Breaking the PRC’s Chokehold
India looks to new partners, maturing defense agreements to counter Chinese aggression
There is a method to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) vigorous outreach seeking to buy influence with India’s immediate neighbors Bangladesh, Burma, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and by menacing India’s closest ally, Bhutan.
The PRC also seems to have correctly calculated that India, despite its military prowess, would show tremendous restraint in the face of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) brazen effort in mid-2020 to overrun almost 1,000 square kilometers of eastern Ladakh in the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides the two powers.
The PRC deployed an estimated 60,000 troops in the incursion, which along with being emblematic of its aggression toward India, represents the most serious phase of tensions between the two countries since their monthlong war in 1962 in the same region. In the aftermath of that conflict, the PRC seized Aksai Chin, a 38,000-square-kilometer, high-altitude desert almost the size of Bhutan that is claimed by India as part of its Union Territory of Ladakh. The PRC additionally claims the 83,743 square kilometers of the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh that lies along the eastern sector of the LAC. The two nations have long disputed the length and position of the LAC, which is divided into three sectors. Indeed, Chinese workers backed by PLA troops subsequently crossed into Arunachal to construct a village along the border separating the state from Tibet, on the banks of the Tsari Chu river in the Upper Subansiri district. India’s Ministry of External Affairs acknowledged the move and said it was aware of the construction “along the LAC,” which is generally viewed as the PRC’s attempt to buttress its claims to the region as part of its strategy to build civilian settlements in disputed frontier areas. Beijing itself rebuffed all criticism, maintaining that this encroachment was “beyond reproach” because it had “never recognized” Arunachal.
Even as the impasse in eastern Ladakh simmered on, the PRC struck again, this time in Sikkim, India’s tiny northern state that is separated from Arunachal by Bhutan. Chinese troops clashed with Indian Soldiers on the LAC at Naku La in Sikkim on January 20, 2021, an incident described by the Indian Army as a “minor face-off.” The last such incident had occurred in the same area in May 2020.
As 2020 came to a close, India was hoping that the PRC would maintain at least a status quo in Eastern Ladakh. Its overworked Soldiers were hunkering down in this desolate, rarefied border region that averages 3,000 meters above sea level. Temperatures there during the harsh winter can plummet below minus 45 degrees Celsius, testing the limits of mental and physical endurance.
New Delhi was thus relieved that the ninth round of military-level talks between the two sides in February 2021 produced an agreement on disengaging from the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed India’s Parliament on February 11 that “to ensure disengagement in friction points along the LAC, it was our view that troops of both sides who are now in close proximity should vacate the forward deployments made in 2020 and return to the permanent and accepted bases.”
While the disengagement was progressing satisfactorily at Pangong Lake, the standoffs in other areas such as Depsang Plains, Gogra Heights and Hot Springs were taking time to resolve.
What has proved heartening is that both sides have now agreed to maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiation and to continue their efforts to ensure the restraint of the front-line troops, stabilize and control the situation along the LAC in the western sector of the China-India border, and jointly maintain peace.
To help contain PRC aggression without inflaming war, India may look to strengthen its emerging relationships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with Australia, Japan and the United States. Maturing defense agreements among the countries and others in the region may also advance India’s security efforts.
Beijing took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained India economically and politically, and distracted its military. Meanwhile, the PRC was scarcely fazed by the global reproach it aroused for its handling of the calamitous outbreak, widely believed to have originated in Wuhan, China. The PRC was intent on riding its foreign policy agenda on the back of its economic and military vitality.
Ever since the PRC invaded Tibet in 1950 and annexed it the following year, extending itself to India’s frontier, the PRC has loomed menacingly over the world’s second-most populous nation. Despite three agreements, in 1993, 1996 and 2013, for maintaining peace and stability on the LAC, Beijing has consistently disputed the demarcations, and since the 1980s has gradually captured a cumulative 640 square kilometers of land through multiple inroads into Ladakh before its emphatic push into eastern Ladakh in 2020.
The PRC’s close ally Pakistan also has border disputes with India. The neighbors have gone to war four times, at the time of their Partition in 1947, and in 1965, 1971 and 1999. The war of 1971 also engendered Bangladesh from the fall of East Pakistan.
India shares borders of 4,097 kilometers with Bangladesh; 3,323 kilometers with Pakistan; 1,751 kilometers with Nepal; 1,643 kilometers with Burma; 699 kilometers with Bhutan; and 106 kilometers with Afghanistan.
The PRC is purposefully extending its sphere of influence by developing a chain of ports across Bangladesh, Burma, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, essentially garroting India within a ring of volatility. Foreign military experts have dubbed the plan the “string of pearls” strategy. The PRC has built Gwadar Port in Baluchistan, Pakistan, that links to Kashgar in China’s far western Xinjiang region via the U.S. $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that both partners hail as the “great monument of Pakistan-China friendship.”
The CPEC serves as a flagship for the PRC’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme, which is a U.S. $1 trillion sequence of infrastructure projects spanning 70 countries. Beijing has disbursed predatory loans for financially unsustainable projects as part of OBOR, only to assume control over the infrastructure it initiates as compensation for defaults on repayments.
Though Beijing insists OBOR is a commercial initiative, naval basing appears to be a key part of the PRC’s unspoken agenda. Gwadar will grant the PRC a maritime gateway to the Arabian Sea on India’s western seaboard and to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and the gulfs of Oman and Aden. India opposes the CPEC because the project runs through Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, control of which India also disputes. Under the agreement, Pakistan is obliged to pay U.S. $40 billion to China over 20 years through debt repayments and dividends.
Beijing also enhances its OBOR enticements with military provisioning. In 2017, Islamabad announced the purchase from China of four modified Type 041Yuan-class attack submarines and technology transfer for the assembly of four more in the port city of Karachi, in a deal estimated at U.S. $5 billion. The first four submarines are to be delivered by 2023 and the remainder by 2028 to form the core of Pakistan’s offshore nuclear second-strike triad. Also in 2017, Bangladesh purchased two Chinese-made Type 035G Ming-class submarines worth U.S. $204 million.
Chinese-built tanks, frigates and fighter jets also equip Bangladesh’s military, and its military personnel are regularly trained in the PRC. The two countries forged a strategic partnership, and Bangladesh formally joined OBOR during Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in 2016.
Work has since been progressing on nine projects worth U.S. $7.1 billion, part of 27 China-funded infrastructure projects in Bangladesh under OBOR. Beijing also declared a zero-duty policy for 97% of Bangladeshi imports. The PRC has promised about U.S. $30 billion in financial assistance to Bangladesh, overshadowing India’s development aid contributions of U.S. $10 billion.
Bangladesh also concluded a U.S. $1 billion agreement with the PRC on water management after failing to secure a water-sharing pact with India over Teesta, the country’s fourth-longest river, which flows from India. The PRC is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, with trade worth U.S. $18 billion. India’s trade with Bangladesh hovers around U.S. $9.5 billion.
Although a deal fell through in 2014 for the PRC to build a port in Sonadia, Bangladesh, the PRC found an alternative site in Burma to heighten its presence in the Bay of Bengal on India’s eastern seaboard. During his January 2020 visit to Burma, Xi finalized a deal for the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone Deep-Sea Port Project, to cost U.S. $1.3 billion in the first phase.
The port in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh to the north, will abut the Bay of Bengal. Across the bay, India is developing a nuclear submarine base called Project Varsha near its Eastern Naval Command at Visakhapatnam. Kyaukpyu could double as a military facility should conflict arise. The project’s initial cost of U.S. $7 billion was slashed upon Burma’s fears of a debt trap. Other key PRC-aided infrastructure projects underway are New Yangon City and the China-Burma Border Economic Cooperation Zone. China is suspected of maintaining a naval intelligence unit at a base in the Coco Islands, near India’s outlying island territories of Andaman and Nicobar.
When Sri Lanka struggled in 2017 to make payments on its more than U.S. $1.1 billion deal with the PRC to develop its southern seaport of Hambantota, Beijing gained control of the strategic port through a 99-year lease. The PRC may use the port, and prospectively Gwadar as well, as a PLA Navy base to bolster its profile in the littoral.
The PRC is also expanding from Hambantota to the Colombo port, the deepest container terminal in South Asia. In the single largest foreign direct investment into Sri Lanka, China Harbour Engineering Co., part of the state-owned China Communications Construction Co., is creating the U.S. $1.4 billion Colombo International Financial City on 660 acres reclaimed from the sea. This “city-within-the-city” is expected to be a major financial hub to rival Singapore and Dubai and boost the economy and maritime trade of the island country. China is also investing U.S. $1 billion in constructing three 60-story buildings at the site.
In regard to the island territory of the Maldives, India fears that the potential expansion — from 38,000 to 100,000 square meters — of the island of Feydhoo Finolhu, which a Chinese company acquired in 2016 on a 50-year lease for U.S. $4 million, could lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base, possibly for nuclear submarines, and a listening post to track Indian naval movements in this strategic part of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives lies just 623 kilometers from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India. The PRC has similarly created, and militarized, artificial features in the South China Sea — seven in the Spratly Islands and 20 in the Paracel Islands — for what it declares its “natural right as a sovereign nation.” It has also saddled the Maldives with a debt burden of U.S. $1.5 billion, when this island nation’s annual revenue is about U.S. $1.7 billion and its gross domestic product is U.S. $4 billion.
The PRC has penetrated into Bhutan in recent years, culminating with the PLA’s intrusion into the landlocked Buddhist kingdom in November 2020 to construct what satellite images showed to be a linear residential complex along the Doklam plateau. The plateau, which lies at the disputed trijunction border that the two countries share with India, was the site of a tense 73-day China-India standoff in 2017. Subsequent imagery showed ammunition depots had been built alongside the new settlement.
Prior to the intrusion, China had announced a “package solution” to its boundary dispute with Bhutan that harkened back to its 1996 proposal for ceding to Bhutan disputed areas to its north in exchange for disputed western areas, including Doklam, and Bhutan’s eastern boundary straddling the Sakteng forest sanctuary. Bhutan is India’s staunchest ally in the region, but the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaties of 1949 and 2007 have no explicit defense clause.
Doklam is key to the PRC’s hegemony in the region as are Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, north of Doklam, and India’s Siliguri Corridor, to the south, both strategic mountain chokepoints. With a bold advance, the PRC could cut off the 60-kilometer-long corridor, also known as “Chicken’s Neck,” a 22-kilometer-wide swath that connects mainland India to its eight far-flung northeastern states that are bordered by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
In recognition of the PRC’s influence strategy, India has stepped up its goodwill visits, sending three top officials to neighboring countries in November 2020. External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar went to Seychelles after visits to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called on the Sri Lankan leadership, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla visited Nepal, following trips to Bangladesh and the Maldives.
Time may not be on India’s side, but it must continue to counter the PRC’s attempts to buy influence with its neighbors. In addition to offering neighbors economic and military alternatives to the PRC’s OBOR enticements, India should look to the Quad, a growing chorus of analysts contend. Together, the Quad nations could create an infrastructure fund that provides financially sustainable alternatives to the PRC’s debt-laden projects for India’s neighbors.
Moreover, the Quad could strengthen maritime domain awareness, project power by sharing logistics and develop defense technologies to counter the PRC in the region. Maturing defense agreements will help shore up the Quad’s capabilities. In October 2020, for example, India and the U.S. signed a pact to share sensitive satellite data, typically used for guiding missiles and drones. The agreement was the latest in a series of India-U.S. pacts to counter the PRC’s growing expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region.
A strong Quad, with its economic and military interdependence, will, at minimum, force the PRC to think twice about its continuing aggression in the Indian Ocean region and encroachment on the borders of India and its neighbors.