Clearing Cobwebs: Will Parrikar’s China Visit Allay India’s Fears?

Def Min Manohar Parrikar, who is in China on his maiden visit, has some challenges ahead of him.

Updated
India
4 min read
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar  is currently on his maiden visit to China. (Photo: Reuters)

Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar  is currently in China, on his maiden visit (April 18-20).  This is part of a high-level engagement by the Modi government with Beijing that also includes a meeting between the Indian NSA Ajit Doval and his counterpart for the 19th round of the Special Representatives (SR) meeting.

Concurrently, the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj will meet her Russian and Chinese counterparts in Moscow on Monday (April 18).   These three interactions come against the backdrop of Beijing having blocked India’s attempts at the UN to impose a ban on Masood Azhar – the head of the Pakistan based terror group the JeM (Jaish-e-Mohamed).

Parrikar’s visit is part of a high-level engagement by the Modi government with Beijing. (Photo: Reuters)
Parrikar’s visit is part of a high-level engagement by the Modi government with Beijing. (Photo: Reuters)

Chinese Checkers

India and China have a very complex and contradictory relationship that has many strands to it.  Trade and economic engagement are becoming more robust, albeit largely in China’s favour which has a surplus of almost $50 billion.

On the diplomatic front there is tentative agreement about sustaining an India-Russia-China strategic dialogue. However the security domain, while exuding commendable tactical stability and bonhomie, is inherently discordant at a deeper level. Hence this is the central challenge to Parrikar’s visit.

The unresolved territorial and border disputes that goes back over 60 years with a brief border war (October 1962) is firmly embedded in the Indian memory. Over the decades, the two sides have lived with many anomalies. These include a major incursion by Chinese troops into the perceived Indian side of the LoAC (Line of Actual Control) in 2014 when the Chinese President Xi Jinping was on his first summit visit to India.

Despite the tension that was palpable and the media frenzy that followed, both sides managed to quarantine this particular incident.  Yet another similar incident occurred in 2015 and was subdued. To the credit of the  leaders on both sides – not a shot has been fired in anger by either side since the 1993 agreement on maintain peace and tranquility on the unresolved border.

Snapshot
  • India and China share a very complex and contradictory relationship that has many aspects to it.
  • Border stability at the tactical level has been internalized reasonably satisfactorily by the Modi-Xi combine.
  • An anxious India suspects that China is determined to keep India in a state of extended disequilibrium.
  • China has tacitly endorsed the Pakistani build-up of fissile material and nuclear weapons.
  • The much heralded Asian century cannot be a reality unless both nations realise their enormous domestic economic potential.

Deceptive Appearances

India and China have stepped up their military to military contact over the last five years.  These include high level visits and some tactical exercises between the two armies. It is evident that ensuring border stability at the tactical level has been internalized reasonably satisfactorily by the Modi-Xi combine.

Yet beneath this layer of relative stability is the deep Indian anxiety that China is determined to keep India in a state of extended disequilibrium. This is masked by Beijing maintaining a public profile of being committed to a  cooperative relationship. Pakistan is the preferred proxy for this strategy.

Hence China’s abiding nuclear weapon and missile support to Rawalpindi , the GHQ of the Pakistani Army since 1990. This support has emboldened the latter to pursue its anti-India policies including support to terror groups such as the JeM.  The latest Beijing move to block the UN vote on Masood Azhar on technical grounds is illustrative of the Chinese poker-game.

It is evident that ensuring border stability at the tactical level has been internalized reasonably satisfactorily by the Modi-Xi combine. (Photo: Reuters)
It is evident that ensuring border stability at the tactical level has been internalized reasonably satisfactorily by the Modi-Xi combine. (Photo: Reuters)

De-Stabilising Nuclear Deterrence

The second issue that must be part of the Parrikar-Doval agenda with China is the management of nuclear weapons and missiles – the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) spectrum in southern Asia.  The anomaly is that despite May 1998 and the reality of the Indian nuclear deterrent – China adopts an attitude of ‘ignoring’ this capability. Consequently Beijing refuses to engage with Delhi in any serious WMD dialogue.

But in keeping with its two-pronged strategy, China has tacitly endorsed the Pakistani build-up of fissile material and nuclear weapons.  According to some estimates, the Rawalpindi arsenal is now greater than that of India.

The more disturbing element of the WMD scenario in the region is the Pakistani penchant to flaunt its tactical nuclear weapon option – both on land and at sea. This is a de-stabilizing option by way of nuclear deterrence practice.

It Takes Two to Tango

Both India and China are aware of an existential reality – that the much heralded Asian century cannot be a reality unless both nations realize their enormous domestic economic potential. The third interlocutor in this emerging geo-economic picture is the USA.  The texture of this triangular relationship is the critical determinant for the near future.

Whether the Modi-Xi combine can work towards this shared objective of Asian resurgence will depend to a large extent on how the two defence and military establishments define their core national interests and relate to each other.

Hopefully the Parrikar visit will help to clear some of the cobwebs and the deeply entrenched mistrust that still characterizes the relationship between the two Asian giants.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies.)

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