Geostrategist, scholar, author and commentator Brahma Chellaney hardly needs an introduction. An avid China watcher, professor Chellaney took some questions from Firstpost on the current border tension in Ladakh and the dynamics of larger Sino-Indian bilateral ties. Known for his candid, incisive and nonpartisan opinion, Chellaney picks holes in India's strategy vis-Ã -vis China and explains why it would be hard for India to achieve its goal of restoring status quo ante at the border. Read the interview for more.
In your latest column, you have asked why India has not repaid China with 'salami slicing'. Don't you think the huge gap in national composite power interferes with India's ability to take such action?
No, it doesn't. Pakistan, despite being weaker than India in every field " from economic power to military might " has been bleeding India since the 1980s. China is weaker than the United States, but does that stop Beijing from challenging the US when Chinese interests are at stake? Military and economic capabilities are important, but they do not constitute the sole factor in inter-country relations. If military and economic capabilities alone determined the outcome of wars, for example, then the stronger side would always win. But history is replete with examples of the weaker side triumphing over the more powerful opponent. In modern history, Vietnam separately defeated three great powers " France, the US and China. What is critical to any war's outcome is leadership, political will, resoluteness, strategy and tactics. Even in peacetime, the absence of strategic vision and resolve can turn the stronger side into the weaker side.
India has tied larger bilateral ties with China with disengagement, de-induction of troops, reduction of tension and restoration of status quo at the border. Do you think India has enough leverage to make this strategy work?
This approach assumes that China cares about the state of bilateral relations. China cares only about its own interests, which it is seeking to aggressively advance under President Xi Jinping. China's aggressive actions, in fact, bear no relation with the state of its bilateral ties with the country it targets. Simply put, establishing better relations with Beijing doesn't necessarily produce better Chinese behavior. For example, the current Chinese aggression in Ladakh began just six months after Xi declared during an India visit that China-India relations have entered a phase of sound and friendly development. Similarly, despite improving Sino-Japanese relations, Chinese incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace increased last year, as compared to the previous year. This shows that the Xi regime's expansionism is unaffected by bilateral considerations, including diplomatic progress.
Given the stalemate at the border where China seems to be engaging in talks only to buy time for greater consolidation of its position within India's side of LAC, what, in your view, should be New Delhi's approach?
India has narrowed its options by the way it has handled China's stealth encroachments, which began in April. India placed its faith in diplomacy, rather than in its armed forces, ever since it discovered China's intrusions in early May. It was not until late August that the government allowed the armed forces to undertake some counteractions, especially in the Pangong Lake region. The longer India has waited, the harder it has become to militarily push back the intruding Chinese forces and restore status quo ante. As long as China perceives strategic benefits as outweighing costs, its aggression against India will persist. Imposing substantive economic and diplomatic costs, coupled with application of coercive military pressure, holds the key. The costs India has sought to impose thus far seem woefully inadequate to make Beijing rethink its aggression.
Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Sanjay Dhotre has, in a written reply to MPs' queries, informed the Parliament that the Centre has no plan to exclude Huawei, ZTE from 5G infra contracts. How do you read this statement given the fact that India has been hinting heavily at excluding Huawei?
Making India's most critical infrastructure dependent on Chinese technology would mean opening the door to blackmail and sabotage. There's already heavy reliance on Chinese equipment in the 4G networks in India, especially by Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. Huawei is a private company only in name. In practice, it is an extension of the Chinese surveillance state. But today, even without an Indian government ban, Huawei or ZTE cannot secure any 5G contract in India. The reason is that most Indian telecom companies are in dire financial straits. Bharti, Vodafone Idea and BSNL continue to struggle to make their existing 3G and 4G networks profitable. The only company that is in good financial health, Jio, doesn't have any Chinese equipment in its 4G networks and is seeking to develop its own 5G technology. In this light, any Indian ban on Huawei would be largely symbolic.
Do you think that India's post-Cold War foreign policy was centred too much around managing the relationship with the US at the cost overlooking the China challenge?
The number of India-China summit meetings in recent years indicates that China remained a priority issue for New Delhi. However, India under successive governments failed to grasp the true nature of the Chinese communist state. Good relations with Beijing do not yield good Chinese behavior. While India was courting Xi, Beijing was quietly preparing to launch major aggression in Ladakh. India failed to heed the warning even when Xi's regime showed its true colors by using the 2017 disengagement agreement to capture almost the entire Doklam Plateau. India, in fact, ignored all warning signs, including China frenzied military-infrastructure buildup post-Doklam along the Himalayan frontier and its deployment of assault boats in Pangong Lake since October 2019 (when Xi visited India). So, when China made stealth encroachments on Ladakh territories, India was caught napping. India's deeply rooted reactive culture has allowed China to keep the initiative, including when and how to needle India or infringe its sovereignty.
Communist China has long demonstrated an innate propensity to employ force in breach of international law. Xi hews to Mao Zedong's belief that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Accommodation with an expansionist and unyielding China is not possible. In fact, the word "compromise" is not part of the Chinese Communist Party's lexicon. China will not stop until India takes concrete steps to stop it.
(Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books)