Features | Security | South Asia

China’s High Risk India Gamble

China is exerting pressure on India on a range of fronts. It’s time for India to push back—and to reach out to Taiwan.

By Sujit Dutta for

Chinaloves to keep the pot boiling with countries it perceives as potential rivals, a fact no more evident than it is with its dealings with India in recent years. China’s recent decision to deny a visa to Indian Lt. General B. S. Jaswal, head of the Northern Command, is therefore just another example of its determination to find new issues to further complicate the already complex web of India-China differences.

The game is being played at multiple levels with Jammu and Kashmir, which is seen by China as an area of ‘international dispute’ in the same way as Arunachal Pradesh. At first glance, it seems a relatively recent diplomatic gambit. But it’s one that was first introduced some years ago, when the planned visit to Ladakh by the People’s Liberation Army Commander of the Lanzhou Military Region that covers Xinjiang (which sits opposite Jammu and Kashmir) was cancelled at the last moment by China on the grounds that Pakistan had protested that the territory is disputed. This move was soon followed by a visa denial to an official from the state on similar grounds, while last year, the Chinese embassy followed up by inventing a new method of giving stapled visas.

This has all come against a backdrop of PLA moves to enhance its road and rail-building work in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, with little indication that China sees the area as disputed or recognises that such activities are grossly illegitimate given India’s legal sovereignty.

None of this has gone unnoticed by decision makers in New Delhi. Yet, for the past decade they’ve played down these problems in the expectation that deepening engagement would eventually influence attitudes at the top in China and gradually result in a softening of the Chinese position.

But this hasn’t happened. If political liberals believed that flourishing trade ties (now worth $60 billion) or construction, power and telecom company contracts being signed with a total value of $25 billion to $30 billion would elicit a modicum of moderation on the Chinese side over these critical issues, they will have been hugely disappointed. There has been no moderation on the territorial and other differences that continue to dog the relationship, despite India presenting a united front with China on international trade and environment issues.

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And China has a long list of demands. It wants Arunachal to be handed over (or, at the very least, Tawang and a few other areas); it wants India to stop offering sanctuary to the Dalai Lama so his struggle for the rights of the Tibetan people and Tibetan autonomy will be silenced; it wants to retain most of the territory it has forcibly occupied in Ladakh, land that extends well beyond even its official claim line of 1956; it wants Nepal to be neutral; it wants India to shun close ties with the United States; it wants to further open India’s market for its companies…and the list goes on.

Meanwhile, India’s failure to respond adequately in China’s eyes to any of these demands means China has worked to thwart Indian efforts elsewhere. For example, it opposes India’s entry into the Security Council as a permanent member, it opposes World Bank and IMF project loans for development programmes in Arunachal (and may soon do the same with Jammu and Kashmir), it wants India out of East Asian regional forums, it has steadily built military pressure points in Tibet and more broadly it sustains strategic pressure through its alliance with Pakistan. This is hard-nosed realpolitik, much like it is engaged in with Japan in the Pacific and Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea.

It’s not as if India hasn’t tried to meet China halfway. It has already made two unilateral concessions to China—recognizing Taiwan as a part of China and then accepting Tibet as part of China—without seeking any reciprocity over its own territorial integrity. Yet China doesn’t see these as concessions at all, so there’s been no diplomatic gain and no attempt to build trust on the Chinese side.

How should India respond? It needs to pursue a more nuanced version of its current strategy. Given the importance of the relationship, both engagement and a certain amount of balancing remain crucial for bilateral and regional stability (for a start, India needs to indicate what its own core interests are).

The reported cancelling of military exchanges by India in response to the visa denial was only to be expected. But broader steps may also be needed to ensure that a comprehensive dialogue on a series of intertwined disputes takes place.

One thing India should do is to adhere to strict reciprocity on all diplomatic issues with China—unilateral concessions don’t seem to help matters. Another step India should take is to boost ties with Taiwan and invite a ministerial team for talks on trade and investments. And it would be useful if India’s leaders moved to open discussions with select Southeast Asian states such as Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore on China’s increasingly assertive behaviour across Asia—fears are growing about the growing gulf between Chinese rhetoric of peace and harmony and its actions.

Finally, India should stop reiterating that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of China until Beijing accepts Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir as integral parts of India.

It goes without saying that it’s important not just for India, but for Asia as a whole that relations with China move forward to ensure long-term stability in the region is maintained. But ultimately, no progress will be made unless China feels the same way.


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Sujit Dutta is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.