The following are excerpts from the presentation by Lt. Gen. D. B. Shekatkar, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd.) on The India – China Stand-off: Should India ever trust China? The presentation was delivered under the ‘PIC Adda’ series on the virtual platform on September 19, 2020. PIC Adda is a forum for exchange of ideas.)

The current stand-off between India and China was sparked by the clash between Indian and Chinese troops on the banks of Pangong Tso on 5th May 2020. This clash had been preceded by a build-up of Chinese troops, munitions, and positions at various points along the Indo-Chinese border. Despite several rounds of talks at various levels of the armed forces and government between India and China, the stand-off and force build-up along the border continued over the past few months. It has only been during the sixth round of Corps Commander level talks on Monday, 21st September, that a new agreement has been signed, which aims at pausing the current build-up of troops and munitions on both sides of the border.[1] The concern, however, is whether China’s motivations and intentions can be trusted in light of their activities since May, and perhaps even in historical retrospect. It is this pattern of having to watch China’s every move that is addressed in this perspective drawn from the talk.

The autumn and winter months of August, September, October, November and December have particular significance in India’s ancient history, and its post-independence years. They have decided the defence mechanism of India, owing to the Himalayan winters. On the 29th and 30th August 2020 – the Indian Army occupied those territories in Ladakh, which had been intruded upon by China. This perhaps took the Chinese by surprise and India’s position was made clear by the Defence Minister Mr Rajnath Singh in Parliament recently, where he stated that there would be no pulling back from occupied positions until an agreement is reached.[2]

China shares a long contiguous land border with India, most of which is dominated by the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. As a competitor and adversary, China respects power and firmness. However, the Indian philosophy of governance that seems to be projected to the world, is mellow at best with a special emphasis on soft power. This tendency towards soft power influence may have been turned around to one of firm posturing under the current administration. However, whether this allows India to one-up China in any way, is a longer debate that warrants more detailed discussion.

The relatively quick resolution of boundary issues between Russia and China are cited as an example of China’s willingness to settle issues it saw fit to address at its convenience. While it is no secret that Chinese objectives (much like any nation’s strategic aims) always tend towards resolutions in their favour. An anecdote would serve to highlight Chinese evasiveness and their non-committal take on resolving the Indo-Chinese boundary issues. In 1993, a committee was constituted to review the draft of the first Peace and Tranquillity Agreement that was to be signed between India and China. The committee reviewed the draft and inked just one word, ‘existing’ in the entire text. That is, both sides will respect the ‘existing’ Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Chinese took umbrage to this one, small addition to the draft agreement. In light of this disagreement, they returned without signing the agreement. Thereby leaving the issues at hand unresolved, and unaddressed. It is not just India that has borne the brunt of Chinese aggression and intrusions. Over the past decade or more, China has continued to claim territories from almost all its neighbours – not allowing any boundary disputes to rest, but effectively not resolving them either. There is no country that shares a land, or sea border with China that doesn’t have to contend with a boundary dispute with China.

The India-China Dynamic

The India-China bilateral relationship has seen its fair share of ups and downs, with hot and cold phases interwoven with phases of political, economic, and social cooperation. However, the unresolved border dispute has remained a defining cornerstone of the Sino-Indian relationship. Apart from the war of 1962, the signing of the Indus Water Treaty (with which the Chinese border dispute was linked) is seen as a blunder on India’s part. There are three rivers (the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra) which flow through India, that originate from China – rather, Tibet. The Indus Water Treaty, though an agreement between India and Pakistan is seen as giving indirect influence to China over most of India’s major rivers. 

This also brings to the fore China’s main concern – control over Tibet. This is not only on account of the origins of rivers (and therefore major water resources of the sub-continent) being located here, but also on account of control over mineral resources (such as rare earths, uranium, and mica to name a few) which are believed to be located in and around the Tibetan plateau. The same plate also continues behind the Siachen glacier, and up to the junction of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China.

Tibet and Xinjiang are integral to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)[3], and therefore the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China’s desire to maintain control over both territories is quite apparent as a result. Owing to India’s land border with China covering precisely these two regions, the Chinese are not in a hurry to resolve the boundary dispute with India. However, it is in India’s interest to initiate resolution of the same.

Over the past five decades, the Chinese propaganda machine has convinced not only India, but also the world that China is a powerful economy. One that can eclipse the economy of India. While this may be true to an extent, it is also true that no nation is invulnerable. Even with the economic advantages that China enjoys, India remains a force to be reckoned with and has its own particular advantages. The Indian Army has occupied certain areas and heights, specifically along the old border of Aksai Chin (the one defined at the time of Independence). While the entire stretch may be hardly 17 kms, it is possible to dominate the entire border with China, which is perhaps their cause for concern in Ladakh and why they triggered the stand-off by coming in to the Galwan River valley.

India is the only country in the world with the highest airfield – Daulat Beg Oldie, at 17,000 feet. From this airfield, the Karakoram Pass is barely 10 kms away and this is another concern for China.[4] If the Indian armed forces dominate this swathe of territory right up to Siachen and Kargil, along which the CPEC passes, it could be perceived by China as a potential threat. This is why these areas – Galwan, Daulat Beg Oldie, Eastern Ladakh, and Pangong Tso are important to China.

The Chinese plan for decades ahead, while the Indian administration continues to be handicapped by myopic thinking based on the Five Year Plan template. China has consistently communicated its strategic intent to dominate not only Asia and the Chinese neighbourhood, but also its global hegemonic ambitions. In complete awareness of this fact, India has not approved of the BRI schemes in Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh. India understands the Chinese grand design and continues to oppose the same. This opposition is perceived as an obstacle to Chinese political and economic motives in East Asia. Last, but not least, India’s increasing proximity to the US and Europe is not looked upon favourably by China.

Preparing for Possible Scenarios

China will complete 100 years of their independence in 2049. India will complete 100 years of independence in 2047. The Chinese have made their road map for China’s political and economic ascent known through their actions. China wants to be the sole superpower in the world by 2049. In comparison to this long-term strategy, India’s own grand strategy and national security strategy are lacking – even a century after Independence. There is a demonstrable need for a new national strategy and perhaps even a grand strategy in India. That this needs to be drafted sooner rather than later is apparent.

The Chinese have been pursuing and continue to pursue a ‘resource capture’ strategy, whether in Africa, the South China Sea, their immediate and extended neighbourhood, or elsewhere.[5] There is an intrinsic understanding among the Chinese that the resources required for futuristic development must be captured or capitalised on if they aim to keep their economic juggernaut going for the next couple of decades. This is where their interests in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and other oceanic regions stem from. Additionally, this means that China prefers open trade routes or better yet, routes controlled by them – as seen in their push for the BRI.

India has, as a result, bolstered its own partnerships in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Increased cooperation between nations of the Indo-Pacific, especially between India, Australia, Japan[6], and the recent inclusion of France, with the obvious participation of the US is a trend that concerns China. It is, therefore, most likely that the high seas have greater potential for war scenarios than the Himalayas. On the topic of water, China recognises the value of this resource. It aims to control the territory from where this all-important resource has its origins in the form of several rivers for the Indian sub-continent. Water, therefore, has the potential to become a cause of conflict in times to come.

 Preventing War

From the scenarios above, it should be clear to policymakers in India that preparation for all eventualities, even war, is necessary. Being prepared for war is also the best way to prevent it. If caught unprepared, the threat of getting drawn into conflict – especially at a place, time and in circumstances not of one’s choosing, is very high indeed. While China poses many a threat, it does also realise that today’s world is one of interdependence. It is in India’s interest to abide by continued dialogue with China, while maintaining great caution in its approach and preparedness for possible scenarios.

About the speaker: 

Lt. Gen. D. B. Shekatkar is a decorated war veteran, with a distinguished service record of over four decades in the Indian Army. He is also a scholar with three Ph.Ds (in Management Science, Defence and Strategic Studies, and Psychological Warfare), and has co-authored 16 books on security, terrorism, and intelligence. He is President of the Forum for Integrated Security of India and is currently Chancellor of Sikkim Central University.  

(A video recording of the lecture is available on the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3-o7LqL7h0 )

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[1] ‘Sixth round of talks: India, China agree to stop sending more troops to frontline’, The Indian Express, September 22, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-china-lac-talks-ladakh-joint-statement-6606633/

[2] ‘Text of Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh’s statement in Lok Sabha on September 15 regarding situation on Eastern border in Ladakh’, Release ID: 1654484, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, September 15, 2020. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetailm.aspx?PRID=1654484

[3] Shabir Hashmi, ‘Xinjiang at the heart of Belt, Road’, China Daily, September 2, 2019. http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201909/02/WS5d6c84d0a310cf3e355692ce.html

[4] As reported in, Suryakant Chafekar, ‘At 16,700 ft, on mud strip: IAF pilot on how his AN-32 reopened Daulat Beg Oldi after 43 years’, The Print, June 9, 2020. https://theprint.in/india/at-16700-ft-on-mud-strip-iaf-pilot-on-how-his-an-32-reopened-daulat-beg-oldi-after-43-yrs/438071/ and Shantanu Nandan Sharma, ‘I decided to reactivate Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip without any written permission: Air Marshal (retd) Pranab Kumar Barbora’, Economic Times, June 8, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/i-decided-to-reactivate-daulat-beg-oldi-airstrip-without-any-written-permission-air-marshal-retd-pranab-kumar-barbora/articleshow/76236594.cms?from=mdr  

[5] Mercy A. Kuo and Angelica O. Tang, ‘China’s Natural Resource Strategy: Win without Fighting’, The Diplomat, November 6, 2015. https://thediplomat.com/2015/11/chinas-natural-resource-strategy-win-without-fighting/

[6] Ambassador Anil Wadhwa, ‘India, Japan, Australia, and USA’s Quad: Reinvigoration of Indo-Pacific powers?’ The Financial Express, October 1, 2020. https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/india-japan-australia-and-usas-quad-reinvigoration-of-indo-pacific-powers/2095652/

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