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India’s China Predicament: Unsolvable Riddle or Solutions in Historical Analogy; By Abhishek Das

Image Courtesy: Economic Times

Article 47/2020

An old saying goes “One can choose his friends not his brothers; one can choose his friends, not his neighbours”.

The Conundrum

If one do retrospect India’s neighbourhood; the most civil opinion would be “hazardous”. Two Nuclear Powers including an assertive autocratic China teamed up with Militaristic Pakistan; India’s mortal adversary. It is not something one Nation wants as its neighbours to North and West. But that is reality. India has to live with that unless there is some tectonic shift not in Geopolitics but in Geology to get rid of such threats altogether.

The current development that is unfolding between India and China since May 2020 due to the incursion by the latter of Indian Territory in Eastern Ladakh resulted in bloody clashes of June 15 in Galwan Valley between Indian and Chinese Troops which left scores of casualties on both sides first in 45 years since 1975 although scuffles are normal between these two Armies. So far Chinese Intention, as usual, is very much clear to their practice; push the adversary continuously to find out the weakest moment to go for a “Salami Slicing” which only got challenged in the Doklam; Bhutan where they were preemptively blocked and forced to withdraw after 73 Days of a stand-off in 2017 by India.

China has made its intention clear from the very beginning. Unfortunately; instead of identifying China as its Primal Threat; India’s naivety proved costly; in 1962 as well as today in 2020 even though many Indian Strategic Experts, as well as Political Figures time and again, spells out the threat poses by China to the sovereignty of India. George Fernandez; the then Defence Minister in 1999 unequivocally called China as India’s primary threat. Even though India regularly got entangled with delusions such as Border Management Talks, Confidence Building Measures in its effort to avoid making differences into disputes. This process of rapprochement has begun when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister in 1981; 39 years ago and till date, it produced no results; not even maps been exchanged by China. While India keeps itself busy in various negotiating mechanisms; China continues to build its capacities and infrastructure for future face-offs with India. It also equipped Pakistan both politically, economically and militarily to keep India busy in Asymmetric Warfare. China is taking all necessary steps to curtail India’s influence within the latter’s strategic sphere of Dominance. It infiltrated into India’s backyard in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives. It is not ready to acknowledge India’s Security Concern over the Indian Ocean Region although vehemently protects the narrative of South China Sea as China’s own Lake. It has very little regard on “One India” policy while it always demands from India to adhere “One China” policy. It is China’s collusion that today India stands open towards Two Front War like no other nation in the World.

Why China is on warpath against India

Now, what is China’s agenda beyond these tactical “Salami Slicing”? What it is actually in China’s psyche? Why they are irked so much now that they came to Ladakh with such huge mobilization? Some would say it is India’s revocation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir that irked China but then 1962 Sino-India War would not have happened in the first place. Some would say it is an assertive nationalistic regime of Xi Jinping but again India is facing the same China since the days of Mao.

Actually, it is China’s hegemonic psyche of the Middle Kingdom that even the Communists carried out so far so brilliantly within their belief apparatus guaranteeing Chinese Superiority under their Divinely Fated Rulers so as modern days equivalents. If we look back to the Chinese history; we will find that except the period from 1832 to 1949 deemed as “Century of Humiliation”; China was one of the dominant powers both militarily and economically. Since the 16th Century to the first half of the 19th Century; China’s economy was the strongest except once at 1700 AD to Mughal India. After the end of Second World War and long civil war; the Communist Forces under Mao Zedong emerged as victorious against Kuomintang Leader Chiang Kai Shek in 1949.

Throughout this period; China’s search was continuous for its lost glory. However, at the same time, India also emerged free from the British Colonial Rule with a vibrant Democratic System completely different to China’s path of Communist Dictatorship. Communists in Beijing looked down to India’s Democracy as Tribal Affairs which is bound to fail. China despised Nehru’s Asianism because they by that time started to believe that there is no place for two Suns on the Asian Sky and China is that only Sun. Nehru’s overture of Peace, Panchsheel and “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” hence knocked out by China in 1962.

China’s Redline

Todays’ China is a Developed State with the 2nd Largest Economy (Source: IMF Data; 2019) and 3rd Largest Military Power (Source: Global Firepower; 2020) under the leadership of Chairman Xi. Since the beginning of his tenure; Xi has made it clear that China will be assertive and it will act as a superpower in each matter of its concern. To match up with the aura of his personality; Xi has inaugurated his most ambitious pet project the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) aiming to revive Ancient Silk Road by massive Infrastructure Development Program throughout the road including the USD 46 Billion “Crown Jewel” of the BRI, the China Pakistan Occupied Kashmir Economic Corridor (CPoKEC).

This key Project is more of strategic importance than of economic importance. The Corridor going from Gwadar Port to Kashgar is the symbol of strategic liberation of China’s Geopolitical Stagnancy, access to warm water port, a relief from the threat of being choked in Malacca Strait by powerful rival navies in the event of conflicts. Once fully operational, China’s energy security, as well as other imports, will be less insecure as instead of travelling from the Middle East to China via Straits of Malacca; it can move through CPoKEC to reach the Gwadar Port which will save both time and cost let alone the security issue.

But India’s objection to the CPoKEC has made China uncomfortable if not unnerved. Afterall no country can remain comfortable in front of a challenge posed by 4th Largest Economy (Source: IMF; 2019) and 4th Largest Military Power (Source: Global Firepower; 2020) towards its infrastructure which is huge in monetary investment and mammoth in geopolitical significance. China feels more threatened when it anxiously watches India’s fragile and hostile relation with Pakistan. Because the strategic depth of Pakistan against Indian onslaught has been shifted from Afghanistan and without probably knowing it; China has changed that and made CPoKEC as the new strategic depth of Pakistan against India. In an event of future action by India on Pakistani soil will always bring the threat to CPoKEC as far as its security is concerned.

China’s insecurity grew more when India abrogated Article 370. India’s continuous modernization of its Armed Forces, development of frontier connectivity military infrastructure, its enhanced ties with the US, South East Asian Countries and evolving QUAD matrix has chagrinned China for a long time. Whether it is the declaration of the Indian political leadership to repatriate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to India or China’s loss of face in Doklam; it all accumulated in what has happened in Ladakh today. Indian Policymakers should not be baffled if this effort by China is meant to disregard India’s claim of “Pakistan Occupied Indian Territory” through the use of force in Indian controlled Kashmir and Ladakh for which main body of PLA is being trained and acclimatized in Tibetan Plateau.

India’s Options in Historical Analogy

Now, what could be India’s option to such an Enemy Intent? What will be India’s response? Is there any feasibility in Preemptive Military Confrontation? How to avert the risk of being engaged in multiple fronts by China’s proxies? Is Dialogue and Disengagement the best way out?

The answer for Indian Policymakers lies in history. The situation of the Austrian Empire at the beginning of the 19th Century, as well as the situation of the French Third Republic at the beginning of the 20th Century, bears more similarities than the differences. While the Austrians were facing the fervent revolutionaries of France under the leadership of History’s one of the best Military Commander; Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Third Republic, on the other hand, was facing the highly Industrious German Empire; the greatest land power of that day at the beginning of 20th Century. Both these countries have shown the way that the best plan is to balance both internally and externally against the Superpower of that day through coercive diplomacy as well as with the might of the military to support that diplomacy.

Early 19th Century; Austrian Situation and Way out

Since the establishment of French First republic after the gory French Revolution; France started exporting the fervour of the revolution all over Europe. It was horrifying for existing European Monarchies to tolerate the regicide this revolution committed and wish to export to the rest of Europe. It was more painful for the Austrian Emperor when his sister; the French Queen was guillotined. Defending the idea of “Ancien Regime”; Austria was part of all the Seven Coalitions except the Fourth; built against the First French Republic later turned the First French Empire under Napoleon till his fall in 1815. The reason behind the Austrian activity was very normal. Austria was representing the “Ancien Régime” where the idea of revolution was itself dangerous. Moreover, it was the Austrian Princess later Bourbon Queen who was guillotined by the revolutionaries. Not only the Austrians but entire European Royalty was in horror to witness that. But the danger for the Austrian Empire (Holy Roman Empire at that time) was clear and present. With tireless effort in coercive diplomacy better be called “REALPOLITIK”; Austrians Diplomats managed the stage since 1793 to the end of Napoleonic France. Diplomats like Johann von Thugut, Johann Graf von Stadion-Warthausen and Klemens von Metternich were at the forefront of the diplomatic efforts.

Considering Austrian volatility as France to the West, Prussia and Russia to the East; these diplomats used to alliance and war alike to keep the Austrian border secured. Thugut was a firm believer of the War to the Knife with France however Austria’s defeat in Marengo sealed his fate. It was Johann Graf von Stadion-Warthausen who effectively created the Third Coalition against Napoleon since when he was the Austrian Ambassador in Russia. It was his effort to bring Russia, Britain and Sweden against Napoleon. He was one of the first to use German Nationalism against France. However, defeat at Ulm and Austerlitz put Austria out of the war. But within two years seeing the weakness of the Napoleonic Forces in Spain; Stadion once again moved the alliance against France. But on land in Central Europe; Austria was all alone and France took it out once more in Wagram. Here joined Prince Metternich who put his all efforts to maintain France at bay by diplomacy only. Seeing military vulnerability and a common border with France (since France invaded nearly all of West Europe to reach the Austrian Border); he decided to accommodate and co-exist with France. To avoid being trapped under a Matrimony Alliance between France and Russia between Napoleon and the sister of Tsar Alexander I; he even became matchmaker for Napoleon and Marie Louise; an Austrian Archduchess. However, seeing the weakness of Grande Armée after disastrous Russian Campaign; he joined the sixth coalition against France in 1813. Austria joined the seventh coalition also during a hundred days’ war which ended in Waterloo. Even during the Congress of Vienna; Metternich tried wholeheartedly to keep France toothless to safeguard Austrian border. Metternich arranged the 39 States of German Confederation under the Austrian Presidency in such way that it created a buffer between Austria and France.

To safeguard the empire; the Austrians took whatever road they found is necessary. Because they were not protected by the Sea like the British, not protected by the long-distance which Russia enjoys from France; rather Austria is open to French assault anytime. France even seized Vienna in 1805. Hence it is quite natural for a State to defend its border to take steps to any extremity, to any collusion or to any adventure diplomatically or militarily.

Early 20th Century; French Situation and Way out

Further similarities could be found in actions taken by the French Third Republic against overwhelmingly belligerent German Empire. The humiliating defeat of the Second French Empire in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, loss of resource-rich “Alsace and Lorraine”; made every single French people revanchist. The defeat was treated as national shame and demands were raised for another war to settle the score. School Curriculum was changed where every student was taught about the humiliation and revenge that it deserves. However, the threat of Germany is very real as France was having a common border with Germany while no other country was at that much threat from Germany. Britain was separated by Sea and defended by its Navy while the Russians were in alliance with the Germans. So the threat is real and present for the French Republic that too when the Enemy was having the finest army in the entire world. Prominent French diplomats like Leon Gambetta, George Clemenceau, Alexandre Ribot, Raymond Poincare, Theophile Delcasse and Paul Cambon led the Nation against German Empire to settle the score of their humiliation in 1870.

It was George Clemenceau who even refused to be part of “Scramble for Africa” as it may divert French attention from getting the lost territory back. Gambetta was in the opinion of accommodating Germany alongside France to avoid any further backlash with Germany. However, it was Alexander Ribot who felt the necessity of making an alliance with other great powers aiming at Germany to minimize the threat. He put great emphasize on relations with Russia which later turned into Franco-Russian Alliance aimed at German Empire. By 1893; both France and Russia sealed the deal on Military Alliance to aid each other in the event of war aimed at Germany. Theophile Delcasse along with French Ambassador to Britain; Paul Cambon was instrumental in making an alliance with Britain known as Entente Cordiale. Delcasse was named as “the Most Dangerous Man for Germany in France” by the Kaiser Wilhelm himself. French Foreign Policy of Delcasse and Political Unity to create an alliance with Anti-German Forces ultimately created an entente of Russia, France and Britain known as Triple Entente. France also made an agreement with Japan and bring Russia in the pact. It was a brilliant attempt after Russian defeat by Japan in 1905. Raymond Poincare made the alliance with Russia from defensive to offensive.

France took both the ways to defend itself. First, it made an internal balance by creating a strong economy backed by a strong army and navy. Then it made external balance by allying itself with other great powers like Russia, Britain and Japan. France provided loans to Russia to invest in strategic development such as Road and Rail Networks so that it can help to mobilize troops. On the other hand, it was one of the original guarantors of Belgian Neutrality through 1839 Treaty of London; a buffer between Germany and France. The Triple Entente may be called informal alliance but it was very well thought strategic pact between three great powers in Europe against the German Empire which was voracious towards its growth. Triple Entente ultimately proved extremely helpful for the French when it was invaded by the Germans. Invasion of Belgium under Schlieffen Plan brought the British against Germany while the Russians have joined the French against Germany.

With utter coercion in diplomacy embedded with the strong military; France has done all things necessary to balance its imparity against Germany both internally by motivating the civilians and externally by bringing other Great Powers to add on its own narrative. Alike Austrian Empire in Congress of Vienna; France during Paris Peace Conference also ensured the toothless dismembered Germany to safeguards the French border.

India’s Situation and Options

Now coming to the present time; India is having the same threat alike Austrian Empire and the French Third Republic was having on their days. China is although no match to the military capacity of the Germans or the Napoleonic France even though it certainly has a powerful military strong enough to be concerned with. Likewise France or Austria; India had its own lesson in 1962 against China. But unlike the ferocity of demand for retribution; India’s attitude remains distressed. It always remains politically divided and cautious of its non-aligned image rather be in alliance with other powers having common threats and concerns.

India has to make balance both internally and externally. While no amount of diplomacy can survive without strong military; hence for internal balancing India must invest in the military for both Strategic and Threat Based Capacity Enhancements. Considering today’s Hybrid nature of conflict; India should weaponize every advantage it has over its rival including Trade, Water Resource, Cultural Tie-ups, Information domain, Space, Finance, Education, Tourism, and Aviation. Trade is probably the biggest weapon in India’s arsenal considering the enormous trade imbalance China has on its favour. Weaponizing the trade may help India to gain momentum over China.

Since India do not have the luxury of Sea between itself and China like the Americans or the Australians or the Japanese do have; hence for External Balancing; India should proactively pursue a partnership with like-minded powers having same concerns and challenges. Operationalization of QUAD and QUAD Plus to increase and enhance its sphere of influence both politically as well as militarily within Indo-Pacific Region should be India’s prime intention. India should effort to make QUAD similar to the “Coalition” the Austrians preached for against the Napoleon or similar to the “Entente” the French preached for against German Empire can be correlated.

On the other hand, India should create Strategic Depth and Buffer between itself and China to avoid contact with the Chinese as much as possible. Like France; India once had its own Belgium in Tibet which it had lost long back. Like Austria; India does have its own “Federation of German States” in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka where China has already made firm inroads if not pact. Hence it is an overwhelming diplomatic challenge to realign India’s perception and effort to bring these States back together to support its foreign policy goals. It is hard but not impossible; challenging but achievable.

Defence Trade is another area where India can exert its influence. Countries like Vietnam, Indonesia have long been showing interests in Indian Missile Systems. Avoidance will not serve the purpose. India should arm these nations who are willing to counter the same threat alike India. French Loans to Russia aiming against German Empire can be correlated.

Maintaining Freedom of Navigation in Indo-Pacific is not the responsibility of only the US. It is an International Rule. India should invoke this rule in both the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait if necessary. Demonstration of Solidarity to like-minded countries is extremely important. If intended with resolve; a situation like “Agadir Crisis” can be developed in the South China Sea towards China’s humiliation like the Germans faced in Morocco in 1911 through financial humiliation.

CPoKEC is the strategic depth of Pakistan and China’s soft underbelly. If India’s claim to Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir can unnerve China; then engaging the dissidents of the region will certainly disrupt China’s peace of mind. The fate of this venture can be equated with the Berlin Baghdad Railway Project which suffered instability through the numerous delays and wars which ultimately derailed the entire project.


China was, is and will remain as India’s Primary Strategic Threat. Indian Policymakers have to act against the threat it poses to Indian sovereignty, strategic autonomy and in its area of influence. China has never acted in any way which may look like an act of friendship. India has moved from “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” to “Wuhan Spirit” and “Chennai Connect” and from there to Galwan Valley Clash this year.

Now it is time to go beyond that. It is time for REALPOLITIK.

There was a famous French proverb that said We have been waiting since 1870 aimed at Germany stating the desire to take the revenge for the defeat in Franco Prussian War.

For India, it could very well be We have been waiting since 1962.

(Abhishek Das is a is a columnist on Geopolitics. His areas of interest include Geostrategy, Tracking Conflict Zones, Hybrid Warfare among several others. He can be reached in his twitter handle @abhish_31. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of C3S.)

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