2 February 2021
By Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is the Director of the Strategic Studies Programme at Takshashila Institution and an Adjunct Professor at NIAS.
National Institute of Advanced Studies
NIAS Tuesday Lecture Series
India-China Border instability: Understanding Beijing’s endgame
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Report Prepared by
Mohammed Yaqoob Saleem, Christ (Deemed to be) University
On 2 February, the National Institute of Advanced Studies organized a lecture on “India-China Border instability: Understanding Beijing’s endgame” by Lt Gen (Retd) Prakash Menon as part of its Tuesday lecture series on Global Politics. The event was organized in collaboration with the Department of International Studies, Political Science and History, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Kristu Jayanti College (Department of History), Pondicherry University (Centre for Maritime Studies), Goa University (Department of Political Science) & Manipal Academy of Higher Education (Department of Geopolitics and International Relations). The speaker was introduced by Dr. Manoharan N, Associate Professor, Department of International Studies and History, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), and Prof Suba Chandran was the moderator for the session.
Lt Gen (Retd) Prakash Menon addressed the question of China’s endgame concerning the border conflict with India by pointing out the need to understand the geopolitical compulsions of China. Part of understanding China’s intentions lies in its history. Lt Gen (Retd) Menon proceeded to explain this narrative through maps, where he highlighted that the Han population has always been the core of China in its eastern part. Historically, China has expanded to the south, west, north, and north-west, therefore occupying territories and establishing authority on people other than the Han. The geographical expansionism by China has aimed to establish buffer states to protect the Han population. Mao’s rise to power saw a consolidation of Xinjiang and Tibet into China. He explains that China is driven by the compulsion to expand to protect itself and this is a historical process that is still ongoing as China seeks to expand its control over maritime space. After the century of humiliation, China wants to recapture its glory which it enjoyed in the past. China believes that it must and can become the number one power in the world and the CCP is organized to make that ambitious aim a reality. The CCP has been effective in organizing the people and using the resources to the best of its abilities. The Chinese goals have been to take back what it thinks belongs to it, to increase its influence not only in Asia but across the globe, and to write the rules of the international system. Today’s China is nearing its goals at speeds that are faster than before especially after the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic.
Lt Gen (Retd) Menon then spoke about the population composition of China. The Han, which forms the majority of the Chinese population is concentrated in the Eastern part of the country. China is made up of a mosaic of ethnicities. Apart from the Hans it also includes the Tajik, Turkic, Mongolian, Mon-Khmer, Indonesian, to name a few. The Han domination has always been there in China for a long time and they have now expanded their domination to include several other minorities within the modern nation-state of China and it is still in the process of expanding. The Yangtze and the Yellow rivers have also had a great impact on the population density in China which is concentrated in the East and is not evenly distributed. As a result of all this, most of the wealth is concentrated in the East and the outer areas of China like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have been relatively poorer. History tells us that anyone who tries to move the wealth created by the coastal areas inwards has normally found resistance from the people on the coast. The Communist Party of China has continued to strive to move that wealth from the coast to the inner regions and has faced resistance, but the resistance is mellowed now as the economy is under the control of the State, which the Lt. Gen calls ‘State-dominated Capitalism’. Dissension in the Chinese political system has been tightly controlled with the use of technology to monitor people and bring them in line, even at the highest political levels. Hence, technology has been of great benefit to the authoritarian State.
Geography cannot be ignored, according to Lt Gen Menon. The general belief has been that the Himalayan mountains have been a formidable mountain system that has separated Tibet from the Indian subcontinent and military friction between India and China is increasing in this mountainous area. Technology might give both sides the ability to fight in this region, but to sustain forces across the Himalayas is not an easy task for both the Indians and the Chinese. The central dilemma facing the Chinese is the trade routes on which it depends to keep its economy growing at a pace that is considered essential by the CCP to maintain social harmony within the Chinese population. The CCP believes that it can sustain its governance over the Chinese people as long as its economy keeps growing. Chinese economic interests face certain challenges and Geography has not been favorable to the Chinese in this regard. China is hemmed in by islands with Japan in the Northeast, Taiwan in the East, the Philippines in the Southeast, Indonesia, and Malaysia in the South. China considerably depends on West Asia for its energy, Africa for raw materials, and Europe for trade. The trade routes to all these three regions pass through the Malacca Straits which is strategically important for China. Anybody that threatens these trade routes can affect China’s economic growth which will, in turn, lead to a social upheaval that the CCP wants to avoid.
He opines that the world is now between orders. The rise of China has impacted the unipolar world dominated by the United States. China is trying to change this world order into a bipolar one under the pretense of multipolarity as there are various rising powers. China is seeking to become a unipolar power in Asia by trying to get Southeast Asian nations, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea to align behind it. It is also aiming to become a unipolar power in the world by getting close to Russia. However, this has become an anathema to India which has always talked about a multipolar world order in which many nations have a say in how the rules are written. China’s greatest sensitivities is India teaming up with the US and its move towards the quad; China has viewed this as a move to contain it. China has used Pakistan for a long time to keep India contained in the sub-continent. India geographically lies between China’s trade routes that pass through the Indian Ocean, and China views this as a potential threat when India teams up with the United States. This has driven China to use Pakistan to draw India’s resource towards the continent and prevent it and slow it down from achieving maritime superiority.
Lt Gen (Retd) Menon also spoke about the Belt and Road Initiative which he considers as a geo-economic enterprise with profound geopolitical consequences. Over the years, China has developed as an economic power and has used its wealth to increase its influence and emerge as a military power. China’s strategy, he reiterates, has been to draw Indian resources to the North-Western border and keep India engaged on its continental front. He also points out that China is not holding back on militarising its front with India and the Chinese are increasing the military threat in this region. He concludes his talk by pointing out that despite nine rounds of talks being held between both sides, there seems to be no progress.
The captivating lecture by Lt Gen (Retd) Menon was followed by a Q&A session with several questions coming in from the participants. Dr. Nanda Kishor who heads the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education delivered the concluding remarks and the Vote of Thanks.