With global economic slowdown impacting China as well as India, I do not visualise any deliberate offensive action on India-China borders
MAJ. GEN. (RETD) S B ASTHANA
NATIONAL security has a wide span and needs to cover much wider period for any meaningful analysis. But to be realistic about current security dynamics of the country, speculating the immediate trends under the existing realities may be useful, especially in a high-voltage political scenario in the country.
The US-China trade war, which touched a new height in 2019, is showing some indicators of respite with the announcement of finalising part one of the agreements by January 15, 2020. Leaving optics aside, the strategic competition (including economic competition) is expected to continue in 2020 because it has become an essential part of the US strategy against China, having recognised it as a competitor and vice versa.
Despite internal pressures like protests in Hong Kong and some jolts in economic and infrastructure ventures, China has been maintaining a brave front. It has been able to gravitate Russia and Iran towards it and is in the process of colonising Pakistan.
This leaves India in a state of doing strategic balancing to get the best out of such strategic scenario, as it continues to have an unsettled border with China. The positivity brought in during the reset of China-India relations at the informal summit at Wuhan in 2018 nosedived with China dragging India to the UN Security Council on the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories after the abrogation of Article 370 of the India Constitution that bestowed special status to the region.
The Indian claim on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir further dampened the ‘Wuhan spirit’ which could not be revived in Malappuram in 2019, as China again made a second effort to go back to the UNSC, which got scuttled.
In this context I do not visualise that the mutual mistrust between India and China will improve in 2020, unless China faces a major setback in economy and finds it useful to lure India away from US strategic partnership.
With global economic slowdown impacting China as well as India, I do not visualise any deliberate offensive action on India-China borders; hence peace and tranquillity is likely to prevail. The chances occasional standoff cannot be ruled out due to Chinese encroachment through infrastructural overdrive into areas where perceptions about LAC overlap due to lack of demarcation, or China feels the need to needle India by offensive messaging reacting to any other issue of divergence. The border resolution will only see some cosmetic talks, but no recognisable action, as China has no political compulsion to resolve it; hence will like to postpone it for more opportune moment.
In the light of the fact that there has been no major breakthrough in the 22nd round of China-India border talks, I do not expect any worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation or demarcation of LAC, which otherwise is necessary to prevent a repeat of Doklam-like incidents. This is doable, if there is political will, but it is not a priority with China as yet.
We can expect a relative quiet period on Chinese borders, with some positive steps for better border management, so long the US-China competition continues, and Chinese remain under pressure of economic slowdown. India, in conjunction with other navies, is unlikely to face any confrontation in the Indian Ocean, except a few occasional visits of Chinese submarines to their potential bases/surveillance missions and some more build-up on bases acquired by them through ‘debt trap diplomacy’.
With Chinese compulsion of pushing BRI/CPEC through, the strategic relevance of Pakistan for China has further increased. A major side effect of the abrogation of Article 370 and the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir has been the strengthening of the Sino-Pak nexus. China was relatively quiet after the Balakot strike, but openly backed Pakistan after the abrogation
of Article 370.
China will like to ignore state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan, as it indirectly contains India’s growth to reduce Indian impact in South Asia. The terror industry and proxy war by Pakistan will continue in 2020, notwithstanding their economic difficulties, which have been in the news in 2019.
The progress on CPEC is likely to continue despite Indian opposition and some domestic opposition inside Pakistan, although, BRI will continue to face many roadblocks globally. CPEC will make Pakistan a colony of China, which is already into a client-patron relationship, where strategic choices of Pakistan are hostage to China. This brings out a long-term threat to India in terms of a ‘two-front war’ which India has to
be prepared for.
India’s intention to take back PoK will need shaping of the international environment, affected population and seeing through at least one peaceful summer in Kashmir after the reorganisation, as a precursor to any
such action plan.
India does not have any direct threat from other neighbouring countries, but has to remain cautious of developments there to minimise the influence of potential adversaries. Many scribes tend to overplay it by relating it to China most of the time, but being sovereign countries, these nations act as per their own national interests. India will have to continue a ‘neighbours first’ policy to prevent them slipping away into Chinese orbit.
In 2020, we can expect closer ties with the Maldives and Bhutan who will continue to get assistance from India. The border issue with Nepal like Kalapani, can be resolved, as it was done in case of enclaves with Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka may have its own compulsions for some policies not very favourable to India; hence diplomatic efforts will be required to let it be neutral despite mounting financial pressure of China. Smart diplomacy will be required to deal with sensitive issues of illegal immigration with Bangladesh, as it is in India’s interest to support Sheikh Hasina and collectively find solutions to problems (including Rohingyas and water dispute) affecting both countries.
Similarly in case of Myanmar, the issue of Rohingyas and better connectivity will have to be worked out with proactive diplomacy, in the light of certain internal reforms picking up heat due to undesirable controversies.
The clouds of two-front war might hang over India, although it may not happen in 2020. The only way to avoid a two-front war for India is to convince the potential adversaries that India is capable of fighting it. This convincing cannot be by announcements or statements, but by building/proving capability to do so. There seems to be some effort in capacity building, but with limited financial size, its magnitude may not deter potential adversaries, more so when our neighbour in the north has hiked up its pace of modernisation appreciably.
India needs to realise that defence capabilities take decades of consistent effort, more-so if it does not have strong manufacturing base.