The Ghost of Wuhan Will Haunt India for Years

The Wuhan understanding has created a catch-22 situation for India: It can neither afford another Doklam nor partner with China on connectivity projects.

China appears to have checkmated India’s foreign policy choices by a strategic masterstroke: the Wuhan understanding which has created a new model of engagement called ‘China India Plus’.

The Wuhan informal summit was preceded by an unexpected Chinese military build-up in Doklam in the winter months of 2017-2018, signalling that the 73-day crisis which was started by India on June 18, 2017 was far from over. The Wuhan understanding, which is the consequence of Doklam, is not a modus vivendi as the two sides have done in the past, but a transformational moment in bilateral relations.

The Wuhan understanding was accomplished so subtly by China that India’s seasoned opinion-makers seemed to have missed the brilliant manoeuvre. They were left wondering why after the Wuhan visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was excessively cautious in his keynote address at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Instead of underlining the strategic intent of the new Indo-Pacific theatre nomenclature which recognised India’s reach beyond its borders and the emerging Quadrilateral (Quad) narrative, Modi sought to downplay Chinese apprehensions by saying ‘it was not directed against any country.’

Since the genesis of Wuhan lies in the Doklam crisis, a recapitulation is in order. Talking exclusively to me on condition of anonymity in the Chinese embassy on July 10, 2017, a senior official made the following points:

“We reached out to your (Indian Army) local commanders thrice to discuss matters, before starting the road construction on 16 June 2017 in Doklam, which belongs to China. But we got no response. On June 18, the Indian side blocked our construction party by bringing nearly 200 soldiers about 180m inside our territory in Doklam, and hundreds of soldiers were reinforced behind in layers as back-up. China does not want war but wants to solve the problem by diplomatic channel. However, we will not stop construction on our side. You (India) have always misjudged China even when we always reach out.”

His parting shot was: “You overstate your strength”.

This is precisely what India, and especially its army leadership, had done by mistaking battle (or tactics) for war (series of battles). Unable to grasp the complexity of modern war because of the lack of military reforms, the Indian army informed the National Security Advisor that the disengagement of the two troops was the end of the crisis. Feeling victorious, it did not occur to India at that moment that except for the Japanese ambassador in India, no country (especially the US which has elevated India to ‘major defence partner’ status) even murmured against China in support of India’s position.

Once Chinese build-up in various domains of war started within months of the tactical crisis, its tangible assets like new roads, aircraft hangers, military construction and missile firings in Tibet informed India that it had bitten more than it could chew. China, it was clear, had the capability to fight a non-contact war (through its space, cyber, electromagnetic domains, its range of accurate cruise missiles and armed unmanned vehicles), which India could not match. Once the reality hit, Modi, who did not want a bigger Doklam before the 2019 general elections, sought and met President Xi Jinping for the informal Wuhan summit. Undeniably, China’s military coercion – which is always supported by credible military power – had won the day for China without it even firing a shot.

Since the Wuhan summit was a closed-door affair, the Chinese ambassador in India, Luo Zhaohui later made the point of what was at stake for India by cautioning, ‘We could not stand another Doklam incident’. To dwell on this further, Xi recently told the visiting US defence secretary James Mattis that China ‘won’t give up an inch of its territory.’ To be sure, China claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh which it called Xizang or South Tibet; India should not take an assertive China lightly on this.

Meanwhile, while welcoming Modi in Wuhan, Xi offered the ‘China India Plus’ proposal. Appearing benign and futuristic, it states that India and China (Two Plus) should coordinate their development and connectivity projects to help the neighbouring countries in order to ensure Asia’s rise. While Two Plus One for Afghanistan was agreed at Wuhan, Xi, taking the Wuhan understanding further, recently offered the Two Plus One to visiting Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who was pleased with it. Xi could now offer this new model to the Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and so on.

Since Pakistan is a different kettle of fish, Luo suggested the trilateral model (China, India and Pakistan) for peace on borders to a public audience in Delhi, adding that it was into the future. Left unsaid was that China might soon press India to consider it seriously in order to settle India’s territorial and sovereignty concerns in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir which have held back its joining the Belt and Road Initiative .

The Wuhan understanding has created a catch-22 situation for India: It can neither afford another Doklam nor partner with China on connectivity projects for two reasons. One, the worldviews and, hence, foreign policy objectives of India and China are at sharp variance. China, to quote Mao Zedong, ‘everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent’ views the world as passing through the geopolitical flux of multi-polarity after the Cold War bipolarity, to eventually become bipolar, with China and the US as the two poles. For this reason, it had rejected the US’s G-2 partnership model and instead offered the ‘new model of major country relations’ to the US.

India, on the other hand, believes in a multipolar world with it being one of the poles. Unlike China, which gives importance to hard power (economic, military, technological, defence-industrial), India feels that a mix of economic and soft power would propel it as a major power in the multipolar world.

The second reason flows from the first. China’s hard power is strides ahead of India and a catch-up is not possible. Consider this: once Two Plus One gets underway in Nepal, what would show on the ground is Chinese money, infrastructure building technology and managerial skills to meet deadlines. India’s efforts, willy-nilly would be relegated to the background with China assuming the leadership role. Given this, it would not be difficult for smaller nations to choose between the two, should it become necessary.

India’s woes would not end here. It would become increasingly difficult for Modi to streamline its strategic intent with the US and the Quad, especially for the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, India would not be able to neglect its ties with Russia, which is not only India’s biggest defence supplier, but also its sole partner for defence-technology transfer.

Since Modi held an informal summit with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on the heels of the Wuhan summit, Putin is the confidante, if not the guarantor of peace on the 3,488km-long disputed border with China under the Wuhan understanding.

Pravin Sawhney is the editor of FORCE newsmagazine.