When the Prime Minister of India says to assembled editors that “China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality”, it is time to take note of a storm that has been gathering pace, especially over the last 24 months. China is a problem that could easily turn into a crisis, the PM added: “There is a new assertiveness among the Chinese. It is difficult to tell which way it will go. So it’s important to be prepared.” The last line is critical. Strategy for India is about intention—for the Chinese it has always been about capability.
Three recent developments have caught India napping. First, the Chinese determination to connect its restive Muslim-dominated landlocked Xinjiang province with the Arabian Sea. It is developing a deep water port in Gwadar as an alternative to Karachi. The port is linked through the refurbished Karakoram Highway to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Then, the hardening of its position on Kashmir. The Chinese denied a report by investigative journalist Selig Harrison that 11,000 troops were aiding the redevelopment of the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit. The denial, however, just does not wash. From denying a visa to the Northern Command Chief, Lieutenant General BS Jaswal, to its insistence on stapling visas for visitors from ‘India-controlled Kashmir’, China has sent a strong signal—it does not care about diplomatic niceties about Kashmir. The third worry is a build-up of military hardware in Tibet. This is beginning to translate into an almost unassailable tactical superiority vis-à-vis India in the higher Himalayas.
So why this new assertiveness? China is now the world’s second largest economy. For China, India is not only an also ran but on-the-run. This would have been fine had Chinese contempt for India spawned complacency in Beijing.
Will the Prime Minister’s unusual articulation of the threat from the north lead to India shaking off its tactical complacency and strategic myopia? For that, the old line of strategy being about capability, not intention, will have to come to the forefront. Neglecting capability now could be a disastrous mistake in the not so distant future.