How the new government should deal with China


Srikanth Kondapalli

This article is a guest contribution. Srikanth Kodapalli is a Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

This article was first published on Rediff News on 06 June 2014  and is available here:

The new government needs to clearly insist on diplomatic reciprocal arrangements with China. While reciprocity is a function of power in bilateral relations, the Modi-led government’s responses should be based on India’s inherent strengths, says China expert Srikanth Kondapalli.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit New Delhi on June 8-9 as President Xi Jinping’s special envoy to greet and familiarise with the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. This decision to send Wang was taken following Premier Li Keqiang’s 25-minute encouraging phone call on May 29 with Modi.

As the head of the foreign ministry, Wang is tasked to warm up to the new government in the diplomatic and strategic fields, given the fast changing dynamics at the global and regional levels and in the backdrop of the Ukrainian and South China Sea events.

Moreover, at the bilateral level, Wang has to seek active interest of the new dispensation for the twin celebrations for this year of friendship and the 60th anniversary of the enunciation of the Panchsheel principles by India, China and Myanmar.

China’s media suggests that Wang is likely to pitch for the new Indian foreign minister to take part in the June 28 celebrations in Beijing to commemorate Panchsheel formulations. China had already invited leaders of Myanmar for this occasion.

Wang is no stranger to India, having dealt with New Delhi in his more than three decade career at the foreign ministry, where he served in different capacities at the Asian affairs department. Wang specialised on Asia, with focus on Taiwan and Japan as well. His negotiating skills with Southeast Asian nations in formulating the Declaration on South China Sea in 2002 is specifically noted.

Wang has visited India before, more recently for the November 2013 India-Russia-China meeting and the Asia-Europe meeting. Earlier, he accompanied Premier Li Keqiang to India on the latter’s maiden overseas visit in May 2013. This experience in interacting with Indian leaders should serve Wang in good stead next week on a number of issues.

Firstly, one of Wang’s priorities, besides gauging the new government’s foreign policy directions, is to prepare for the 6th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit meeting next month at Fortaleza in Brazil. Responses towards Ukraine, the BRICS Development Bank, restructuring of the international financial institutions, climate change and others need to be discussed and formalised. China is seeking a bigger profile on these issues.

Secondly, Wang will be looking for coordinated responses with India at the 9th meeting of the G-20 heads of government at Brisbane in Australia in mid-November given the Western countries posture of trade protectionism or diverting financial resources away from developing countries. As China’s exports continue to be affected by the side effects of the global financial crisis, the foreign minister is tasked with eliciting support from other countries.

Thirdly, the 9th East Asian Summit meeting is due in Naypyidaw, Myanmar on November 11-12 this year. The foreign ministries of China and India have recently initiated a dialogue process given the widening divergences in their respective stances on freedom of navigation, United Nations laws and overall stability and prosperity of the region.

Specifically, India views with concern China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s comment of May 12 that India need ‘not worry too much about the current situation in the South China Sea.’ If China continues its spate in the region, half of Indian trade that passes through this region will be in jeopardy.

While the above multilateral fora provide a venue for Xi Jinping and Modi to meet and discuss bilateral relations, substantial diplomatic negotiations will have to wait till both leaders meet in New Delhi at the end of this year.

Wang’s overall priorities is expand China’s diplomatic space given his country’s perceptions about the United States ‘rebalance’ towards the Asia-Pacific region and emergence of a ‘normal’ Japan. While China had tried to counter the US rebalance through the new initiative of reviving the continental and maritime Silk Roads, ironically these roads pass through dispute sovereignty areas.

However, China intends to convey, during this visit, that both China and India could coordinate and cooperate at the international and regional levels and at the multilateral institutions. Of course, Beijing is silent on any major progress on ‘core’ issues in bilateral relations with New Delhi. This has been China’s stance for the past six decades.

The new government needs to take a call on this ‘united front’ message from Beijing and clearly insist on diplomatic reciprocal arrangements with China. While reciprocity is a function of power in bilateral relations, the Modi-led government’s responses should be based on India’s inherent strengths and geo-strategic advantageous positions.



Syria: “loosening the blood-dimmed tide”*


Arundhati Ghose

This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of Defence and Security Alert. 

An anniversary issue gives one an opportunity to step back from viewing the ebb and flow of the current and to take a wider view from a not-too-distant shore, and to try and read the portents of the welling of the sea, the threatening of a tidal wave. A ‘tide’, for some accuracy, has been variously described primarily as ‘the alternate rising and falling of the sea due to the attraction of the moon and sun’ and ‘a powerful surge of feeling or trend of events.’ Today, events in the Middle East in general, and in Syria in particular, is viewed  by most commentators mainly through immediate and bloody events, with different interpretations of these events by countries with differing goals. India’s votes in the UN, with the Arab League and the West in the Security Council and abstaining in the vote in the General Assembly, have been judged from this perspective, reflective of a short or medium term judgement of India’s interests. But what if the tide swells and spreads, what if it becomes a global tsunami and the “Syrian moment’, as it were, becomes as portentous as the assassination, almost a hundred years ago, in Sarajevo? The likelihood is no longer only a probability; there are currents that would seem to make this a near and ‘blood-dimmed’ certainty.

Without going into pre-history, which one would have to if the issues were related purely to religious sectarian rivalries, or indeed only political and ideological ones, (after all, it has long been conventional wisdom that the next world wide war would start in the Middle East)-it would have to be admitted that the faultlines becoming apparent today might be traced to  years more recent, when ambitions for power and control began to be stoked by the sudden and almost unexpected wealth created by the first oil shock in the 1970s and the interventions by outside powers upset delicate balances in complex regional rivalries. What started as diplomatic jostling for leadership  within the Ummah between Saudi Arabia, made newly powerful not merely by immense oil wealth but  by its courting as a power in global affairs by the established old powers of the West, and the Iran of the Shah who saw a revival of dreams of the Persian Empire of old, injected the concept of ‘political Islam’ into international discourse. The use of ‘political Islam’ to oust the failing Soviet rule over Afghanistan, encouraged in part by the Iranian revolution that saw the establishment of a purely theocratic State, engendered the arming and funding of disparate groups, which were led to believe they were in the vanguard of defending Islam against the atheist. As the Soviet Union withdrew, these groups were lauded as ‘mujahideen’ victors of the war for Islam.

Into this fragile situation, the second Gulf  War and the invasion of Iraq led to consequences which are today determining the outlines of the current crises- in the Arab world in general and in Syria in particular. Whether the US could have, should have or whether it ignored the possibility of these consequences is not the issue here: there is no doubt the there were at least three major consequences which unsettled such stability as had existed in the region before the invasion. These were , at a level, the  so-called Arab Spring, the hardening of the Shia-Sunni divide within the Ummah and the  emergence of Iran as a regional power.

According to some  influential Arab commentators, the ease with which Saddam Hussein’s regime was dismantled-with foreign intervention, to be sure, was an important factor in the impulses which resulted in the revolt of the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya-three neighbouring but very different countries – against the dictatorial though secular regimes in these countries. Iraq had also been a ‘secular’ country, though a Sunni minority formed the elite in power and the majority Shia were ruthlessly suppressed.  The equally ruthless dismantling of the structures of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the American occupation forces, turned Iraq into a Shia majority country closely allied to Iran. The introduction of religion, specifically the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood into the governing structures of these countries was also presaged by the changes in Iraq. The new element making the mixture more complex has been the use of the social media when mainstream media faced controls; this has caused concerns in other States, and not only those of centralized States such as China.

All these trends have coalesced in Syria, where the Shia-Sunni divide has divided the Arab world and threatens to spill over world-wide. Turkey, which had envisaged a leadership role for itself following the early days after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, presenting itself as a ‘model’ of a democratic, modern Islamic State, has found its support for the Sunni rebels in Syria being challenged not only among its Alevi (Alawite-Shia) minority- 15% of its population, but threats from Syrian Kurds who have been trying to make common cause with the Turkish Kurds (20% of its population). Syria is reported to have ceded control over several areas in its north to its Kurds, with the latter raising the Kurdish flag over governmental buildings. Turkey has reportedly joined Arab Sunni States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar in funding and arming and providing ‘safe havens’ for the opposition ‘rebels.’ There are credible reports that many of these ‘rebels’ are not Syrian, but an unholy mix of  Sunni  Chechens. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Yemenis, with groups of al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood among the more organized elements in the otherwise  disorganized Free Syrian Army. It cannot be discounted that the Kurds are similarly supported by Syria and Iran. Shia Iraq has its own problems with its Kurds, but the country has been more supportive of Arab Shia Syria than other Sunni members of the Arab League. Sunnis and Alawites are already fighting in Lebanon with Hezbollah threatening armed retaliation if Syria were to be attacked and Jordan is on the edge.

Syria’s strongest regional supporter is, of course, Iran. The strengthening of Iran is also a direct consequence of the collapse of the Sunni led regime of Saddam Hussein. That the current hostilities between both major sects poses a threat to Islamic unity, vis-à-vis the US and the West for Iran, and from movements to topple established regimes from Saudi Arabia, seems to have been recognized by both countries; the recent personal invitation to the Iranian President from the Saudi King to the emergency session of the OIC, the high level composition of the Iranian delegation, the seating of Ahmedinejad on the right of King Abdullah might indicate some back-room efforts to stabilize the situation. Iran is also reported to have announced that it had a proposal to sort out the situation in Syria at (at the time of writing) the forthcoming NAM Summit to be held in Iran would seem to be a pointer in this direction. However, given that the situation has now several non-regional countries and non-state actors involved, any such attempt might be difficult to implement.

Iran of course faces challenges on two fronts- in the Syrian situation and, long predating even the invasion of Iraq, with Israel, the US and the West over  Iran’s alleged determination to develop nuclear weapons. Today, whether for domestic political reasons or not, Israel appears to be straining at the leash to mount an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; faced with an impending election, the US, in an effort to restrain such a disastrous step, has tightened sanctions on Iran almost effectively isolating Iran economically. In Syria, the US sees an opportunity to weaken Iran further and has supported the Sunni Arabs and Turkey, even threatening military action in the event Syria uses or even moves its chemical weapons, in addition to other support already being extended to the so-called ‘rebels’. Action against Syria under the aegis of the UN has been effectively stalled by vetoes by both Russia and China. Apart from Russia’s close friendship with Syria, the experience of NATO action in Libya and its fear of Chechen militants becoming empowered to act in Central Asia, the many initiatives taken by Russia would seem to signal a more assertive global role by Putin’s Russia. China has been less active, but has consistently opposed the involvement of outside powers to effect regime change using the UN for military action. Some China watchers feel that China is being cautious , as officially, at least, it has cited the Libyan case; it is possible that it would change its stance once its change of guard is smoothly accomplished in October. Others feel that not withstanding its global stature, there is a degree of nervousness about possible external incitement in its restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. Whatever the reasons, the world is gradually becoming divided as the impact of the trends in the Middle East as a whole but in Syria in particular, starts spilling over outside the region, even into Africa.

The tide has started lapping at our shores; Malaysia has suspended its diplomatic relations with Syria after the OIC suspended Syria’s membership and Pakistan, where sectarian violence is endemic, and which has been seen by many commentators as the epicentre for the export of terrorists, has seen a rise in the hunting down of minorities especially Shias. Indeed, India’s stake in stability in the region has increased manifold.

The Syrian crisis cannot be easily disentangled from the ones facing Iran; if one looks at some of the albeit worst case scenarios, any military action against Iran or against Syria even be declaring ‘no-fly zones as proposed by France, would have major global spill-over effects. The forces that have been loosed would almost certainly spread to territories outside the Middle East. This would also be the case if the perilous geopolitical situation described earlier, continues at the current bloody levels. Taking an overview of the situation, it appears that, unlike other recent crises-Iraq and Afghanistan, the major powers are no longer the major determinant of a possible solution: today, most US positions seem to be taken in the throes of Presidential election fever, tempered into trying to ensure that while Iran can be weakened by a Syrian implosion with the provision of a limited number of arms to the ‘rebels’, Israeli hawks need to be restrained from actually attacking Iran. The UK and France are merely mischief-makers, with little power to act on their own; given the stalemate in the Security Council, they (and Turkey) may try to energise NATO, as in the case with Libya. In the Lybian case, however, the centrality of the West in settling disputes in the Middle East had already started to erode, presaged by the split within NATO on the issue of Iraq. Russia and China may have the veto, but China is unlikely to get directly involved, given its clashing ideological and economic interests in the region and Russia is hardly likely to have the stamina of facing down the West and the Sunni world alone. The crucial countries in a possible solution are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The forces of extremist groups which were let loose in Afghanistan, have gained in power and ambition. India has been subject to their vicious depredation for decades. There is no doubt that in addition to India’s own economic interests and its expatriate population in the Gulf, the dangers of a Global War of Terror would pose extreme challenges to India’s security, should it, as it is bound to, if the worst case scenarios happen- unless India, having first-hand experience of dealing with these forces, at least tries to do more that merely ride out the storm. One possible direction could be for India to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia- the countries that have the power to limit the stalemate or escalation.  It is just possible that, notwithstanding the public action of the OIC, given the unusual cordiality of the interaction between the King of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian President at the OIC meeting in Riyadh, some deal was negotiated; at the very least, it is clear that both countries would see a continuation of the Syrian crisis as being harmful to themselves and to the Ummah. All India would need to do would be to support the initiative and press for its implementation-on whatever lines agreed to – by both countries. If there is any give on the part of both, and, India could use the challenges she faces at the moment in the current situation, as bilateral leverages for encouragement, other countries, the US and Russia, for example ,could also be asked to support an Iranian-Saudi led solution.

If we fail, there is near certainty that the war will go global- and unlike any of the earlier World Wars, it will be a war without clearly defined armies, State against State, State against non-State actors and non-state actors against other similar groups with no loyalties except to their own ambitions. It will be a war without end.

[*] W.B.Yeats: The Second Coming

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

About the Author:

Ambassador Arundhati Ghose joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1963. She worked in various capacities in the Embassies of India in Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium and The Netherlands; and as Ambassador of India to the Republic of Korea, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to UNESCO; Ambassador of India to Egypt; Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to UN Offices in Geneva, and the Conference on Disarmament. After retiring from the foreign service in November 1997, Ambassador Ghose served as Member, UPSC (1998-2004); Member and Chairman of UN Secretary General’s Disarmament Advisory Board (1998-2001); Member from India on Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2004-2005); Member of Executive Council, IDSA (2004-2007) and functioned for two years as Chairman of its Programme Committee and as member of the task force on non-proliferation and disarmament set up by the MEA in 2007. She is currently Adjunct Fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and on the editorial Board of the journal Faultlines, New Delhi. The Ambassador has contributed chapters to books and articles in journals and newspapers on nuclear issues, disarmament and has been invited to speak at various fora on these and related topics. 

Sea-based thinking: The new basis for our Revolution in Social and Military Affairs


Dr. V. Siddhartha

The Need For a New Geopolitical Perspective

China began to lay its plans for geo-political land-based dominance when it defeated us in 1962 (we forget—as always—that this event occurred a mere dozen years after the post-revolution order under Mao Tse Tung consolidated itself in China), became a nuclear-weapon power in 1964 and broad-based its strategic relationship with Pakistan shortly thereafter.  To be sure, the pace of this drive for dominance was slowed by China’s disputes and rivalry with (the then) Soviet Union. But never was this objective changed, notwithstanding the disaster of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the several other crudities of the Mao era. The United States recognized early-on the eventual emergence of China as Number One, so much so that it aligned with Pakistan in 1971, so as not to jeopardise Pakistan’s crucial help to US plans to ‘open to China.’

The demise of the Soviet Union has accelerated China’s plans and programmes to fill the “vacuum of political dominance” felt to varying degrees with the sequential collapse of Japanese, Dutch, French, British and US power in the region from Indonesia through South East Asia to Myanmar. China’s grand vision of land-based dominance is to be actuated by extensive high-speed rail links, attendant communication spines, power networks and oil pipelines along a great arc from South East Asia up through Southern China, turning through North-Western China, out across the southern flank of the CIS to the Caspian Sea and beyond. These are the New Silk Roads for which plans will fructify by 2020.[1] The recent rescue of the beleaguered South East Asian currencies by China has signaled that the Renminbi is being set to replace the Yen and to coequal the Dollar and the Euro in a world monetary triad to underpin the global economic-military power triad of US-Europe-China. The resulting physical and banking infrastructure will render hostage to China’s will, India’s relations—trade, economic, technological, military and political—with nearly forty countries to India’s North, West and South-East.

Any attempt by India to “muscle into” this China driven land-based geopolitical project will be held firmly in check through the two surrogate prongs of the Chinese land pincer on India: Pakistan-Iran to the West; Bangladesh-Myanmar to the East. China will not waste its own economic and military resources to contain India—we are not important enough to China to warrant its expenditure of that much attention.

The only geostrategic room left to India is the Sea. Indira Gandhi’s uncanny feel for the geo-strategically important—and fortuitous circumstance—enabled India to establish itself as pioneer investor in the Indian Ocean; erect a station on Antarctica and do several other things in good time in ocean exploration and development. These measures have so far prevented the established maritime powers from imposing restrictive regimes on India in the oceans in general and in the Indian Ocean in particular.

Although the base that has thus been established in the seas around us is a good one, its full development and strategic use is vulnerable to the myopia of our defensive, reactive, constricted, almost apologetic, land-based thinking. The needed revolution that has to occur in our military affairs is the shift from land-based to sea-based thinking. A particularly effective way to drive home this perspective is to view the Indian landmass from the North looking South.

To oversimplify (but not by too much), if the land-based arc from Singapore through to Europe is going to be China’s arena of dominance, the one from Singapore through to Cape Town, along the Indian Ocean littoral is the geo-strategic space needed for India’s geo-cultural-economic renewal. Many assets—military and non-military—will need to be developed and deployed in that space, with the Indian Navy as its military core. We barely have till 2020 to fill-out that geo-strategic space.[2]


“Vice Admiral V.K. Chandraskatta, fleet commander…came from a country with a warrior tradition little known outside its own borders, Indians had stopped Alexabder the Great, blunted his army, wounded the Macedonian conqueror, perhaps fatally, and put an end to his expansion, an accomplishment the Persians and the Egyptians had singularly failed to do. Indian troops had fought alongside Montgomery in the defeat of Rommel—and had crushed the Japanese Army at Imphal.

Vice Admiral V.K. Chandraskatta sat on his leather chair on the flag bridge of the carrier Viraat…just for his country to be self-sufficient in food had taken-how long? Twenty-five years. And that had come only as charity of sorts, the result of Western agro-science whose success grated on many minds, as though his country, ancient and learned, couldn’t make its own destiny. Even successful charity could be a burden on the national soul.

The ‘New World Order’ said that his country could not. India was denied entry into the race to greatness by those very nations that had run the race and then shut it down lest others catch up.

But the entire Indian Navy had only forty-three Harrier FRS-51 fighters. He had but thirty at sea on both Viraat and Vikrant, and that did not equal the numbers of capability aboard a single American carrier. All because they had entered the race first, won it, and then declared the games closed, Chandraskatta told himself…it simply wasn’t fair”

(From Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honour” Harper Collins, 1994)

About the Author
Dr.V. Siddhartha served during 2007-09 on invitation of the Secretary General of the United Nations as a member of the Experts Group in New York of the Committee on UN Security Council Resolution 1540.  An Emeritus Scientist in DRDO, he retired in 2004 after working directly with four Scientific Advisers to the Minister of Defence over nearly twenty years. Dr. Siddhartha has been twice Consultant to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, on export control and S&T issues in international security, and on the Indian WMD Act, 2005.  A PhD from the Imperial College of Science & Technology, London, Siddhartha was a member of the pioneering Systems Planning and Analysis Group (SPAG) of ISRO, Bangalore over 1974-82.

[1] See also Batuk Vora, “China plans to transform ‘Eurasia,’” Mainstream, February 28, 1998. This article summarizes the essential elements of China’s ‘land bridge’ project extensively elaborated at the International Symposium on Economic Development of the Regions along the New Euro-Asian Continental Bridge, Beijing, May 7-9, 1996.

[2] For a concise survey of the architecture of the space see: Satish Chandra, Arunachalam and Suryanarayanan “The Indian Ocean and its Islands, Strategic, Scientific and Historical Perspectives,” Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1993.