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The Chinese Powerplay – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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The Chinese Powerplay - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Srikanth Kondapalli

Earlier, on March 2, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang, who came to attend the G20 foreign ministerial meeting, that the state of India-China relations is “abnormal”

Despite tremendous pressure from major powers, India is steering the G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings with its own flavour of speaking for the Global South, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), food security, climate change, and other issues.

The SCO meeting in New Delhi on Friday saw the defense ministers of China, India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan take part. Iran and Belarus joined as observers and Pakistan’s defense representative attended the meeting virtually. This was preceded by informal bilateral meetings amongst them the previous day, including between India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu.

The SCO defence ministerial mechanism is aimed at military cooperation among member-states, addressing regional security issues such as border disputes and arms control, pursuing counter-terrorism measures and enhancing cyber security cooperation.

Given that SCO mandate and in the face of the Ukraine war and China’s violation of agreements with India in the border areas – manifesting most worryingly in such incidents as the conflict in Galwan in June 2020 and intrusions at Yangtse, Tawang, in December last, India, as the host, has to work out a way to obtain some substantial outcomes and ensure the success of its presidency of the SCO.

At the SCO meeting, Rajnath Singh proposed HADR, in which India has demonstrated capability since the 2004-5 tsunami rescue and relief operations, as part of its agenda, in addition to defence capacity-building through training and co-manufacturing and co-development of items, food security and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Counter-terrorism issues were also raised, with a caveat that countries that promote terrorism should be penalised. The SCO states conduct “Peace Mission” counter-terrorism exercises, but these remain ineffective, mainly because of the prevailing double-standards.

Another intractable SCO defence ministerial agenda item is border stability. Clearly, as Rajnath Singh told Gen Li, China’s “violation of existing agreements [1993, 1996, 2005, 2013, 2021 and others] has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations”. Despite 18 corps commander-level meetings till last week, China refuses to implement the February 2021 defence ministerial agreement on “disengagement and de-escalation at all friction points” and thus violates the spirit of SCO as such.

Earlier, on March 2, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang, who came to attend the G20 foreign ministerial meeting, that the state of India-China relations is “abnormal”. On June 17, 2020, two days after Chinese troops killed 20 Indian soldiers at Galwan, Jaishankar had said that bilateral relations with China can only improve once efforts are made to restore peace and tranquillity. China, on the other hand, refuses to vacate an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 troops from Depsang Plains and Demchok, and thus continues to obstruct Indian patrols. It even wants India to accept the current situation as the “new normal”.

Another phenomenon that has revealed itself at recent SCO meetings also could have far-reaching consequences. This is the attempt by China to marginalise India diplomatically and economically in Asia and beyond. In pursuit of this objective, Beijing floated a “Himalayan Quad” with Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, another grouping with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and is now attempting to form a “new RIC” – with Russia and Iran.

China is propping up this “new RIC” to counter the US, but also to marginalise India. India built the Chabahar port in Iran to enhance trade and connectivity to the landlocked Afghanistan and Eurasian region. However, China sees this as a challenge to its Belt and Road Initiative and to its recent facilitation of a dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. An ancient Chinese adage goes, “a mountain cannot accommodate more than one tiger”. Beijing is following that dictum to ensure that India does not build linkages into the Eurasian region, which it covets.

Clearly then, the SCO defence ministerial meeting witnessed intense Chinese powerplay aimed simply at marginalising the host country – India – and ensuring that the declared SCO agenda of border stability, demilitarisation and arms control cannot be implemented.

In these circumstances, India needs to re-calibrate its thinking and strategy to enhance its deterrence capabilities as well as to pay more attention to geopolitical issues.

The article was published on the Deccan Herald as Beijing’s powerplay on April 30, 2023.

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