Professor Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan wears many hats. She is the author of four books (co-author/editor of five more) including one on Chinese military strategy, her research articles appear in edited volumes and peer-reviewed journals, she has words in publications such as Wall Street Journal, Times of India, Hindustan Times etc., and she is the senior Asia defence writer for The Diplomat where she tackles, among other things, Asian military and strategic issues. Rajagopalan is a Distinguished Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at ORF. Rajagopalan, who also had a five-year stint at the National Security Council Secretariat as assistant director, took some questions from Firstpost on the Sino-Indian border dispute, the current impasse and the road ahead.
In a recent podcast, Ashley Tellis linked India's decision of reading down Article 370 to China's aggression at the border, arguing that Beijing's action may have been caused by a misreading of the policy. Do you see a connection between Chinese aggression and India's Kashmir policy?
India's Kashmir policy, especially the organisation of Ladakh as a Union Territory directly under the control of New Delhi, could have contributed to China's aggression in Ladakh but so far it seems to be more of an excuse. China will have to tell us why this is important enough for them to risk war with India. But the Galwan clash is not just about India's decision on Ladakh. In fact, even though the Doklam conflict in 2017 was resolved, many security analysts, including me, had predicted that this is only the beginning and that there would be many more crises similar to Doklam waiting to happen.
There are two fundamental issues that need to be borne in mind. One is China's unwillingness to see another peer power that may be rising in its neighbourhood, which is how they appear to see India. So, the key question is if China is willing to see a rising India or a more "normal" Japan in the Indo-Pacific region. But China's efforts at balancing India is not new; it is part of the Chinese policy since the 1950s. As India's role and prominence increase even marginally, Beijing seems to find it unacceptable. China would like to see a subservient and pliable India.
A second critical factor is the growing power imbalance between both countries. It is so large that Beijing feels that it can bully India and that New Delhi will not respond. They have done this with others in the region too, so this is becoming a pattern. A third possible factor is a difference in approach to regional security architecture. China, for instance, has an exclusive approach to the emerging Asian strategic framework whereas India and to a large extent even Japan has an inclusive approach where New Delhi and Tokyo are willing to see the simultaneous rise of other powers.
Even as both nations carry on with the consultative mechanism, India wants to restore status quo ante along the LAC as a precondition for normalcy in ties, while China is focused on restoring status quo ante in the bilateral relationship. How do you think this circle can be squared?
It is somewhat strange that Indian statements after Sino-Indian defence and foreign ministers' meetings do not refer to returning to the status quo ante. It appears as though India is merely seeking some pullback by the PLA but not a return to the status quo that prevailed in April. It is unclear why this is. Hopefully, the Indian government will be firm on this demand but so far, the signs are not good. It could be that the government of India thinks status quo ante can't be restored entirely. But a return to the status quo ante in the bilateral relationship is some distance away.
Even if the PLA moved away and restoration of the status quo ante were to happen, which is doubtful, a return to normalcy in India-China bilateral relations may be difficult. The fact that China broke several of the commitments contained in the border agreements and CBMs starting from the 1993 agreement will have a serious impact in rebuilding the ties, as also the domestic political criticism of the government's handling of this issue.
Given the fact that China has shown no further interest in disengagement, how do you see India respond if forced to accept this status quo " both bilaterally and domestically?
For all practical purposes, the Chinese military has crossed over into Indian territory and altered the status quo. With Beijing possibly thinking that it has the overall military balance in its favour, it is in no mood to disengage and return to positions prior to the Galwan clash. Bilaterally, this is possibly the worst scenario, of course, short of war. While India does not appear to be looking to return to Wuhan summitry bilaterally, New Delhi has shown some inclination to establish some semblance of normalcy in the relationship. However, this would still require Beijing to meet India at least halfway.
Domestically, it is different if one were to look at the broad narrative that the Indian establishment has tried to create. The responses to questions at the Parliament suggests that there has been no deterioration in the relations between India and China, though this answer possibly was thoughtless rather than a deliberate statement of the government's view on China. But the defence minister's statement in Parliament also gives the impression that China only made the attempts at occupying Indian territory and they were effectively foiled by the Indian armed forces.
If the PLA is not on Indian soil, it remains unclear why such serious diplomatic and military discussions are going on between India and China. Clearly, the Narendra Modi government has tried to create an alternate reality that all is well on the India-China front but the situation on the ground is very different. For a government that has batted so much on national security, the Galwan clash and the response are very disappointing.
Is two-front war a possibility, or at least heightened opportunism from Pakistan?
The two-front war is not a talking point but a likelihood, especially given the all-weather, strategic nature of relations between China and Pakistan. For more than a decade, officials such as former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and others have talked about the need for India to be prepared for a two-front war. Of all the countries in South Asia, China's strategic interests converge with those of Pakistan the most, and they both continue to have grievances against India. This is not something that arose in the past decade because of closer US-India relations, but this has been part of the strategic thinking in both Beijing and Islamabad at least since the early 1960s. To keep India off-balance and embroiled in conflicts internally and externally has remained a guiding strategic objective for both countries.
Past agreements and protocols to manage the differences over LAC need urgent revision, a point evident in the 5-point consensus reached between both sides in Moscow. Do you view the renewed friction an inevitable trajectory of history given the near-simultaneous rise of both nations, or was this avoidable from two rational actors?
If one were to look at history, India, China and Japan have held hegemonic positions at different points of time, but the situation today is different. The simultaneous rise of all three powers in Asia is a perfect recipe for competition and rivalry. The fact that there are unresolved border and territorial issues among these countries complicates the dynamics in Asia. The baggage of history, with these countries having gone into war with each other, also weigh quite heavily in determining the shape and trajectory of their relationships.
But recognising these realities, leaders from both India and China had developed certain border defence agreements to maintain peace and tranquility on the LAC. China was willing to play by those agreements so long as they were weak. But today, with a modern military and state-of-the-art infrastructure all along the border and in Tibet Autonomous Region, China does not feel the need to abide by these agreements and protocols. It almost lives by the age-old dictum that rules and regulations are for the weak, and once you are powerful, you don't need them.
Two, the border agreements of 1993 and 1996 are some of the best confidence-building measures and protocols, but there have been significant flaws as well. For instance, though the LAC is being referred to in these agreements, it remains unclarified. Therefore, for all the good intentions, many of the important clauses have not implemented.
Until recently, the chances of the two forces encountering each other during regular patrolling was minimal because of the lack of adequate infrastructure. With improved infrastructure and more regular patrolling, the chances of encounters have also gone up. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that the Galwan clash was premeditated. In order to avoid suspicion from major troop build-up, they used one of the PLA exercises in the adjoining areas as a cover and then diverted them to the border areas in a short time. My final point here is that more CBMs and border agreements are not going to resolve the bilateral border issues between India and China, nor will it reduce the tensions because there are already some agreements in place to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. So, yes, the simultaneous rise is part of the problem.
Do you see greater institutionalisation of the relationship between powers who feel threatened by China, or will issue-based coalitions replace security alliances?
There will be both greater institutionalisation as well as a flurry of mini-laterals that will emerge in the Indo-Pacific driven by shared concerns about China's aggressive behaviour. China's continuing harassments and naval as well as land border intrusions have seen a particular increase in 2020. This has prompted several new partnerships such as Australia-India-France trilateral. Some of the older partnerships are getting a fresh lease of life, determined to collaborate on specific issues. The Japan-India-Australia supply chain resilience initiative is a case in point. The region will see a spurt of issue-based coalitions as well as broader security groupings in the coming years.