Lieutenant General J S Bajwa (retd), the editor of Indian Defence Review who has held senior positions in the Indian Army’s Eastern Command and written a seminal book on the People’s Liberation Army, is sceptical about the so-called ‘reset’ post the informal Wuhan Summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping. In an interview to Ramananda Sengupta, he asserts that when it comes to furthering its interests, Beijing will ride roughshod over anyone, and given the growing disparity in military and economic might, India may not have too many options. Excerpts:
Q. Does this ‘reset’ mean India and China will become good friends from now on? Why?
A. China has the economic and military clout to seek a global order to suit its interests, and advocates multi-lateralism at the global level. However, in the regional context, it is more inclined to establish a hierarchical order. It does not feel threatened by India in any sphere, so will impose its will. It will maintain cordial relations with India which will allow it to enforce a sort of compellence, if the need arises mainly due to the long-standing boundary dispute. It will never be that “all-weather relationship, higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans” type it has with Pakistan. China would like to see India on a rung or two below where China stands. Is India prepared to be a subordinate in its bilateral relations with China? This issue will dictate the contours of India-China relations.
How do you see this sudden bonhomie impacting India’s relations with the US?
China has acquired a very special status in its relationship with the US by being the foster and enabler of the US-North Korea Summit. It was a major Trump show of optics and one that gave huge legitimacy to Kim. In this light, the US considers its relationship with China important and would, therefore, calibrate its relations with India such that it does not cause any unnecessary ripples in its relations with China. As it is, India was at the receiving end of what the US dished out and was never the one that set the agenda or dictated any terms.
What do you see as the main stumbling blocks to permanently resolving the border issue?
A simple answer is that neither is now in a position to give up their stated respective claims. The stands hardened when India did not accept the ‘swap’ deal -- India would give up its claim on Aksai Chin and China would give up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh. For India, it was a situation akin to China tossing a coin and saying “Heads I win, tails you lose”. China was bargaining with India’s territory and was not giving away anything. As a first step, let both sides declare that they will cease all patrolling for two-three years so as to adhere to the clause in all the Agreements/Treaties of “not altering status quo”. This would then give the Special Representatives a less tense environment in which to hold discussions. As a unilateral step, rename the ITBP to BSF. To persist with Tibet in the ITBP indicates a mind set.
What do you think led to this change in thinking, and what are the other issues that continue to plague ties?
China’s relationship with Pakistan is a cause for concern. Development of Gwadar port, with the possibility of developing a base for PLA Marines there, poses a threat to India’s SLOCs. Its future presence in the Maldives and Dijbouti makes China’s presence in the IOR more formidable. The CPEC traversing through PoK was an indicator of how China will deal with matters when it comes to furthering its interests -- it will ride roughshod over anyone. This can be compared to Taiwan, where China is sensitive to any country dealing with it. On the other hand, in a similar situation on territory India claims as its own, China has initiated major strategic projects without caring one bit for India’s sensitivities. China’s assertive forays in South Asia and IOR will be central to India-China relations.
Where do you see the India-China relationship headed perhaps five years on?
Five years down the line, India is likely to find itself left behind on most indicators of Comprehensive National Power, be it skilled manpower, science and technology, knowledge and data and metrics, manufacturing, urbanisation, agriculture, poverty alleviation. China would be way ahead in modernisation of its armed forces, along the northern border and with formidable PLAN presences in IOR, space warfare, cyber warfare. India will be struggling to maintain a steady course with a loose self-centred coalition government at the Centre, pandering to all sorts of religious, caste, regional and linguistic groups. A country drifting aimlessly. Most unfortunate.