Decoding China’s positive outreach to the international community

A recent statement from Mao Ning, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson suggests that China was ready to strengthen communication with the international community including Russia and India and send a positive signal to the world about defending true multilateralism and jointly responding to global challenges. How that fits in with President Xi Jinping’s vision of a China-led world order by 2050 is perplexing, unless it is part of an elaborate web of obfuscation of the kind that China is known to weave when faced with multiple international challenges.

Through the 1950s, even as Mao sorted out a plethora of challenges such as famine and the Korean Crisis, Zhou Enlai, his suave and sophisticated foreign policy lieutenant, led Nehru and his band of idealists on a wild goose chase across the McMahon Line. After endorsing the Panchsheel Agreement in New Delhi in 1954 and then again at Bandung in 1955, and making two official visits to India (1956 and 1960) in front of thousands of cheering Indians, Zhou deftly engaged India even as China sliced through Eastern Aksai-Chin from 1951-1957, connecting Tibet with Xinjiang by building the G219 Highway. Continuously urging Nehru to settle the boundary issue on an anti-colonial and anti-imperialistic platform even as the People’s Liberation Army annexed Tibet and made its way to India’s doorstep in strength, Zhou watched Mao’s impatience and dislike for Nehru grow and withdrew into the background as the PLA made serious inroads into Ladakh and NEFA in October and November 1962.

Twenty-five years later in 1986-87, the Indian Army established both tactical and moral ascendancy over Chinese positions in Sumdorong Chu after an incursion by the latter into the Wangdung Bowl where they established a summer camp. Major General JM Singh, the aggressive Divisional Commander in Tawang and his dynamic Corps Commander in Tezpur, Lt Gen Narahari, speedily built up infrastructure in the area, brought in the newly inducted Bofors gun and Mi-17 helicopters, and even made plans for a limited offensive across the LAC. Then, in the summer of 1987, the Indian Army was asked to “quieten down” by New Delhi and allow diplomacy to take over even as the stand-off continued for months. This was just what the doctor ordered for Deng Xiao Ping who was “biding his time” and working on his four modernisations to make China great again.

Though traditional China watchers will argue that the visits of Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao to China in 1988 and 1993 paved the way for over three decades of “Peace and Tranquility” and “not a shot was fired in anger along the LAC,” there was much collateral and long-term damage caused by the elaborate smoke screen laid out by the Chinese under the umbrella of various agreements with fancy names such as Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (1993), Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (1996) and Protocol for the Implementation of Military Confidence Building Measures (2005). Stray and unconfirmed reports of “swap offers” helped China obfuscate matters even as the Indian Army turned into a tightly leashed “policing” force without weapons along the LAC, rather than a “defending” force with teeth — sticks and stones were preferred instruments of force even as the guns fell silent.

Notwithstanding the adverse strategic fall-out from an Indian perspective after the Doklam face-off and the Galwan and Depsang transgressions, there seems to be a greater realisation within India’s politico-military-diplomatic circles that a parallel, collaborative and consistent approach is the only way forward. Though several analysts also argue that the impending border talks between Bhutan and China could prove disadvantageous to India’s strategic interests, there are several positives for India that have emerged out of recent events. First is the strong Indian military position on the ground and in the air, albeit reactive, which precludes any chance of a swift punitive military action by China to seize disputed areas. Second is the consistent diplomatic posture that attaches the return to normalcy in the broader landscape of India-China relations with a return to the status quo along the LAC that existed prior to the Galwan crisis. Both the Defence Minister and the External Affairs Minister have repeatedly voiced this whenever the Chinese have urged India to delink the border dispute and move forward on trade and economic links. Lastly, China’s recent aggressive posture towards India in the backdrop of the latter emerging as a strong and stable democratic state in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, has helped India cement and strengthen several strategic partnerships on equitable terms and conditions, thereby strengthening its overall deterrent posture in spaces like the Indo-Pacific.

President Xi Jinping has been consistent in continuing to concurrently engage and coerce India over the last decade, albeit with mixed success. Even as the Chinese spokesperson waxed eloquent about forging partnerships with India and Russia, the PRC publicised the renaming of Arunachal Pradesh as Zangnan and launched a blistering public relations blitz criticising the visit of India’s Home Minister to Arunachal Pradesh on April 10, 2023.

On a sombre note, the economic, military and technological asymmetry between India and China is only going to widen in the next decade till the impact of India’s Atmanirbharta or self-reliance drive is converted into tangible operational capability. Till then, the deft management of strategic partnerships on a level playing field, particularly with the US, firm political guidance that can hold its ground in the face of innovative and disruptive Chinese strategies, and deft, deterrent and coercive military strategies from a position of operational and technological disadvantage, are the only workable strategies to keep the dragon at bay.

Very rarely in world history have two neighbouring powers risen peacefully — Sparta and Athens, Persia and Greece, France and Germany, Russia and China are highly instructive examples. The perils of ignoring history amidst the overriding Thucydidian paradigm of Fear, Honour and Interest as the principal drivers of inter-state relations in today’s complex global geopolitical landscape hold true in the India-China context. India must retain focus even as multiple strands of dialogue, diplomacy and coercion emerge from Beijing in the years ahead.

The writer, an Air Vice Marshal, was till recently the President’s Chair of Excellence at the National Defence College, New Delhi


  • Adam Gray

    Adam Gray is an experienced journalist with a passion for breaking news and delivering it to the masses. With over a decade of experience in the field, he has covered everything from local stories to national events, earning a reputation for his accuracy, reliability, and attention to detail. As a reporter, Adam is always on the lookout for the next big story, and his dedication to uncovering the truth has earned him the respect of his peers and readers alike. When he's not chasing down leads, Adam can be found poring over the latest headlines, always on the lookout for the next big scoop. Contact [email protected]

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