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ISSN 2582-2241





The author, M.K. Narayanan, is a former National Security Advisor who has held official talks as a Special Representative with his Chinese counterpart, the State Councillor, Dai Bingguo, to resolve the differences over the Indo-China border. Narayanan writes that while he could achieve some degree of progress in these talks (including the signing of the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Border Dispute) further progress has been extremely slow. To arrive at a modus vivendi on the border issue at an early date is, therefore, likely to be difficult. This is because a rare geopolitical phenomenon of two powers—India and China—rising together is generating a new set of challenges. Both countries have competing and contradictory approaches to the existing world order, as China uses the wei qi strategy, or “the encirclement game,” and India participates in a new security architecture for the region.

The twenty-first century is widely touted as the Asian Century. The Asian economies have far outstripped the economies of the West, and Asia has become the engine of global growth. This has triggered exponentially accelerating changes across Asia and beyond, including new paradigms of thought, action and behaviour. Notwithstanding this, Asia is still having to deal with multiple strands of thought, multiple perspectives and multiple courses of action. It is, at the same time, a theatre of multiple competitions, as also of conflicts and strategic rivalries. This has prevented Asia from achieving its true potential. Finding composite solutions has not been easy, and is likely to prove still more difficult as the century progresses.

The concurrent emergence of China and India as Asia’s major powers—economically and politically—is a geo-political event of historical significance. Rarely has the world witnessed the phenomenon of a simultaneous rise of two large and populous nations in the same timeframe, and living in such close proximity to one another. The result has, however, not been entirely benign. At least as far as China is concerned, it belies the term “peaceful rise.”

China and India today have competing and contradictory outlooks on many strategic and civilizational issues. These include Asian security, regional stability, the role of the United States in the region, as also the idea of a Sino-centric world order to replace the current global polarities. Observers of the Asian scene believe that China is presently at a tipping point, where nationalism, belief in its ‘exceptionalism’ and its ‘uniqueness’ are dictating China’s approach to most events and situations.

The Chinese State Councillor, Dai Bingguo (right), the special representative of China for the China-India Boundary Talks, shakes hands with Indian special representative, National Security Advisor, M. K. Narayanan, in New Delhi, on August 7, 2009, the day the 13th round of China India Boundary Talks began. Photo by the courtesy of Xinhua.

This trend had already begun to be evident by the turn of the century. It was pursued diligently by the president, Hu Jintao, and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, during the first decade of this century when they were at the helm of affairs. The trend has been greatly accelerated under the president, Xi Jinping, who has concentrated more power in his hands than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The latest Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2017 has further reinforced the theme of Chinese ‘exceptionalism’ and has included Xi’s ‘New Thought of New Era Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ in its Report. The new theme will now determine the party’s course of action for the foreseeable future, in so far as the economy, politics, society and culture are concerned.

The Nineteenth Party Congress marked a pivotal moment in the development of the CPC. It also marks a return to the Mao era, and the resurrection of the phrase: the party leads everything. It has effectively buried Deng Xiaoping’s well-known aphorism and advice to party members to maintain a low profile, and “coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.” To the eclectic Chinese mind which tends to be contextual and relational, this is a signal to move ahead to achieve the country’s appointed role in history.

In his opening address to the party congress Xi described China as a great power twenty-five times, thus making little secret of China’s intention to achieve global leadership. The party congress also announced its intention to make its military “world class,” and “one that is capable of winning wars,” which signals a great leap forward from the relatively more cautious observation of the Eighteenth Party Congress. On that occasion China had merely highlighted the need to protect its overseas interests, and the need to ensure China’s economic progress and national well-being.

The Nineteenth Party Congress also gave special prominence to its signature programme, the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to build a network of highways, railways, ports and pipelines linking Asia via the Middle-East to Europe. Almost a thousand projects have been earmarked at a cost running into several hundred billion dollars. China has projected its objective as economic, but in substance it is the clearest indication of China’s geo-political outreach.

China currently sees itself as critical to the future of the Asia-Pacific region. This role is consequent to a perceived U.S. retreat from the region. It views the Asia-Pacific, the world’s economic power house and the centre of global geo-strategic and economic competition today, as its bailiwick and today’s principal arc of conflict. It has begun adjusting to the new realities. Rather than seeking to upset the existing global order or the status quo, it seeks to exploit the situation to its advantage. It cannot, hence, any longer be viewed as a ‘revolutionary power’. Even its ‘disruptive power’ appears suitably muted. At best it may be viewed as a ‘reluctant stakeholder’ of the existing geo-political order.

This shift in attitude from the past is most significant. Whether the change in attitude is tactical or more substantial is difficult to assess at this time, but there is no gainsaying the fact that China’s growth has been phenomenal, and has been based on utilizing the present system. Its trade to GDP ratio stands at almost 33 percent.  It is today the second largest economy in the world. It is the world’s largest trading country. Measured in terms of purchasing power parity it is the world’s largest economy, even overtaking the United States. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank floated by it, which currently bankrolls China’s signature campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, has become one of the largest multilateral development institutions in the world.

To all intents and purposes, China is positioning itself to take the leadership role in the Asia-Pacific. This may appear premature as of now, for the United States still has a fairly strong military presence in the region and this remains an obstacle to its intentions. For this reason, the United States still remains the ‘main enemy’ for now. India and Japan are also seen by China as forming an integral part of the group of countries in Asia opposed to China’s ambitions to emerge as a great power in the region. China has clearly a dual objective today: weakening the United States, Japan, India axis at one level, and winning friends and allies among other Asian countries on the other, to achieve its perceived objective.

China is pursuing this objective with prudence and caution. It has skillfully masked its earlier ideological opposition to the pre-ordained global order. It has not only stepped back from undermining the existing global order, but appears anxious to be actually seen as upholding the existing global order including free trade.

The unevenness of the ebb and flow of India-China relations in the modern era is an essential part of the dynamics that characterises Asia today. Integral to this are India-China relations which play an increasingly critical role.

In the 1950s, when India and China were trying to sort out their new destinies, Sino-Indian relations were perceived to be relatively warm. Even at that time—as papers relating to that period subsequently reveal—China was, however, uncomfortable about countenancing an equal relationship with India. This period ended with the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962. It resulted in a major hiatus in relations for almost the next quarter of a century.  

Beginning in 1988, India-China relations started to improve. The improvement persisted for much of the subsequent two decades. Some movement was also seen with regard to the settlement of the border dispute, including the signing of an Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Border dispute. Since 2010, we are, however, witnessing yet another phase of deterioration in relations between the two countries.

The long several thousand miles Sino-Indian border remains an intractable problem as far as Sino-Indian relations are concerned. The problem is complicated for several reasons, but the core issue as far as China is concerned, is righting the so-called ‘historical wrongs.’ Given its own perception of history—with the border varying depending on the maximum limits of territory held by China under various dynasties—this is a highly complicated exercise. I say this, having discussed the border issue in detail with my Chinese counterpart as the Special Representative for Border Talks with China. While I could achieve some degree of progress in these talks with my Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo (including the signing of the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Border Dispute), further progress has been extremely slow. To arrive at a modus vivendi on the border issue at an early date is, therefore, likely to be difficult.

Signing Framework Agreements, entering into commitments to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border, or maintaining the ‘status quo,’ all seem to carry little meaning as far as China is concerned. More often than not, in keeping with its orientation, China seems more intent on blindsiding fellow signatories to pacts, than anything else. This is well evident in the case of India.

The issue regarding Dalai Lama is also unlikely to be easily resolved. China’s concerns about the Dalai Lama, despite the fact that the Dalai Lama has been scrupulous about not engaging in political matters while in India, does not seem to carry any weight with China. Trying to comprehend the basic motive behind China’s overall strategy vis-à-vis India has thus proved extremely difficult.

India and China: Strategic Challenges and Responses

Under President Xi, China appears determined to set right ‘historical wrongs of the past’ and assert its claims over the disputed territories. Finding a solution to the vexed India-China border dispute is, hence, likely to be even more difficult than in the past.  It would be realistic to view the Doklam incident as China signalling a renewed phase of ‘nibbling’, even while asserting its territorial claims. China does not seem greatly concerned at the possibility that heightened border tensions do have a potential of leading to unexpected consequences.

China seems more confident today, than ever before, that the military power balance in the Asian and Australasian region is tilted in its favour. Also that it can face up to any challenge, even if the United States is inclined to back any anti-China move. China’s defence budget for 2017 is estimated at over US$ 152 billion. This is far larger than the combined budgets of all other nations in the region, including India. The Nineteenth Party Congress not only underlined that China needed to have a military that is ‘world class’ but also one that is capable of ‘winning wars’. Any concessions relating to the South China Sea dispute, on the part of China, should be noted out.

China is again employing a mixture of ‘economic blackmail’ of nations in the Asian and Australian region with making new friends/strengthening relationships with existing ones, to enhance its profile in the region. India is the principal target of such Chinese manoeuvres. Pakistan is one of the kingpins of this overall strategy. These tactics are proving to be fairly successful. Step by step, China is proceeding to displace India as the principal partner in relations with many of India’s neighbours in Asia. These tactics were employed in the case of Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017.

China-India relations are set to deteriorate further following India’s strong opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the steadily improving relations between India and the United States. The most recent National Security Strategy of the United States, released in December 2017, has referred to India as a “leading global power” and as a “stronger strategic defense partner.” It commits the United States to expand defense and security co-operation with India, while portraying China as “the strategic competitor and a revisionist power” in the region. This is certain to act as a lightning rod in further vitiating India-China relations. India’s association with the Quadrilateral or Quad (consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia) is certain to aggravate matters still further.

China seems intent, simultaneously, to pursue aggressive diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan and West Asia, the two regions that are of vital interest to India. Certain other related steps taken by China, such as consolidating its takeover of Gwadar Port (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka), together with China’s establishment of a base in Djibouti (on the Horn of Africa) and the announcement of setting up many more such outposts, clearly smack of wei qi tactics vis-à-vis India. This is likely to further upset the balance of power in the region to India’s disadvantage. China’s encouragement to countries considered inimical to India – like Pakistan – is only likely to grow. (Wei qi, meaning “the encirclement game”, is a two thousand-year-old Chinese board game that was played in the time of Confucius. The game, which is very different from chess, holds the key to understanding how the Chinese really think. The object of wei qi is to place stones on the open board, balancing the need to expand with the need to build protected clusters. It features multiple battles over a wide front, rather than a single decisive encounter. It emphasises long-term planning over quick tactical advantage).

China’s new soft power offensive also bears watching. In the Asian region, the Chinese counter narrative (embracing elements of Buddhism, Confucianism and Maoism and extolling China’s ancient wisdom) is pitted against India’s philosophical outreach. This again is going to be a major area of discord, or confrontation, between the two countries.

It would be futile, hence, to think that, while China has shown some degree of accommodation as far as the world is concerned, and is presently supporting the rule-based international order, the same would extend to India-China relations. India and China are antagonistic neighbours and rivals. China is more likely to be inclined to accentuate the negative, and seek to further disturb the existing status quo as far as Sino-Indian relations are concerned.

For instance, China appears to be positioning, as of now, to wage a ‘water war’ with India, and is actively considering reducing the flow of water into the Brahmaputra River, using the excuse that it needs additional water for the Tibetan Plateau. Differences between the two countries are only likely to deepen. Old formulations and principles have clearly outlived their utility. Finding common ground to restore relations between the two countries will, hence, not be easy.

M.K. Narayanan was the National Security Advisor of India with the rank of minister of state from 2005 to 2010. During his tenure he held several rounds of talks with his Chinese counterpart, the State Councillor Dai Bingguo, to resolve the differences over the Indo-China border. He served as the Governor of West Bengal from 2010 to 2014. The Government of India awarded him the civilian honour of Padma Shri in 1992. Narayanan completed his graduation from Loyola College, Chennai. He headed the Intelligence Bureau (IB) from 1987 to 1990, before heading the Joint Intelligence Committee for a year. He became Chief (a four-star rank, equivalent to an Army general) of the IB again in 1991, before retiring in 1992. He was then appointed Special Adviser (a non-Civil Service appointment) for Internal Security to the Prime Minister of India beginning in May 2004. He played a significant role in the negotiation of the landmark Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2008.