China’s behaviour towards its largest Asian neighbour in recent months signals of “aggressive intent.” Be it territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh, or establishment of trade links between Xinjiang and PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) or the naval aggression towards an Indian ship in the South China Sea, China has asserted its power. While the Indian foreign policy establishment tries to defuse tensions by claiming that ‘all is well’ with India-China relations, the general public is sceptical. Grave concerns have been expressed in strategic states like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh that China intends not only to take over land in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, but also plans to divert one of the major rivers of the region, the Brahmaputra, originating in Tibet. The Indian defence establishment also expresses worry over China’s aggressive postures, as do Indian strategic analysts.
What explains this Chinese aggressive signalling with regard to India in particular and the world in general? First and foremost, despite its size, population, military capabilities and resources, China has failed to dominate any region in the world in the post- 1945 international order. In East Asia, the pre-eminent power is the US; in Southeast Asia, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is the primary actor working under considerable US influence; in Central Asia, the primary power is Russia with the US enjoying some influence there as well. In West Asia, the US is the game changer. In South Asia, the primary power is India. Hence, in an era where there are major shifts of power occurring from the West to the East, China finds itself resisted in almost all the regions it hopes to influence and dominate within Asia in the years ahead. This renders China an insecure and aggressive state propelled by a kind of "defensive nationalism" where loyalty to the state by its citizens is described in an absolutist sense and any transgression is treated as treason.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Aaron Friedberg, a scholar on China at Princeton argued that China is building an “an anti-access capability” where instead of building up offensive weapons systems, it is concentrating on defensive weapons systems that would deny countries access to areas it believes is its historical sphere of influence and over which its claims are fiercely contested (Read South China Sea, Taiwan and Arunachal Pradesh). Hence, what China appears to be doing is to acquire a capability that denies the US its ability to come to the rescue of its allies in the face of Chinese aggression, which in turn forces weaker states in Asia to accommodate Chinese power. This is borne out by the fact that China has acquired an aircraft carrier, upgraded its missiles systems, and, at the same time, has shown aggression with regard to its territorial claims on Indian territory, in the South China Sea island disputes, and with its East Asian neighbours like Japan and Vietnam. Given this, it must be squarely recognized by Indian policymakers that China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh is not an isolated event but part of its general pattern of aggressive territorial claims.
Chinese nationalism based on Han ethnicity has also failed to capture the imagination of its minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Between the two, China’s insecurity is most apparent in Tibet given the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile across the border in India. Also, Tibetans residing in Tibet do not feel loyal to the Chinese state based on an ethos of Han Chinese nationalism since their own social and cultural identities do not form part of this state constructed nationalism.
These deep seated Chinese insecurities are a concern for India. Given that China sees the western dominated international order as hostile to China, it tends to view any relationship between India and the west as an effort to contain China. This has been China’s perception of India historically as well; that any strategic partnership India establishes with the power of the day is a mechanism against China in Asia. In the 1950s and 1960s, China viewed India with concern after the latter established stronger relations with the Soviet Union.
China’s insecurities with regard to its own position in Asia will, without doubt, lead it on a path of aggressive nationalism and territorial claims creating security dilemmas in Asia. Given this dynamic, India and China will have to co-exist in Asia within the parameters of wary cooperation and competition. However, India must take serious note of Chinese aggression on its territory in the future, given China’s general pattern of insecurity in Asia and the world.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views expressed here are that of the author
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