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China’s Encirclement Policy: Implications for India ; By Cmde SL Deshmukh

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article 11/2022

China’s hegemonic behaviour and disregard for established global laws have been apparent for some years now. China’s dubious attitude on resolving border issues with India, its aggression in the South China Sea, denying benefits of EEZ to other countries, are all classic examples of its hegemonic behaviour. China’s this behaviour and its tricks of the trade to undermine India and be a sole influencer in Indo-Pacific and IO Regions, at any cost, have been a matter of concern for India. India’s attempts to amicably resolve these issues have not borne fruit, because of China’s obstinate attitude. China continues with its aggression on the borders and is rigorously following its ‘India Encirclement Policy’. China seems to convey a strong message to India that it’s either China’s way or highway. India cannot afford to cow down now or lose sight of China’s nefarious designs in the region.

In that context, this paper will examine historical background in relation to China’s behaviour, its dealings with India and its neighbouring countries, China’s India encirclement policy, its implications for India, ending with some viable recommendations.

Introduction

“China wants to cement status quo, India wants de-escalation as 14th-round talks begin in Ladakh” (Philip, January 2022),  this headline is reflective of China’s attitude and disregard for keeping its own promises. Though China deals with the other countries in similar disdain, it is a matter of grave concern for India, given the enormity of the stakes.

Despite efforts by India, as by many other countries, to find amicable solutions to the disputes with China, the situation either remains the same or is deteriorating further. Probably it’s China’s way of delivering a strong message to the world at large and India in particular that either fall in line with China’s thinking or be prepared to face its wrath, be it economic, military, or geo-political. This behaviour of China has sparked global concerns as such a hegemonic attitude has the potential to destabilise not only the economies of the affected countries but also the geopolitical construct in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions.

On that background, this paper will try and examine historical background in relation to China’s behaviour, its dealings with  India and its neighbouring countries, implications for India or China’s encirclement policy, ending with some viable recommendations.

China’s Behaviour- Historical Background

Historically, Chinese Civilisation goes back thousands of years.  Scholars have stated that Chinese civilisation basically relates tenets like its civilization-state, the tributary system, a different concept of the state, and mixed modernity. They have also observed that China dramatically differs from the West, in relation to historical background and culture. This difference and China’s quest for avenging its past and reviving its old glory results in its hegemonic attitude and aggressive behaviour (Jacques, 2009). Jacques has also opined that China likes to interpret the world from its own viewpoint and has a totally different vision of world order. Thus, China may not accept the international system, as presently existent and may seek to change that system.

In a similar vein, another researcher has pointed out that China’s domineering behaviour, bullish and hegemonic attitude and arrogance has an unmistakable linkage to its past and historical ‘barbarian handling’ mentality (Luttwale,2012). This clearly explains China’s typical aggressive behaviour and its current dealings with the world.

Indo-China Relationship

Historically, India and China have had sustained relations for more than 2,000 years, and the cultural and religious commonalities between India and China made bonds of friendship for an appreciable period (Reddy, 2016). But the end of World War II and the independence of India, immediately thereafter, saw a significant shift in the political discourse between the Indian and Chinese leaders. That conundrum was further exacerbated by the Tibet issue, in 1950. Thereafter, India and China have had a typical ‘blow hot- blow cold’ relationship. These emerging Asian Giants’ have also had their security challenges, either arising from historical territorial disputes or mounting economic, military, and political rivalries (Sen, 2020).

Today, China with its unmistakable clout in South and Southeast Asia has used its economic-political-military influence, in intensifying its ties with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka et al, causing Indo-China political and security discord (Baruah, March 03, 2021). It needs to be noted that China’s efforts in undermining India’s influence, in the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, stems from its quest to be a sole power in this area, certainly at the cost and chagrin of India.

China and India’s Neighbouring Countries

China-Bangladesh

China and Bangladesh initially shared an adversarial relationship during Bangladesh’s independence movement and the immediate period after that. However, after 2010, the relationship went through a magical transformation to an extent that China is now considered as an ‘all-weather friend’ of Bangladesh. Their ties cover geopolitical, economic spheres and defence ties form a key area of their relationship. Bangladesh forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative-BRI (Samsani, May 2021). But all is not well between their ties. China tends to interfere with Bangladesh’s foreign relations matters. With a view to cite an example, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jimming, on May 10, 2021, warned Dhaka against joining the QUAD and said that if Bangladesh did so, it will “substantially damage” bilateral relations between Bangladesh and China. This warning obviously drew dissension from many quarters. China sees Bangladesh as an important strategic partner in its Belt and Road Initiative. If Bangladesh joins Quad Plus, it will be a big blow to China’s efforts to bring South Asia under its geopolitical influence (Bhattacharya, 2021). This would have serious implications for India.

China-Myanmar 

The relations between Myanmar and China had shown a roller coaster behaviour since 1949. But then things began to change in the late 1980s when Myanmar faced increased Western-led economic sanctions after a coup in 1988 and the introduction of a number of economic reforms. It was under these conditions that the China–Myanmar relations started gaining momentum. China-Myanmar relationship covers many angles like geo-political-economic and defence. Myanmar’s geographic location, on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal and its land borders, makes it vital, for China’s interests in the region. Myanmar is also part of BRI and likely to face the Chinese Debt Trap. There is also a lack of trust on the Myanmar side, due to China’s historical role in supporting rebel groups in Myanmar by funding them or providing them with arms. These groups have also been accused of disrupting some Indian projects in Myanmar. Myanmar is aware of its excessive dependence on China and has been trying to reduce it since 2011, but with limited success (Samsani, Apr 2021). However, as of now, China holds some aces in Myanmar, which can be detrimental to India’s interests.

China-Sri Lanka

China and Sri Lanka have deep diplomatic, geopolitical, economic and defence relationships. Sri Lanka, which is in the backyard of  India, has joined China’s BRI with several projects, which are a matter of concern for India. But now Colombo has fallen into the premeditated scheme of a Chinese debt trap, paying off its loans in varied ways, from leasing its strategic assets through debt-equity swaps to creating extra-jurisdictional Special Economic Zones (Abeyaogoonsekera, 2021). Abeyagoonasekera has rightly pointed out that the “Sri Lankan government would certainly need to backtrack its China ‘bandwagoning’ foreign policy and bring a ‘balance’ and develop a considered perspective on the geopolitical and regional security concerns its close relationship with China brings.” But till that happens it is going to be an uninvited headache for India.

China-Maldives

Maldives and China, in January 2022, signed key bilateral agreements during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit, on developing and maintaining infrastructure in the Indian Ocean archipelago, besides agreeing on a visa-free travel arrangement for Maldivians intending to travel to China. Mr Wang’s visit also coincided with a growing ‘India Out’ campaign among sections within the Maldives that oppose “Indian military presence” in the country. Further, China has been constantly putting pressure on the Maldivian government to enhance its cooperating in BRI. It is well understood that both the structure of the international system and the balance of power tend to limit the foreign policy choices of smaller states. This is where constant pursuance pays dividends. China has managed to limit India’s outreach in Maldives and India has lost some strategic projects to China. Repercussions of this on India’s security would need no explanation (Revi, 2021, Srinivasan, 2022).

China-Pakistan

Pakistan has been an important partner to China for many years. It has been observed that Pakistan’s importance for China might have increased many folds for many reasons. Undoubtedly, China has antagonized a large number of countries with its aggressive attitude and wolf warrior diplomacy,  in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe. This obviously raised the importance of the friends like Pakistan. Further, China forced worsening relations between China and India, India was compelled to become closer to the USA and its allies, including Canberra and Tokyo. India has also perforce developed a web of security and strategic partnerships including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with the U.S., Australia, and Japan, and a number of trilateral strategic partnerships such as India-U.S.-Japan and Japan-India-Australia. China feels all of these new partnerships of India are clearly designed to counter China. Thus, all of these have made China, even more, dependent on Pakistan to counter India. China has also supplied many advanced weapon platforms to Pakistan, to bolster its capabilities against India (Rajagopalan, 2021). China inroads in  Pakistan/Sindh/Baluchistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, under the garb of BRI and strategic importance attached by it to China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are an open secret. They pose a considerable threat to India’s security.

China-Afghanistan 

China is currently pursuing three main objectives in Afghanistan, namely, avoiding further expansion of the conflict and all-out civil war, promoting intra-Afghan negotiations, and preventing the rise of terrorist forces and activities. China is relying on intensified relations with Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, for support to China’s interests in the region. China views the country as a major geopolitical connect between Pakistan and Iran, countries which have already deepened their ties with Beijing under the Belt and Road (BRI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridors (CPEC) initiatives. China has been consistently working on building relationships with all relevant actors in Afghanistan and, if necessary, accommodating the Taliban to discourage their support for Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province (Tchakarova, 2021). China has also managed to effectively shut India out of Afghanistan affairs. This does not bode well for India’s security.

China-Nepal 

China has extended a helping hand to Nepal, India’s Himalayan neighbour. Nepal on its part, gladly accepted it, understandably as a measure to address Nepal’s growing unhappiness with India’s perceived domineering attitude. Nepal seems to have joined the Chines camp, despite the cost (Sigdel, 2018). China has been on a land-grabbing mission in Nepal too-an an important bordering nation for India. China has established villages inside the Nepalese Territory and encouraged Chinese people to make it their habitat (NDTV, 2021). China is also trying to influence Nepal’s internal politics (Basu, 2020). It’s a worrisome development for India.

China-Bhutan 

For China, Bhutan seems to be the last bastion that China has not brought under its dominance. China which has already eroded India’s pre-eminence in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, now wants to challenge New Delhi’s special relationship with Bhutan as well. Recent events, including Doklam and the revival of its claim in the eastern region, can be seen as systematic Chinese pressure to push the Bhutanese to comply with its demands (Joshi, 2021). China is using all tactics available to it for twisting Bhutan’s arms. In that, China has established a new village called Gyalaphug and has gradually expanded it. In addition, China has stepped up establishing three villages, seven roads and at least five military or police outposts in the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley. China Probably intends to offer the disputed area of Beyul Khenpajong to Bhutan, in exchange for another disputed pocket around Doklam, in western Bhutan (Shukla, May 18, 2021). The Chinese game plan here should be evident to Indian strategists.

Bhutan so far had successfully walked the tightrope between its two giant neighbours, even while making it clear that it would not like to play  India off against China. But recent developments suggest a perception in Bhutan that there are limits to which it can depend on India for its security. With India itself hard-pressed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it is unlikely to be of much help to Bhutan (Joshi, Ibid). On the other hand, a settled border could have many benefits, including Chinese investments and tourists. China seems to have managed to effectively lower India’s influence in Bhutan, completing the circle. India needs to realise the seriousness of this situation and act with alacrity to protect its national interest and global prestige.

China's  Encirclement Policy

Picture Courtesy : Jagran Josh

Implications for India and Mitigative Measures

Implications

A gift of a necklace would normally be cherished by anyone. But for India, China’s this gift of necklace- through the encirclement, spells trouble, risks for its security, economy, and global prestige. China always boasts of its purely benign intentions in South Asia. However, a closer look at its actions would paint a completely different picture. China’s activities in the region show audacious efforts for securing its own national interests, at the cost of others. These activities, without any doubt, would jeopardise India’s security and stability.

China wants to weaken India both- economically and militarily, for its own ambitions. It also wants to prevent Indo-US closer ties, as there is a reason for it. Although to the western world, China seems to prepare militarily for potential contingencies against Taiwan, Chinese military scholars have been writing extensively about the potential for a renewed border war with India along the Himalayas. In reality, armed conflict with India is so prominent in Chinese military thinking,  that it is being pursued as a campaign named ‘Joint Border Area Operations’, one of five known campaigns of China, in the naval and air warfare domains ( Grossman, 2020). In a supporting narrative, Easton (Easton, 2019), in his extensive study related to these campaigns, has pointed out that a war against Taiwan occurring simultaneously with another one against India in the south, would be a ‘nightmare scenario’ for Beijing. Thus, India’s strengthening security ties with the United States would be a worrisome development for China and it would anything to jeopardise the Indo-US closer relationship.

Further, India needs to understand that China’s interests in South Asia are far beyond maintaining amicable relations in the region. China has never hidden its dissatisfaction with the existing LAC with India and is trying to change the situation to its liking. Beijing also detests  India’s persistent support to the Dalai Lama and outright rejection of BRI. As a result, China is trying to do everything to undermine India. The recent border flare-ups and protracted military-level talks clearly show that Beijing does not value New Delhi’s cooperation or good bilateral relationship with India. Indeed, it’s time for India to stand up and protects its national interests and global prestige, showing the mirror to China in the bargain (Grossman, ibid).

Mitigative Measures

India now has no other choice than to stand up against China’s iniquitous activities, even though it wouldn’t be an easy feat. India would need clear and innovative thinking on part of the military planners, a strong political will, innovative management of India’s foreign relations. India must appreciate that financial investments in the neighbouring countries would be a key to building a soft power against China, in the region. Saying that where the money? would be a debilitated excuse. A considerable amount of money goes down the drain due to red-tapism, corruption and bad business loans (Bhaskar, 2018). Better economic management will certainly make enough money available for investing in the country’s security and future.

With a view to thwarting China’s aggression and belligerence, India needs to consider the following: –

  1. Improvement in geopolitical, cultural. and military relationships with BIMSTEC and other Courtiers in IOR.

  2. Make tangible investments in the countries in IOR,  for strengthening their infrastructure and meet their military needs, to mitigate their overdependence on China.

  3. Take initiatives for strengthening the QUAD and help in making its vision a reality.

  4. Appreciate the importance of India’s relationship with Russia and initiate measures to reassure Russia to fortify that relationship.

  5. Upgrade capabilities of its defence forces and Coastguard on priority.

  6. Initiate measures for reducing internal strife and improving political and economic stability in India.

  7. Initiate tangible actions in cooperation with its multiple partners to unambiguously show China its limits.

Conclusion

China sees India as the only obstacle in its being the sole regional power. With that ambition in mind, besides being a credible competitor to the USA, China is doing everything in its prowess to weaken India economically and militarily, and also to undermine its global prestige. With its encirclement strategy, China has at least partially succeeded in that aim. It is unfortunate that India’s  ‘Perpetual Election Syndrome’ erodes its ability to focus on matters of national importance. This causes grave damage to India’s international relations, lowers its credibility, and undermines its relevance in the geo-political sphere. Earlier India realises this and set remedial measures in place, better it would be.

China has also been using its long-standing and deep relationship with Pakistan to keep India destabilised and to establish a strategic foothold in a future Afghanistan, at the cost of India. It is no secret that Beijing leverages BRI in every India’s neighbouring country, potentially with geostrategic implications, especially at ports throughout the Indian Ocean. Going forward,  India must not only appreciate but also make other South Asian countries aware of what precisely China is attempting to achieve in the region, and its potential long-term consequences. That would help India in reducing the ill effects of China’s encirclement policy and at least partially regain its relevance in Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions.

Though the above measures would help in containing China in IOR, other factors which may impact India’s efforts in this region and would need to be watched for are:-

  1. Emerging Changes in USA-China Relationship

  2. Internal Disturbances in PoK and impact on CPEC

  3. Political upheaval in Myanmar and China’s offer to mediate

  4. Russia’s growing closeness to China and Pakistan

It would be appropriate to quote Sun Tzu here, “ “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” (Sun Tzu, The Art of War).

Jai Hind.

(Commodore SL Deshmukh, NM (Retd), has served Indian Navy for 32 years, is a Mechanical Engineer is specialised in both Marine & Aviation domains. He also holds a Masters in Defence Studies and a Post-Graduate in Management. He has served onboard aircraft carriers and is specialised on fighter aircraft and ASW helicopters. He held many operational and administrative appointments including Principal Director at Naval HQ, Commodore Superintendent at Naval Aircraft Yard, Director, Naval Institute of Aeronautical Technology and Project Director of a major Naval Aviation Project. He is alumni of Defence Services Staff College Wellington. He was with Tata Group for 5 years and is currently working with SUN Group‘s Aerospace & Defence vertical as Senior Vice President. He is also the Life Member of Aeronautical Society of India. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of C3S.)

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