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11 August 2017, Gateway House

Modi & Xi: war or peace?

In this special episode, Professor M.D. Nalapat joins us to discuss the current border stand-off between India and China, sharing a unique glimpse into the policy psyche of India, China and the United States.

Director, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University

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Virpratap Vikram Singh: Professor Nalapat, thank you for talking to us. What is your assessment of the current standoff between India and China and how do you think they can find a way out of the impasse?

Prof Madhav Das Nalapat: The problem facing India and China is that both countries are dealing with each other mostly through the very narrow prism of security and the military, the very same one that India and Pakistan have been using for a very long time. So the potential for a broader relationship gets underestimated – or unutilised. It is necessary to rescue the relationship by taking the long view – in terms of what a good relationship between China and India means – and the broad view, of the different facets where India and China can be of great complementarity to each other.


GH: What role can the United States have in this situation?

MDN: My opinion is that India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership that China blocked had something to do with the Indian confidence in the fact that once again, as in the 2005 nuclear deal, the U.S. will pull India’s chestnuts out of the fire and ensure that China falls in line. The Chinese felt that we were certain that they (the Chinese) would fall in line because the U.S. would make them do so. I think they were determined to show that the U.S. was not strong enough to make them fall in line on this, or, any other matter. So the NSG objection is related to India’s relationship with the U.S.

Paradoxically, the Doklam situation has taken place now because the Chinese estimate that the relationship has not gone as far as it possibly could have, had both sides been pursuing it in a full-blooded way. For example, the three U.S.-India defense foundation agreements, which I have studied in detail and also seen the history of the countries that have signed them, are neither a threat to Indian security nor do they impinge on Indian sovereignty.

We have so far signed only one (agreement) with the U.S. – the logistics treaty – after about a decade’s discussion, and we have not yet operationalised it. Had we signed all three, the barrier for the Chinese for taking action would have been much higher than is the case now, when we are not a military ally of the U.S.

Back in 1971, Indira Gandhi signed the 25-year Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Russia when she was facing action on the eastern front. I believe that the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty, masterminded by D. P. Dhar, kept China away from direct intervention except in a very marginal way and ensured that even President Nixon, who was not always known for rational conduct, intervened only symbolically. (I do not believe that Nixon had any intention of using the fire power on any of the ships that he was bringing into, or close to, Indian waters. He said it was an evacuation mission. Frankly, the actual reason for his holding off was the Indo-Soviet Treaty.)

Not operationalising the treaty with the U.S has, in fact, encouraged the Chinese to be more confident that the U.S. is not going to intervene in India’s case. But that belief in U.S. non-intervention (in the case of India) is not so with Japan, nor is it the case with any NATO country, South Korea, or Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. Taiwan has not been seriously threatened by China militarily, in large part, also because of the Taiwan Relations Act. So, if there were really some kind of a treaty between India and the U.S., the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have been a lot less confident of getting its own way than it initially was during the standoff.

GH: The situation in Doklam seems to have broken the illusion of the peaceful rise of China. The expansionist mindset, evident in the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), is rather more militaristic in Doklam. How will this impact the BRI as a whole?

MDN: To answer this question, let us return, for a moment, to the American ‘Neocons’ (Neo-Conservatives). Remember how during the George W. Bush era, the U.S. relied heavily on military force, they relied not only on the primacy of the United States, but on its dominance. They were very confident that they could go into countries, change the map of the Middle East and alter ground realities everywhere.

The Neocons led the U.S. into many misadventures and the practice of very wrong tactics on the part of its military and its allies in several operations, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, and later, Libya, and Syria, where we have these ‘closet’ Neocons: I regard Hilary Clinton as one. Many people in the Democratic party talk liberal, but act in a way that is Neocon.

The strategic thinking and culture in the PLA today is very neo-Neocon. These elements have the same belief in military power as the American Neocons had in the time of Bush. (Today’s situation is different – I am speaking of a situation 10 years ago when the U.S. Neocons had not been defeated everywhere; they were battered by defeat subsequently.) The PLA is a military that seems to have forgotten its Chinese roots; it is trying to become another NATO army outside NATO. The mindset of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) military top brass, as that of much of its economic team, seems very American, western, Atlanticist. They emphasise the muscular role of the country, not its peaceful rise. In the past six or seven years especially, members of the Chinese military have been writing articles that have been derisive of the past concept of the country’s ‘peaceful rise’ and talking more of the need for China to stand up and assert itself through the threat or use of force. They say that this policy of walking softly, of hiding Chinese potentiality under water should be discarded now that China was big enough economically and technologically to be counted as a major force.

It was towards the last few years of Hu Jintao’s presidency (2003-2013) that the military began working at getting into a dominant position in areas that it regarded as militarily important. One of these is the India-China border; others include the South China Sea, East China Sea and the boundary with Vietnam. In all these regions, the military now seems to have an important voice in the policy of the Chinese state.

So it’s a U.S.-style Neocon policy with Chinese characteristics that we are seeing play out in Doklam now – just as Deng Xiaoping got in capitalism with Chinese characteristics in the 1980s.

GH: I seek a clarification. The PLA recently celebrated its 90th anniversary. A comment that emerged from it was that President Xi Jinping was being requested to make the PLA serve the Chinese government because, as of now, it was serving the Communist Party. Is that correct?

MDN: I have yet to come across this. If such comments are coming from the PLA, then it means that there are people in it who are challenging the concept of the monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party. After all, today, the military and the government are two auxiliary wings of the Communist Party, whose leadership is dominant across all institutions in China. Such is the philosophy that the Communist Party has expounded through Mao Zedong, and through all subsequent leaders, including Xi Jinping, who is closer to Mao in style and thought than any of his predecessors. It is unlikely that there are people adopting a line that is completely contrary to the doctrine of the Communist Party. Xi has very good control over the military as over the government – and at the 19th Party Congress, he seeks the same degree of control over the Party machinery.

GH: So, as per speculations, will this border stand-off de-escalate after November when the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party ends?

MDN: If de-escalation takes place after November, it won’t be because of the 19th Congress, but because of Mother Nature: the winter and snow.

GH: How do you think this entire situation at Doklam will end – and when?

MDN: It depends on two individuals, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jingping – it is now they who will take the final call on consequential decisions. Both leaders understand the need for China and India to work together, to take a long view and ensure that a situation is not created that can affect both sides negatively. If you take 100 as a total of the negative effect, maybe India – worst case – will incur 60 or 65 of it, but China will take 35, which is major. Both sides will lose heavily.

If there really is an India-China border conflict sparked by Doklam, an Asian NATO will become reality. The Chinese military has, for a long time, been worried about this: way back in 2001, when I propounded such an idea, it had a very strong reaction.

An immediate effect of a clash will also be that all countries along China’s littoral – whether it’s the Philippines, Malaysia or Vietnam – will be worried about being the next target and will instinctively gravitate towards the U.S. During and after such a conflict, there will be a rush to get completely enmeshed with the U.S. in a security relationship. If one looks at the post-attack scenario of 1962, nobody ever mentions the letters that Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to the American side, in effect offering a full-scale partnership. It was probably Kennedy’s lack of long-term thinking that prevented him from accepting such an offer. But this time, the U.S. side is quite ready. I have been to Washington, including to the Pentagon, and they are eager for a strong defense relationship with India.

GH: So what then is the problem?

MDN: The problem is the very strong arms lobby in Delhi, which is nervous about the Modi government signing a relationship with the Americans, because it fears that then, weapons from America will have an advantage over those from other countries. It has, therefore, been working very hard to create a perception that these agreements will be negative and that we will be sacrificing our policy of so called non-alignment.

But in reality, if India has a strong security relationship with the U.S., it can then have a stronger hand in its commercial dealings with China, which, in turn, can help the Modi government negotiate even more advantageous linkages with the U.S. on security and other issues. So these two relationships will help us balance the two super powers, and get additional advantage from both.

On the other hand, if we abandon altogether any efforts to get the Chinese to be friendly, then we are at the mercy of the Americans and may have to agree to some unfair terms. They are hard bargainers. The terms that we can get now are different from those we will have if the China option is completely closed. That is why I have been in favour of keeping it open, and having a strong relationship with the U.S. on certain fronts, and with China on others.

China too will sharply lose its leverage with the U.S. after a military clash with India. They are being so shrill because the PLA wants to make an example of India. They want dominance in Asia. If they succeed in discrediting India by seizing more territory and getting the better of the exchange of gunfire – by the army, navy, air force – the PLA neo-Neocons feel that Vietnam, Malaysia, or Indonesia will then respectfully acknowledge Chinese dominance. The PLA’s aim is to set up a Chinese Monroe doctrine in Asia. Some in the PLA apparently believe that it can achieve dominance in the South and Southeast by showing up India to be weak. It can also ‘teach India a lesson’ for its refusal to acknowledge China’s superior status. I think India may surprise the world this time, whereas in 1962, it surprised only itself through its miserable performance.

GH: How can India derive some gain from this situation?

MDN: It is very clear that India too is a tiger on the mountain. We may not be a superpower today, but are going to be one tomorrow. So, unless the Chinese acknowledge us as such, we are going to have a problem with them – and will also create a problem for them. I say this while being an old friend of China’s, and having great regard and respect for that country.

In the PRC’s own interest, the Chinese should do to us what the Americans, under Nixon, did to them in the 1970s. At that time, China looked weak compared to America, but Nixon was smart enough to realise that it was going to be a super power. So he held out the hand of friendship as an equal: the Sino-American alliance that resulted benefited both countries. If the Chinese treat us as equals – the way the Americans did with them – that will be the foundation for a strong relationship. This is better for China than tensions and conflict – even if we are one-fifth the size of it economically and even if we are not as advanced in military technology currently.

GH: How will this come to pass?

MDN: For this to happen, we have to ensure that this particular standoff ends. As for the BRI, we should not boycott it. I support the government in not going to the Beijing Summit, which was not a BRI Summit: it was the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Summit. It had 200 people from Islamabad, including 16 or 17 from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). If the Indian delegation was to have sat along with the delegation from POK it would have sanctified the fact that China recognises Kashmir as part of Pakistan. It would have been like legitimising Pakistan as the owner of that territory – and of the rest of Kashmir. There is no way India could have agreed to that.

GH: India will, no doubt, have its own terms and conditions.

MDN: The Chinese will have to ensure that Pakistan allows us free entry through the CPEC, but this should be so named not from Kashmir, but from beyond it. If we can get access to Central Asia through whatever routes the Pakistanis control, then it makes sense for us to join – especially in the East and elsewhere because large companies in India can play a profitable role in the implementation of the BRI.

Why did President Xi devise BRI? It is all about China expanding its influence across Asia and Europe, a way of linking the Chinese diaspora together, making it proud of being Chinese. The Chinese Communist Party has long held that it is a party that celebrates the primacy of the Han people, who are aiming, some day, to gain supremacy over the Europeans, who have held sway for 600 years. Given current trends, this could well come about. The CPEC is a magnet drawing in the Han, with Chinese settlements all along the BRI – whether in Europe, Central Asia, or the western regions of China. So there is an expansion of the Chinese diaspora through the BRI, even as the diaspora comes together and acknowledges China as the Middle Kingdom before the rest of the world does. That is the significance of the BRI.

Now, if India is a part of it, our own diaspora can also use it to move into these locations. For example, thousands of Indian trucks will routinely use the CPEC if the Chinese ensure that the nomenclature is corrected. The Pakistani attitude toward India – the perception that we are hostile to them – may change if they see tens of thousands of Indians doing business inside Pakistan. The BRI could be a great confidence-building mechanism between India and Pakistan. These are all examples of how China and India working together can benefit each other.

Vis-a-vis Digital India, upon which the Indian prime minister has been rightly stressing, Chinese equipment is cheaper than that made in any other country, be it East Asia or Europe, and so it’s quicker for us to continue using it. Whether in energy or infrastructure, the Chinese have built up lower-cost assets and much better financing than other countries have. So from a realistic estimate, we are potentially – within five years – a $300 billion market. We will not remain a $71 billion one. It’s much bigger than what we presently are. The Chinese will lose this if the PLA goes into attack mode. The first form of pressure by India after a conflict will most likely be to use the Enemy Property Law, passed by the BJP, against Chinese assets in India.

I hope that President Xi will take a deep breath and ensure that the PLA does not cross the precipice into armed action. I am confident that Prime Minister Modi understands the importance of China in the Indian economy. He liberalised the role of Chinese investments in India and the visa process into India, and has had a good relationship with President Xi initially. So the two leaders will, hopefully, ensure – possibly at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen – that peace is maintained and the rhythm of India-China relations goes on a normal, accelerated track.

GH: Thank you, Professor Nalapat.

This is an edited transcript of the podcast.

M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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