The forthcoming joint military exercise between India and China is further evidence of the growing maturity in ties between the two countries. While there are still points of conflict, the relationship is no longer hostage to these irritants. Although only about a hundred soldiers from each side will participate in the anti-terrorism drill at Yunnan, the exercise has great symbolic significance. This is the first ever joint exercise, and is clearly an attempt to finally exorcise the ghosts of the 1962 war. The recent description by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, of China — on the fringes of the G-8 summit — as India’s “greatest neighbour” captures the essence of the complex relationship between the world’s two most populous countries.
China offers India not just a great opportunity, but poses also as great a challenge. In the last few years, bilateral ties have improved in a number of areas. The growth of trade, for instance, is just one index of the growing ties between India and China. It is expected that by 2010 bilateral trade will amount to over $40 billion a year. Indeed, the view of India and China as two ancient civilizations with strong past links in partnership in the modern world has many takers in both countries. However, it is China that is still identified — by many within India’s strategic community — as the most likely source of insecurity for New Delhi and the greatest potential threat to Indian interests in the long-term future. The principal strategic rationale for the construction of a credible and effective Indian nuclear weapon posture is to provide a hedge — an insurance policy — against the possibility of a belligerent China in an uncertain, anarchic world. The unwillingness, until recently, on China’s part, to settle any of the bilateral irritants to which India attaches importance reinforced this kind of thinking. And, as is obvious, Beijing has still not recognized Arunachal Pradesh as part of India.
Under the circumstances, what is needed is a three-track Indian policy towards China. First, cooperation with China must be accelerated at all levels. The process of introducing confidence-building measures, which began in the early-Nineties, should also be consolidated. Although there are continued reports of incursions by the Chinese across the boundary, these seem to have lessened in the last few years. The second element in India’s strategy regarding China should be to expand cooperation with many of China’s neighbours. The strategy must not be to position New Delhi explicitly as a counterweight to China, but to slowly and surely enlarge the space of Indian interests, from the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf, in order that India emerges, potentially in the medium-term future, as a key balancer to China. Finally, India must build an effective minimum nuclear deterrent vis à vis China, through a triad of sea, land and air forces.