewhat altered its foreign policy”.

The hiatus due to the Wuhan spirit post the Doklam crisis led to prudent hands off. It kept the strategic atmosphere free of rancour. However, it’s a truism that China never feels comfortable when India appears to be pursuing partnerships that could enhance its strategic stakes and give it a greater say in international affairs, particularly anything to do with the Indo-Pacific region which it considers its backyard. For China, India’s strategic autonomy translates into minimum role play in international affairs beyond the regional neighbourhood; in the latter too, it wants India to play a subsidiary role.

Global Times’ intent was obviously to convey a message at the time the Indian Foreign Secretary was on a visit to Beijing. China precedes such important visits by conveying to the visitor what its concerns are. The article hints at the main concern being the growing scope of defence cooperation through the Indo-US Strategic Partnership. China wishes to caution India about the US interest-based relationships of the past but does not keep in mind the limitations that India has in terms of the development of its military power and the real threats that it perceives, including that from China. Wuhan no doubt has been a great success for both sides when viewed from the angle of the distance to which it has taken both India and China from the imminent showdown at Doklam.

The economic relationship has grown with reduction of trade deficit for India and the northern border of India has remained relatively quiet. For China, it has been of greater value in allowing it to develop unimpeded infrastructure at Doklam and the theatre in general while continuing to impose a psychological caution upon India. Free from its imminent threat to the northern border and a shade reticent about the developments on the other side of Doklam, India has been able to pursue its policy of engagement with the US and even conduct the biggest set of Malabar exercises with the US and Japan.

Yet, when it came to the Quadrilateral of Nations (Quad), it temporarily held back after Wuhan. Since then representatives of the four countries have met twice more in 2018 but the differences on the concept and aim remain, and therefore the Quad has achieved very little so far. If anything the participation of all four navies in the 2018 Malabar Exercise would have messaged a difference. However, Australia continued to remain excluded with the exercise ending up as a trilateral similar to 2007. This is the domain of strategic autonomy that has evidenced a Wuhan stranglehold and China appears to be attempting to rub it in.

No doubt, during the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Beijing other important issues would have emerged, beyond just Indo-US relations, the larger strategic connotations of South West Asia where much is happening. China’s strategic partner Pakistan is concerned both about the internal happenings in Baluchistan and its relationship with Iran, given the fact that its chief supporter Saudi Arabia is in cahoots with the US on the declaration of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a terror entity.

India’s concern about Masood Azhar was raised but inputs do indicate that China may no longer be able to block his designation as an international terrorist; a moral victory of sorts for India which is bound to cause some consternation in Pakistan as Prime Minister Imran Khan is on his visit to the Belt & Road Initiative conference. China could, in turn, seek from India a lowering of visible Indo-US strategic cooperation especially with emphasis to the Indo-Pacific. The restiveness in Afghanistan and the potential breakdown of negotiations with the Taliban continues to threaten further instability in the region. 

Given all this India too would play to its interests and not be swayed by short-term gains. Among the major interests would remain a strong Indo-US relationship undiluted by any Chinese rhetoric. Majority of India’s diplomatic, technological, economic and military interests lie in the pursuit of that with full knowledge that it will yet take much to convert it to a transformational relationship. The US too would be aware of China’s efforts to use the Wuhan spirit to force India to go slow in its emerging relationship with the US.

For India to play midway may not be in its fullest interest. It has drawn some significant concessions from the US in the context of its relationship with Iran and Russia, and cannot risk these at the altar of Chinese goodwill. As a major swing power in international strategic equations, it must know exactly where it stands. Pursuing the spirit of Wuhan is essential but retaining India’s strategic autonomy to pursue its other interests is also essential. Learning to resist China’s inevitable mind games is the key to the predicament.