CHENNAI: With Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram for an informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi it is time to take a realistic look at the Sino-Indian equations. There are a lot of articles appearing on how Sino-Indian bilateral relations should move ahead. No issue with all postulations and the wonderful chemistry between President Xi Jinping and PM Modi. While these harmonizing activities should continue, we should take a hard look at the reality to strengthen our long-term strategy to deal with China. The reality of Sino-Indian relations post Doklam, even ignoring historic irritants and hostilities, is dark. China continues to block our entry into the NSG. The “String of Pearls’ is growing stronger. The trade imbalance has widened. China is blatantly supporting Pakistan in all its activities. Pakistan is China’s catspaw against India. The CPEC continues to move ahead, ignoring our sovereignty concerns. China repeatedly blocked Masood Azhar from being declared a terrorist by the United Nations. They divert Brahmaputra waters with utter disregard. Sino-Pak joint statement just prior to the summit also does not inspire confidence. All this reinforces the statement of Shri George Fernandes—China is our enemy No. 1.
The Jade Necklace
Most of us analyse China from an India-centric viewpoint. When viewed China centrically, some interesting options emerge. A fascinating option is to return the compliment of “String of Pearls” in the IOR with a multistrand “Jade Necklace”. In my view Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, Vietnam, Tibet, Gilgit-Baltistan, Xinjiang and Mongolia form the first strand of the Jade Necklace. The second strand is Religion and Democracy. The third strand is the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership and the Quad. The fourth strand is ASEAN and the Pacific Island Nations. The fifth strand is BRI and One China policy. The overall box in which the “Jade Necklace” must be enclosed is India’s Act East policy. Let us understand the strands in some granularity.
The First Strand—The Main Strand
Japan: Historically, Sino-Japanese relations have been adversarial. Earlier, they were hostile; today they are toned down. At the government level, they have a fast-growing trade relationship despite territorial disputes in the East China Sea. At the people level, there is latent mutual dislike, hatred or hostility. Overall, Japan remains wary about Chinese intentions like the rest of the world. On the other hand, Indo-Japan ties are growing stronger by the day. Both have common interests in resisting the Chinese onslaught. It is not a secret or a revelation. Japan is the lynchpin of the “Jade Necklace”.
Vietnam: Sino-Vietnam relations are choppy. Vietnam relied heavily on China in its struggle for Independence from the French and Americans. However, the Chinese treated Vietnam as second rate and set out to teach them a lesson in 1978. They were humiliated by the Vietnamese— a quiet, determined and fiercely independent people. Since then, they have had an uneasy relationship. Both share communist ideology and are trading freely with each other. However, they have territorial disputes in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam regards India as a natural hedge against China. They need us for many things. They trust us. Vietnam gives us a ledge in the South China Sea. Indo-Vietnamese ties are growing. There is a dire need to elevate this relationship to the next level of ‘cooperation’ and ‘strategic partnership’. Vietnam and Japan are our springboards in all our activities in the China Seas.
Taiwan: Taiwan is the prickly pear on China’s doorstep. Taiwan is China’s No. 1 trouble spot. It has resisted all Chinese efforts to gobble it up under the “One Country Two Systems” policy in vogue with Hong Kong. China’s worst nightmare is “if Taiwan declares independence”. Trade relations are strong but all other relations are poor and hostile. Taiwan is also the first elusive springboard which China must get hold of to break out of its first Island chain to dominate the South China Sea. The disputed Spratly’s do not give China a free run. Strengthen Taiwan and China remains contained. When analyzed in a wider framework, China has a conundrum. If it jumps across the channel to get hold of Taiwan, the Tibet backdoor opens. If it gets across the Himalayas, the Taiwanese front door is left ajar. In my assessment, it cannot do both. Hence the QED for India is to expand Indo-Taiwanese relations to the next level. This is happening.
South Korea: Sino-South Korean relations follow the familiar trajectory of increasing trade and lack of trust. South Korea was one of the last to recognise PRC. They have an issue with Chinese support to North Korea. The two countries have territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Indo-South Korean relations have been growing geometrically and multidimensionally. They need to be taken to a strategic level to derive better value. Another fact is that India is one of the few countries which have diplomatic relations with North Korea. In a changed scenario, India will have a huge role to play if reunification of Koreas is on the horizon. We might have access to the Yalu one day! Who thought that the Berlin wall would be broken down?
Hong Kong and Macau: Hong Kong and Macau are sovereign islands of China which were once colonies of UK and Portugal. They function under the “One China Two Systems” format. Chinese effort to completely amalgamate these island territories under the “One China Policy” is facing unprecedented resistance in Hong Kong. China is wary of these islands since both have tasted the forbidden fruit of “democracy”. All India must do is help “democracy” in any nominal manner.
Gilgit-Baltistan: Gilgit-Baltistan is a two-edged knife. Thrust it in. It cuts Pakistan and China. Just outlining a clear intent to retake this area will put pressure on the illegal transfer of the Shaksgam Valley to China and the CPEC. A few diplomatic steps and deploying soft power will see tremendous results flowing, including taking the spotlight off Article 370. India’s moves to abrogate Article 370 and lay claim to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir are already being read as game changers by international strategic analysts.
Tibet: Tibet is a prickly issue for the Chinese. Historically, Tibet’s status has varied with the rise and fall of China. Significantly, it has never been permanent. If China weakens, Tibet could exhibit greater autonomy. Conversely, if Tibet exhibits autonomy, China has started to weaken. If the Tibetan Government in exile continues to function from India, China will be very unhappy. This is a tap for India to regulate. At this point of time, this tap needs to open a little more.
Xinjiang: Tibet and Xinjiang form the unstable backdoor of China. The world is looking at this internal hotspot of China and the way Uighurs are being incarcerated by China. Is there a need to support the Uighurs? Yes, of course.
Mongolia: Mongolia was just a buffer between the USSR and China. Since the collapse of USSR, it was forced to be a Chinese satellite. China is the main trading partner of Mongolia. Till recently Mongolia was content to some extent and forced to some extent to remain in Chinese shadows. In the past decade, the country has seemingly made a strategic shift, including warming up to India. Indo-Mongol trade has grown manifold. We have recently inaugurated a petrochemical plant there. Mongolia is a staunch supporter of India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. We just need to expand this cooperation in China’s back yard.
Malacca Straits: The Malacca Straits is the hook of the ‘Jade Necklace’. Its domination from our unsinkable carrier, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, heightens China’s Malacca dilemma.
The Second Strand—The Temporal Strand
Democracy: China is intensely worried about democracy. Chinese vulnerability in Hong Kong is apparent. China cannot handle democracy and freedoms which go with it. China understands that democracy is a virus to start a revolution. So, how about sending delegations of our loud-mouth politicians to China for people to people exchanges? They will do the needful to spread the virus.
Religion: Religion is making a huge comeback in China that has strict control on religious practices. However, religion is a free spirit and cannot be controlled beyond a point. Buddhism is emerging as the main religion and is widespread in China. India is the fount of worldwide Buddhism. The soft power of Bodh Gaya and Sarnath is waiting to be tapped. Next to Buddhism comes Islam for the sheer psychological impact it has on China. Already Chinese sensitivities and over reaction is exposed internationally through its treatment of Uighur and Hui Muslims.
The Third Strand—The Strengthener
Indo-U.S. Strategic Partnership: The growing Indo-U.S. strategic partnership is a direct shot at containment of China. As the partnership grows, Chinese manoeuvre space reduces. It will however provoke a cycle of Sino-Indian cooperation and competition. How India operates this partnership will be of interest in the future. It will be a very important strand of the ‘Jade Necklace’. It stiffens and strengthens it.
Quad: The Quad is still evolving. Irrespective of the form of its operationality, the mere thought process and the run up to its formation will have its impact. Meeting of Quad foreign ministers on the sidelines of the recently concluded UNGA proceedings is a significant step.
The Fourth Strand—The Space Reducer
ASEAN: India has come a long way from being a mere onlooker of ASEAN. It is significant that ASEAN leaders were the Guests of Honor at our 69th Republic Day Parade. Partnership with ASEAN has expanded to include security, economy, trade, culture and agriculture. Such expanded engagement decreases Chinese space. Moreover, it is very clear that from a people-to-people perspective the tilt is to a non-intrusive India vis-a-vis a dominant China. The soft power outcomes hold significant promise. This is a partnership which will grow from strength to strength.
Pacific Island Nations: The recent engagement of PM Modi with representatives of Pacific Island nations is significant. The Pacific Island nations comprise of Fiji, Republic of Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Nauru, Republic of Palau, Independent State of Papua New Guinea, The Independent State of Samoa, Solomon Islands, Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu and Republic of Vanuatu. A dialogue with these small nation states of the Pacific Ocean increases our own reach and reduces Chinese influence in the Pacific.
The Fifth Strand -The Direct Shooter
BRI: India is one of the few countries which has publicly shunned and opposed the BRI – CPEC combination from conception. Indian non-participation in all BRI forums is now recognised in strategic circles. It is not a small thing. Even China has been placatory towards India on this issue by offering alternate mechanisms. The informal summit between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping is a direct outcome of this stand.
One China Policy: India has consistently refused to endorse the “One China Policy”. “One China” is the core dream of China. The mere existence of the Dalai Lama in India is non-endorsement of the “One China Policy”. This is deep and is often not understood in our strategic circles. This is bound to continue in future and will be an important component of Sino-India diplomacy and strategic compact.
China wants a multipolar world but a unipolar Asia in which it is the sole pole. The “String of Pearls” theory, probably initiated by some Chinese psychologist and swallowed hook, line, and sinker by some of us, keeps reinforcing this view. It’s time to stem the tide. Many countries in Asia recognise India’s growth and its balancing role. There is plenty of scope to rein in China if we have a policy in place. Hence, the concept of “Jade Necklace”. Many will pooh-pooh it and say such thinking is beyond India. Ever since the Act East policy has rolled out, many elements of the “Jade Necklace” are in place. Consider. Xi Jinping would not have come here for an informal summit if not for the importance of India in the Chinese scheme of things. It is also testimony that China takes India far more seriously than we take ourselves. The “Jade Necklace” only mirrors the “String of Pearls”. It is real. If taken seriously, it reinforces Indian effort to handle China from multiple directions. It is a two-way game. Let us not underestimate ourselves.
(The author has served four decades in the Indian Army in multiple operational areas and is currently a professor at the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. Views expressed in this article are personal.)