National power is defined as the ability of a nation to attain its strategic objectives by directed action. National power is no longer restricted to the military but also includes a multiplicity of factors such as strength of the economy, human resources, availability of national resources, knowledge and science and technology.
Thus, the concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) which includes all these factors has assumed significance. In China, the concept of CNP gained greater acceptance after propagation by Deng Xiaoping, the doyen of modern reforms in the country. He said: “In measuring a country’s national power, one must look at it comprehensively and from all sides.”
The Chinese define CNP as “the comprehensive capability of a country to pursue its strategic objectives by taking the necessary actions internationally”.
World CNP indices have been prepared by many think-tanks, but there is great variance depending upon the interpretations and weightage of the various factors. However, it is commonly agreed that India is presently behind the US, China, Russia, Japan and Germany but has the potential to improve its position by overtaking the last three in the near future.
It will, of course, depend on taking adequate measures to fill the gaps and make course correction in policy implementation. Taking two tangible CNP factors – GDP and military budget – on which depends a nation’s military capability, it should be clear that the gap between us and China is vast.
In nominal terms our GDP is one-fifth and our defence budget is one-fourth of China’s. As per current indicators, it will take another 25-30 years before we reach an equation that exists between China and the US today wherein despite the US still having a higher CNP, it grudgingly accepts China as an equal.
Nations in general and neighbouring nations in particular, remain in a state of perpetual competitive conflict primarily to assert political and economic hegemony. It is the CNP which decides the pecking order among nations. “State on state” decisive wars are passé, particularly among states armed with nuclear weapons. Yet, military power can be utilised through mobilisation, border incidents and as an extreme case limited wars to coerce the adversary. But nuclear weapons have imposed severe limitations on use of force.
The primary driver for the current rapprochement between India and China at Wuhan, is the CNP differential for India, and India’s “red lines” backed by nuclear weapons on territorial status quo, for China. Of course, there are a host of other factors that have led to the emerging rapprochement.
Post the Sumdorong Chu confrontation in 1986-87, having reestablished our physical control in Arunachal Pradesh, India had adopted a realistic policy of “strategic restraint” with China, focusing on diplomacy and economic relations. Status quo was maintained along the LAC. Following the 2008 Nuclear Deal with the US and the developing strategic relationship, and our focus on development of border infrastructure, China disturbed the status quo along the LAC with aggressive patrolling, particularly in the 16 areas of “differing perceptions”. However, despite the serious border incidents at Depsang and Chumar in 2013, the policy was sustained.
The BJP and its parent organisation the RSS are ideologically committed to aggressively safeguarding our territorial integrity and getting back the territories usurped by China and Pakistan. However, as a responsible government, the BJP continued with the existing policy but with a tougher stance on border incidents and ongoing negotiations with respect to the territorial dispute.
The Tibetan card was more overtly played, much to the chagrin of China. Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government in exile, was formally invited for the swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. China responded by triggering the Chumar Intrusion in September 2014, during President Xi Jinping’s visit, to embarrass the “strong” host.
India also took responsive military action to confront the PLA intrusion and, in fact, aggressively moved from the flanks to isolate the intruding troops. China hardened its approach by blocking the declaration of Azhar Masood as a global terrorist and also opposing India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Modi’s 2015 visit and ‘one-on-one’ meeting with Xi in 2016 to lobby for NSG membership, did not mend matters.
The year 2017 saw India-China relations touch a new low. India opposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in general and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in particular. This was considered a big insult by China as India and Bhutan were the only two countries that did not attend the BRI summit in 2017. The Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh in April 2017.
Unlike the 2009 visit, this visit was accorded “semi-official” status with the Minister of State for home Kiren Rijiju and the chief minister formally welcoming him. China responded by cancelling the visit of its foreign minister. The Doklam incident saw the most serious military “standoff” since 1986-87, taking the two nations to the brink of war.
Both nations suddenly realised the irrationality of their actions. China realised that while it has a much higher CNP, particularly the economic and military component, the differential is not so much that it can do a “South China Sea” in the Himalayas. No matter how much “loss of face” it perceives on the BRI issue, it can no longer browbeat India using the border dispute as a casus belli short of a war in a nuclear backdrop – a situation that may seal the fate of the “Chinese century”. India also realised that given the vast differential in CNP, it needs to adopt a realistic approach in dealing with China without losing self-respect.
A rapprochement between nations is a process of give and take. Both sides have made significant concessions, some which are declared and on some there is a tacit understanding.
The unpredictable policies of US President Donald Trump have contributed towards the rapprochement. India today perceives America as an unreliable ally particularly with respect to competitive conflict with China. India realised that it has more to lose than gain from the “anti-China alliance” based on “Indo-Pacific strategy”. It sent a tangible signal to China by excluding Australia from the Malabar naval exercise. The tariff war unleashed by the US has forced China to seek accommodation with India to present a joint front in the international fora. China considers the Indo-US alliance as an impediment to its ambition to be the numero uno by 2049.
India’s major concession to China has been by signalling a change of approach to Tibet, which has been a major factor in the Sino-Indian competitive conflict. Our stand on Tibet to date has been ambiguous, despite the 2003 and 2006 declarations formally recognising the Tibet Autonomous Region to be part of China.
The asylum to Dalai Lama in 1959 and the training of Tibetans in conjunction with the CIA certainly contributed to the 1962 War. The presence in India of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetan soldiers trained as special forces is considered by China to be the most serious potential threat to its sovereignty. India is seen as the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom.
In my view, apart from the traditional power struggle among nations, the Sino-India border dispute is less about territory and more about the potential threat to the security of Tibet emanating from India. The Tibetan issue has now become one of the drivers for the rapprochement India and China are seeking.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activities post the Modi-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in September 2017. India distanced itself from “Thank you India” celebrations being organised by the Tibetan government in exile through a formal advisory issued by the cabinet secretary on the eve of the visit of the foreign secretary to China.
China “responded” by withdrawing its objection to the grey-listing of Pakistan with the Financial Action Task Force. During the “Thank You India” event at Dharamsala, Lobsang Sangay talked about the three dreams of the Dalai Lama on the eve of his escape in 1959. The first two of “bloodshed” (a million Tibetans were killed) and “meeting people in white clothes” (the Indians who received him at Bomdila and later Rajendar Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru wore white clothes) have come true.
The third dream was of him returning to the Potala palace filled with light and reunited with the Tibetan people. “This third dream will also come true by karmic design. We must all make efforts for His Holiness’ dream to return to the Potala palace come true,” Sangay added. The Dalai Lama has also made appropriate statements. Secret talks have been in progress to settle the contours of the Tibetan autonomy.
The major give-away by China has been on the border dispute. It has grudgingly agreed to maintain status quo. In the near future, joint patrolling in the 16 areas of differing perceptions will ensure that there are no more Depsang and Chumar type of incidents. Though not specifically mentioned, status quo will be maintained with respect to Doklam.
India has agreed to soften its stand on BRI. While reiterating its stand on CPEC passing through disputed territory, India has agreed to take part in India-China-Afghanistan trilateral economic projects in Afghanistan, which de facto are an extension of the CPEC. Similar projects may be undertaken in other South Asian countries.
Many an expert has said the route to peace with Pakistan lies through Beijing. Pakistan today has become economically and militarily dependent on China. The economic success of Pakistan depends upon the success of the CPEC, and China’s prestige as a great power depends on the success of the BRI, of which CPEC is a flagship project.
Neither China nor Pakistan can afford a conflict in J&K. The windfall of the Sino-Indian rapprochement is that China has agreed to facilitate India-Pakistan rapprochement. Track 2 diplomacy with Pakistan has been resumed and statements of General Qamar Bajwa signal a radical shift in Pakistan’s India strategy.
Many diplomats and strategic analysts have given their view on the Wuhan summit in typical ambiguous language. In the best of times, it is difficult to predict the final outcome or end results of such summits. My prognosis is that this is a path-breaking effort which, in the next five years, will lead to demarcation of the LAC as an acceptable peaceful border if not an international boundary; autonomy for Tibet and return of the Dalai Lama to Potala; and a “four-point formula”-type of India-Pakistan agreement on J&K brokered by China; and more trilateral projects led by India and China as part of BRI.
It goes without saying that India has adopted the Confucius approach. It has decided to bide its time until the CNP differential narrows down to allow for a more equitable relationship, which of course is contingent upon major economic and national security reforms.