China appears to be coming around to the view that India, despite having a much smaller economy and military, is emerging as a strategic competitor of sorts by aligning itself with Japan and the United States.
Ironically, the US has come to the same conclusion about China. Its recent National Security Strategy noted that China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, and are attempting to erode American security and prosperity. In other words, like the erstwhile Soviet Union (Russia), China, too, must now be seen as a strategic competitor rather than a country that would, over time, liberalize.
So far in South Asia, China has followed a convenient model of offsetting India’s advantages by backing Pakistan to the hilt. Given their enhanced clout in South Asia, and the fact that their economy is five times that of India and their military considerably stronger, they seek a situation where India quietly accepts Chinese primacy, or is subdued through the Chinese politico-military policy in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region (SA-IOR).
However, India has a sense of its own self-worth and place in the global scheme of things and accepting Chinese primacy in its own neighborhood is not part of it. And so it is seeking to offset Chinese power through growing proximity to the US and Japan, who have their own reasons for wanting to keep China in check. Ever since Modi has come to power, India has accelerated these efforts.
The signs of a Chinese shift are visible in many different ways.
Within days of his re-election as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in October 2017, the Chinese media published a letter by Xi to a Tibetan herder family praising them for their effort “to protect the Chinese territory” by living for decades in an isolated region on the border with Arunachal Pradesh. This is as clear a signal you can get that the very top echelons of the Chinese leadership are concerned about issues relating to their border with India.
Another sign came from an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post by Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science. Zhou, who speaks fluent English, is a familiar figure in the international circuit, attending seminars, forums and workshops, mounting a strong defense of Chinese positions on a range of issues. Zhou says he has served on the Indian border and was one of the people who articulated a tough line on Doklam to a group of visiting Indian media personnel in Beijing even as the crisis was unfolding.
In his op-ed, Zhou said that the Doklam incident may have been the outcome of India’s “strong sense of hopelessness” with regard to being outstripped by China in terms of economic and military power and “its hallucination of being encircled by China.”
He maintained that the Doklam outcome “was not even a tactical victory for India” because the Chinese have continued to remain there and have resumed road construction activity, albeit in another area.
Sharp rise in China’s border defense activity
But perhaps the most important part of Zhou’s article was his declaration that India is going to be the net loser now because “the disputed border was not on China’s strategic radar” but now, the Doklam standoff has “provided China with a lesson on reconsidering its security concerns.” As a result, China would enhance its infrastructure construction.
Zhou is right. Indian military sources confirm a sharp uptick in China’s border defense construction. Till now, comfortable with their economic and military lead over India, China did not really categorize India as a competitor of any kind. In any case, support to Pakistan was sufficient to keep India off-balance. On the border, taking advantage of the relatively easier terrain and India’s lackadaisical pace, the Chinese were able to build high-quality roads to every part of the border.
On the Indian side, road construction has plodded along. Contrary to claims, China’s deployments in Tibet were modest simply because it would require enormous resources. But China maintained a significant surge capacity amounting to some 30 divisions that could be deployed, if necessary.
Indian mountain corps, ballistic missile Agni V
But over the years, India’s infrastructure has improved and its border posture has become stiffer and ready to counter China’s incursions in places like Depsang and Chumur. Some years ago, India reached a point where it began to think of raising a mountain strike corps. Traditionally, given the terrain, India has maintained a defensive posture in the Himalayas, but the raising of a strike corps, of a type that would carry the battle into Tibet has rung alarm bells in China.
What we are now seeing is that China is enhancing the permanent presence of the People’s Liberation Army at various points on the border and constructing permanent cantonments or residential areas.
Another interesting signal as to just how this is working is available from the report, following testing of the Agni V missile on January 18. The test of the medium-range ballistic missile was hailed by the Indian media because it could cover most of China.
A CCTV programme reported for the first time the existence of a base in northwest China with a huge X-band phased array radar which is usually part of a ballistic missile defense system. According to the report, the radar, which is on the Qinghai plateau, would cover any possible launch from the Indian subcontinent and pass it on to a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system which would be the equivalent of the American Patriots or Russian S300s.
Whether these SAMs can actually knock out a missile like Agni V is a big question. And in our nuclear age, would a country risk everything on the reported efficacy of its ballistic missile defense system?
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.