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China and Pakistan- India’s Strategic Choices  

D.S.Rajan, C3S Paper No.2079

Given its pre-eminent position in South Asia and rising potential to become a global player, it is natural that for India, the external environment has become an important factor in its formulation of the country’s overall strategic vision. In that vision, occupying the main place is India’s domestic development; specifically, the ‘Vision 2022’ of the new Indian government has the aim of making housing available to all citizens by the Year 2022. The domestic development is sought to be achieved by India through creation of a favorable international and neighborhood atmosphere.  Undoubtedly, such a linkage forms the key element in determination of India’s foreign policy directions. Notably, the linkage is also prominent in the case of China.

Besides its serving of domestic development, India’s foreign policy has other objectives.  Worth mentioning are the imperatives before India to respond to the behavior of outside powers which all conduct their foreign relations with their own national interests in mind; these interests have both cooperative and competitive elements. Conspicuously figuring in this regard are those of China and Pakistan. Other factors influencing India’s external approach are energy security requirements and the need being increasingly felt by it to react to effects of global issues like climate change, UN reforms, Cyber security, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, maritime piracy etc.

On the question as to how India has gone ahead in realizing its foreign policy objectives, worth mentioning are certain landmark initiatives taken. Since early 90s, it was becoming clear that India’s economic and strategic interests are becoming increasingly intertwined with the larger Asian hemisphere, much beyond the immediate South Asia neighborhood. This led to formulation of a ‘Look East “policy with aim to establish better economic engagement with eastern neighbors.  The policy stands renamed “Act East “ of late, seeking India to play a pro-active role in the region; getting added to the policy’s economic engagement goal, are forging of  strategic partnership and security cooperation with countries in the East. Concomitantly, another concept, known as “Extended Neighborhood”, driven by geo-economic and geo-strategic imperatives that emerged, was adopted by India; under it, India’s extended neighborhood stretches from the Suez Canal to the South China Sea, comprising the interconnected regions of West Asia/the Gulf, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. Specifically, it was a clear response to expansion of India’s interests with energy-rich countries in West Asia and Central Asia, necessitating a reassessment of its security and strategic capabilities. As a sign of such reassessment, appeared of late are the remarks of Indian Prime Minister Modi stressing the need for a  “new thinking on economic, diplomatic and security policies” (speech at Combined Commanders Conference, New Delhi, 17 October 2014).  Giving hints on contours of such ‘new thinking’,  the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)  stresses  the need for India to become  self-reliant and enjoy strategic autonomy; of interest is that the BJP’s articulation  avoids highlighting  the principle of ‘non-alignment’, a theme prominent in the earlier era.

What should be India’s foreign policy priorities? Creating a favorable external environment helpful to domestic development, should naturally come first in this regard.   Firm signs are available that the new Modi government in India  is concentrating on this aspect. There is resurgence in the level of India’s contacts with its neighbors, Asia-Pacific nations, Australia and the US; the expectation is that deeper engagement with these countries will bring economic benefits to India. Especially attracting India are the limitless opportunities in getting investment and infrastructure assistance from countries like Japan, China and the US. Also,recognizing that development is closely connected to maintenance of national security, India is giving primacy to defence and security cooperation in its international dealings. The recent extension of India- US defence cooperation agreement for another 10 years, accomplished during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US in September 2014, is a case in point.

At geo-strategic level, India’s foreign policy priority should be on its two neighbors- China and Pakistan. While dealing with latter, combating cross-border terrorism must get particular attention.  India should carefully weigh the strategic intentions of these two nations and factor them in its policy making.

Taking the case of People’s Republic of China (PRC) first, what cannot be denied is its global power ambition; it is implementing a massive military modernization programme, which raises questions on its intentions to peacefully rise. It  follows a “two-pillar “approach  in its foreign policy; the first pillar is stated as securing “win-win cooperation “in international relations and the second as not making any compromise on territorial sovereignty issues. The second aspect is leading to China’s assertiveness about which all its neighbors which have territorial disputes are becoming increasingly concerned.  They see a contradiction in the “two pillar” external approach of China; the PRC on its part denies the same. It is in any case clear that the Chinese foreign policy has become ‘core interest-based’ since middle of 2008; national security imperatives are now dominating making of Chinese foreign policy.

India’s foreign policy should match with the apparent dichotomy in the Chinese policy pronouncements. It should also be based on its own core-interests. Will China use force in settling its border dispute with India? India should note that the Chinese declared military strategy does not rule out ‘local wars under informatisation conditions’ and such local wars, as many analysts believe, can happen in China’s periphery. India should not fail to see that in South China Sea and East China Sea, the PRC is resorting to a show of force to assert its territorial claims; it has challenged US naval ships in the former and sent its naval submarines to the latter, close to the disputed Senkakus islands, now under Japanese possession. India should anticipate China’s indulging in similar show of force to assert its border claims against it, at an opportune time.

China’s intention seems to be towards prolonging border negotiations with India, on the premise that a status quo would be in its favour.  India should not expect China to drop its claim on Arunachal Pradesh and return Aksai Chin to it at any time. China’s primary interest appears to be in India’s market and the developing India-China economic and business ties deserve to be viewed in this context.  India should realize that economic ties alone cannot be sufficient to bring stability in bilateral relations; instead there should be strategic trust between the two. The case of prevailing China- Japan tensions at a time when their economic ties remain robust should be a lesson for India.

The continuing China-Pakistan nexus and China’s strengthening its strategic presence in India’s neighborhood, will always act as a pressure points of Beijing against New Delhi. In essence, China, given its permanent status in the UN Security Council and the rapidly increasing economic and military potential globally, may not give importance to India as a challenger to its interests. The asymmetry between India and China in terms of national strengths is real and may persist for a long time; this factor will always influence China’s policy towards India.  As such, India’s China policy should be pragmatic; it should continue to ‘engage’ China while at the same time ensuring that its national interests are not compromised.  Why can’t India develop its own pressure points against China? Revisiting Taiwan and Tibet policies, strengthening strategic  ties with China-wary nations in East Asia like Japan, Vietnam  and  the Philippines as well as with ASEAN nations ,  can be India’s options.

In geo-strategic terms, Pakistan’s intentions should be equally important and  India’s foreign policy makers. The Vision 2025 document of Pakistan’s Planning Commission ( describes the  goal for the country-  transforming Pakistan as  a upper middle income country, to reach the position of one among  twenty five world economies by the Year 2025 and as  one of top ten economies in the world by the Year  2047. Notwithstanding the announcement of a vision, underscoring economic goals, regimes in Pakistan remain in obsession of the country’s military security, ignoring development imperatives. This situation is not likely to change in near future, given the country’s tradition which allows the military to play a decisive role in the country’s politics. Despite the presence of an elected government now in Pakistan, the military continues to dominate the state.  Pakistan continues to treat Islam as a factor unifying the nation. It follows a foreign policy with the main goal of persisting in hostility towards India and depends on the alliance with the United States for its military expenditures.  Pakistan considers  relations with China as a counter-weight against India.

India should carefully select a strategy to deal with Pakistan . The former’s  invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend the swearing in ceremony of the new government in New Delhi, was appropriate  not only in SAARC context, but was also in bilateral context. The move reflected Prime Minister Modi’s belief that a peace process will persuade Pakistan to stop cross-border terrorism and begin moving towards good neighbourly ties. The new government in India however had to cancel  the foreign-secretary level talks with Pakistan in August 2014. Prime Minister Modi’s remarks  that India was disappointed that Pakistan sought to make a spectacle of foreign secretary level talks scheduled between the two countries and went ahead with talks with secessionist elements,  marked a tough posture on Pakistan  to be adopted by India.  But India should still not give up hopes on negotiations with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. At the same time, it should take steps to isolate the separatists in Kashmir valley politically. Pakistan’s proxy-war in Kashmir can be tactically challenged by India by opening contacts with separatist movements in Pakistan, like the one run by Baluchis. In addition, India should  adopt suitable measures  for weakening the Pakistan-China nexus; for e.g,  it can convince China that  Pakistan cannot  be trusted by it as terrorism in  Xinjiang   gets encouragement in Pakistan (some Chinese leaders actually believe so) and can even offer counter-terrorism cooperation with China on this count.

( The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. This formed the basis of his talk on the subject at the National Conference of Indian Strategic Thinkers on “India’s Foreign Policy and its Strategic Stance in Present Global Security Scenario”, held at New Delhi on 25 and 26 October 2014, under the sponsorship of Centre for Policy Analysis, Patna in association with the Ministry of External Affairs.

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