New Delhi has made it clear that it does not see China as a “threat” to India. The official position reflects a correct assessment of our security environment. China poses a challenge, not a threat, to India.
In assessing our security environment, it is essential to examine both the intentions as well as the capabilities of neighbouring countries. If a country has hostile intentions as well as a military capability to pursue those intentions, it should be categorized as a “threat” to India. If it possesses the military capability of causing us major harm but does not harbour hostile intentions, it should be seen as posing a “challenge”. Pakistan falls in the first category and China in the second.
The immediate focus of defence planning should obviously be on countries that pose a “threat”, in the sense that it is essential that we should be prepared at any time to respond to aggression from such countries. “Challenges” do not require the same urgent response but they must be addressed in a long-term perspective. It is not prudent to altogether ignore a neighbour’s military capabilities even though it does not harbour hostile intentions. After all, intentions can change over time for a variety of reasons. Moreover, a country’s intentions can change quite quickly while it takes a relatively long time to build up our response capabilities. For these reasons, it is unwise to turn a blind eye to the military capabilities of our neighbours even when they do not pose a “threat” to us.
How does one assess China’s current intentions' Our relations with China went through a period of confrontation and conflict in the late Fifties and Sixties. The reasons for these developments were complex and need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that that when future historians are able to analyze these events dispassionately, they will probably conclude that each side misread the other’s intentions. What is more germane to our present enquiry is the state of India-China relations in recent decades.
The facts here are quite clear. Since the late Eighties, China has generally desisted from adopting a hostile attitude towards India. She has ceased to assist insurgent groups operating in our north-eastern areas. The border areas have generally been tension-free after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December 1988. The 1993 agreement on maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas is functioning well, and this is also the case with the 1996 accord on confidence-building measures. Bilateral relations have progressed satisfactorily in all areas, most notably in the commercial field. China has also desisted from adopting confrontational postures against other countries.
Thus, there are good reasons for concluding that China today does not entertain hostile intentions and that it reciprocates our intention to resolve all issues through peaceful negotiation. The prospects of continued strengthening of India-China ties are very good. To misperceive China as a threat — and to base our defence plans on such a misperception — would result in distorting our national priorities and in a tragic diversion of scarce resources from urgent developmental tasks.
We have, of course, to take note of the fact that the Chinese armed forces are among the most powerful in the world. They are the world’s biggest in numerical terms, and their modernization campaign is making rapid progress. We should also note that China’s deepest security concerns lie eastwards (in the Pacific Ocean area) and not southwards. At the top of China’s immediate concerns is the possibility of a declaration of independence by the Taiwan regime. Beijing has signalled its determination to crush such a separatist move by force, if necessary. Other issues that figure prominently in China’s security perspectives are the American role in Asia and the re-emergence of Japan as a political and military power. In no other part of the globe is the military balance between major powers evolving as rapidly as in the western Pacific theatre. India figures in China’s defence calculus but not as a top priority.
The assessment that China is a challenge and not a threat does not mean that we can afford to ignore China’s military potential. As we noted earlier, intentions can change over time. This can happen as a result of major policy changes in a country or it can be triggered off by a substantial change in the balance of power in its favour. Defence planning has to take into account not only likely contingencies but even relatively unlikely ones (barring only the highly improbable category).
Modern China has witnessed several radical changes of domestic and foreign policies, among which the Cultural Revolution was the most dramatic. At different times, China has been an ally, and an adversary, of the erstwhile Soviet Union; at war with the United States of America, and a quasi-ally of the US against the USSR; in confrontation with both these powers, and on friendly terms with each of them. It is true that Beijing has followed a more steady and consistent course in the post-Mao period, and one may hope that the new collegiate decision-making procedures will reduce the chances of sudden twists and turns in the future. However, the risk of a sudden change of course cannot be totally ruled out. For example, should there be a breakdown of political stability, China’s behaviour might become unpredictable. Political chaos in China is an unwelcome prospect not only for the Chinese but also for their neighbours.
Intentions and policies can also change if there is a shift in the military balance of such proportions that it provides unprecedented opportunities for a country to achieve its objectives at negligible cost. Nato’s expansion into eastern Europe provides a recent example. During the Soviet era, not even the most ardent cold warrior in Washington could dream of the incorporation into the western alliance of major east European states, including even the Baltic republics of the former USSR. What was previously an unfeasible objective became easily achievable as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Thus, we must ensure that the current gap in the military capabilities of China and India does not become so wide as to imperil our defence or trigger off a change in Chinese policy. The differential must not be allowed to exceed certain limits.
In assessing Chinese capabilities, it would be a mistake to confine our attention exclusively to the size and equipment of its military forces. The spectacular growth of China’s civilian infrastructure — roads, railways, airports, civil air fleet, and telecommunications — together with the development of agriculture and industry in outlying regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, makes it possible for Beijing to rapidly induct, deploy and maintain much larger force-levels than ever before, at any point on its borders. The economic infrastructure is, in a sense, a military force multiplier. Our response to the Chinese challenge has to be shaped accordingly. Development of the economic infrastructure, particularly in the North-east, must complement modernization of our defence forces. Defence and development cannot be placed in separate watertight compartments.
In Chinese mythology, the dragon is a benign creature, very different from the fierce predator of Western fables. Which type of dragon we find across our borders will depend as much on us as on China. If we measure up to the economic and security challenge posed by China’s rapid rise, we will find that the dragon has Chinese characteristics.