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Building a Meaningful Strategic Relationship with China

The recent India-China stand-off over the issue of a Chinese visa for Lt General BS Jaswal, a serving commander of Northern Command, has highlighted the tenuous nature of existing ties between the two countries. This incident has shown the limitations in building a military relationship with China, in the absence of greater and closer strategic relationship between the two countries. At present the military relationship in a nascent stage limited to goodwill visit of senior officers and naval ships. There had been a few low level exercises with the participation of sub units of armies of both the countries.

It also raises the fundamental question whether India can build a meaningful military relationship at all with China? Both the countries have no choice to build a strategic relationship in which military relationship would be an important segment. So far India-China relationship building had been a halting process, despite appreciable growth in mutual trade largely to the advantage of China. So building a military relationship is going to be a long haul filled with minefields of petty misunderstandings and minor confrontations.

Building a military relationship is inextricably intertwined with a number of strategic issues in which the two countries have conflicting interests – China’s territorial claims in India’s border areas, presence of sizeable Tibetan refugees who refuse to accept Chinese rule in Tibet, China’s growing relations with India’s close neighbours, growth of integrated strategic defence ties between China and Pakistan, and China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean region. These issues have gained new dimensions after the US economic downturn and Washington’s efforts to scale down its strategic moves to contain China. China’s rapid progress in military modernisation – particularly naval and missile capability – have strengthened and made its ambitions to become a global super power a little more realistic.

India had been bending over backwards to accommodate China’s periodic aberrations in its fragile relations. It had always played down even reports of Chinese border intrusions and protests over Indian prime minister’s visits to Arunachal Pradesh. However, New Delhi has reacted strongly in the case of Lt General Jamwal’s visa to China. Apart from issuing a demarche to Beijing, India has reciprocated by refusing visas to Chinese PLA officers including one to attend a course at the National Defence College in India. It has also suspended other military interactions with China, at least for the time being.

If we go by India’s defence minister AK Antony’s reaction the following day, New Delhi appears to have had second thoughts on the issue and tried to play down the whole thing, even as the media went gewgaw over the incident. Answering a media question on the incident, he said “We have close ties with China. There may be some short term problems (emphasis added) but they will not come in the country’s overall approach towards our neighbour.” Does this mean the defence minister, who gives form to India’s national defence, has failed to read the strategic signal Beijing has sent with this incident? After all India has gulped down similar rebuffs from Canada to its serving and retired army officers in denying visa for private visits on even more specious grounds. Then why raise the ante in the first place, when China poses a problem over visas?

As Mr B Raman has pointed out in his recent article “ Dealing with China’s machinations in J and K” (available at ) there appears to be a distinct shift in Chinese policy regarding the status of J and K. This is probably in keeping with China’s revised strategic security perceptions. The first relates to Xinjiang – the region troubled by Uighur revolt – on its south-western flank. The potential for Uighur revolt increases when the strategic environment of the Taliban dominated areas along Pakistan-Afghan border changes for the worse as and when American military power is scaled down over the next year. A second aspect, related to earlier issue, is the likelihood of Pakistan increasing its clout in this region when the muscle power of Taliban increases after American exit. So it would be in China’s interest to further consolidate its strategic relations with Pakistan over the long term. It would also serve China’s global interests: improve China’s access to the Arabian Sea and its energy security. Of course, an added incentive is a militarily more reliable and stronger Pakistan would keep India busy on its western flank. China would then be able to leverage it to its advantage both in negotiations and confrontations with India.

India has always had a problem in rationalising its policy making to meet the needs of national interests in a changing strategic environment. Even on other issues that require real time action, there is a lot of foot dragging and uncertainty to the detriment of national interest both in internal and external policy making. As a direct consequence even manageable issues like Kashmir unrest, Naga insurgency, and Maoist upsurge have become hardy perennials. While these issues have a large internal content, it has also affected foreign policy making with a lack of clarity and definition. India will have to be proactive in building relations with other nations, with clear and visible demarcation of its own interests where it would not make compromises. This is essential in dealing with countries like China who see their own interest in clearly defined terms in every move they make and action they take. The Chinese have made good use of India’s weakness in this respect to needle India as and when it suits them.

Any improvement in this regard requires a change in national mindset. It is doubtful whether the present Indian national leadership, including the political community as a whole, is ready to take charge, instead of deferring decisions and debating the frivolous. Unless this is done, it is going to be increasingly difficult to deal with China. India has to foster a win-win relationship with China. It is essential for handling contentious issues that are often in conflict with national security interests of both the countries. Otherwise as national security interests gather more form and content, India would be the loser. And we cannot afford that.

(The writer, Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group, and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Website:

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