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What India needs to learn from China

Kasturi Moitra is a Doctoral student at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmamnet, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • May 20, 2013

    “Deception is an integral element of Chinese strategic culture”, noted Shyam Saran at the second K. Subrahmanyam lecture series held in August 2012 at New Delhi.1 At the same event, the former foreign secretary also underscored the importance of being more conversant with the Chinese thought process for improving Indo–China relations. His counsel becomes even more relevant in the light of the recent friction between India and China over difference in interpretation of the border, resulting, recently, in a 19-km incursion in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of the Depsang Valley in Ladakh. The sense of déjà vu should not be lost given that there have been over 550 instances of Chinese transgressions into the Indian territory since January 2010 alone, including one in July 2012 in the same Chumar area of Ladakh.2 This had ensued in a similar face-off, after Chinese helicopters destroyed Indian bunkers and tents, but did not escalate.

    Before the oft-asked question about ‘how to deal with China’ can be answered, it must be noted that there is a discernible and recurring pattern in the manner in which China conducts its foreign relations with India and other small neighbours.

    Chinese Gambit

    Factoring in the element of ‘deception’ — which as Saran explains, is not exactly a vice in statecraft — could help us put into perspective some of China’s actions. For one, it could explain why Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie during his visit to India in September 2012, insisted that the PLA had ‘never deployed a single soldier’ in PoK, even as India’s military intelligence had picked up credible reports of about the 735 Chinese nationals working at the site of the Neelum–Jhelum hydroelectric project, near the LoC in J&K and the presence of Chinese soldiers in PoK to provide security to development projects.3

    Another pet Chinese ploy is to constrict their ‘win-set’ or range of acceptable solutions, so that the other party has to walk the extra mile in order to accommodate the former’s inflated demands. By doing so the first party gives the illusion of ‘having compromised’ but has conceded very little. A case in point would be the recent Chinese incursions in the disputed Western sector of the border where they demanded a quid pro quo pulling down of structures from the Indian side.

    Yet another art that the scions of Sun Tzu know only too well is “masking offence as defence”. The Chinese advanced their indignation at the increase in India’s infrastructure outlay along the border as a reason for the recent setting up of tents in the Western sector of the Indo–China border. However, before India gets apologetic about it, it should recount the numerous instances of China’s own infrastructure programmes along the border, including the repaving of the Xingjian–Tibetan highway in July 2012, which runs through the disputed Aksai Chin area. Besides, China has consistently conducted a series of live ground and air-drills in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 2012, as a response to which India merely registered ‘its concern’. China also announced an 11.2 per cent hike in its defence budget in March 20124 and recently omitted a reference to its no-first-use strategic nuclear weapons doctrine in the latest government white paper released in April 2013.5 China has over the past also antagonized India on a number of occasions by issuing stapled visas for people from Arunachal Pradesh, which it incidentally terms as ‘South Tibet’; condemning official state visits to the same; and depicting disputed areas as part of Chinese territory. India may have put up a strong front in light of the latest border incursions but has probably not given out the right messages in terms of signaling its resolve and intent in dealing with issues of ‘concern’ to it.

    China, on the other hand, in tandem with its diplomatic ‘doublespeak’, makes extremely effective use of ‘speech acts’, including a combination of coercion and sometimes reassurance, as part of its diplomatic maneuvers. China articulates in very strong terms any perceived or actual infringement of its territory. For instance, in April 2012 China objected vociferously to India’s OVL collaborating with Vietnam to explore oil in a sector of the South China Sea which China claimed as part of its territory. Not only did China send a strongly-worded message that it “will not stand any joint co-operation in [its] claimed maritime areas” but also chided India for pointing out that the South China Sea was the “property of the world”.6 India eventually moved out of the oil block in the South China Sea in April 2012.

    Asked why China was objecting to India’s exploration projects in the South China Sea when China was similarly involved in carrying out infrastructure projects in PoK, the top Chinese official in-charge of India affairs said both issues are “totally different” and further professed that Chinese involvement in PoK projects and development of the Gwadar port was “without prejudice” to any disputes between India and Pakistan.7 Not only this, but when China, a few months after crying foul at Vietnam, put up the very same disputed oil block of the South China Sea for global bidding, India went ahead and accepted the invitation, much to Vietnam’s consternation. Apparently, this was to ‘prove’ that Indian presence in the South China Sea was “purely an economic activity”,8 which brings back the question of why India is in a constant bid to refrain from ‘offending’ China.


    India would therefore, do well to learn a few lessons in statecraft and effective foreign policy dispensation in order to negotiate the best possible outcomes. However, it has to be conceded that the pressures facing the leadership in both countries are very different. China has just got over with its once-in-a-decade leadership change in November 2012; its leaders are therefore less inhibited by foreign policy adventurism. In fact, a plausible explanation for the recent incursions could have been a ‘testing of waters’ by the new leadership which took the reins in March 2013. If India has to work out an unwavering, unambiguous foreign policy, it is imperative that the national interest be given primacy of place.

    India would also do well to remember that China traditionally has a great deal of respect for authoritativeness. By constantly ‘downplaying’ issues of contention between the two nations and by refraining from taking a firm position, India might erroneously be inviting the very response from China that it is so eager to circumvent.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Roy, Shubhajit (2012), “Deception integral element of Chinese strategic culture”, The Indian Express, New Delhi, 30 August 2012.
    • 2. The Times of India, “China needles India in eastern Ladakh”, New Delhi, 19 September 2012.
    • 3. Kumar, Vinay (2012), “Chinese providing security to PoK projects: Army Chief”, The Hindu, New Delhi, 20 September 2012.
    • 4. Perlez, Jane (2012), “Continuing Buildup, China Boosts Military Spending More Than 11 Percent”, The New York Times, 4 March 2012, (accessed on 13 May 2013).
    • 5. Gupta, Arvind (2013), “China’s Defence White Paper 2013: Lessons for India”, IDSA Comment, 25 April 2013, (accessed on 13 May 2013).
    • 6. Krishnan, Ananth (2012), “Krishna's comments on South China Sea a mistake: Chinese paper”, The Hindu, New Delhi, 7 April 2012.
    • 7. Krishnan, Ananth (2012), “China’s PoK rail link plan gains traction”, The Hindu, New Delhi, 1 September 2012.
    • 8. Krishnan, Ananth (2012), “Protest over China’s South China Sea oil tender”, The Hindu, New Delhi, 28 June 2012.