After years of protecting its favourite jihadi Masood Azhar, China has withdrawn its hold on branding the founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammad as a global terrorist. This u-turn has happened not because the Chinese have had a change of heart or developed some scruples; they are selling out the Pakistani demagogue because they have bigger problems to deal with. With India challenging them on the strategic chessboard, especially in the backdrop of the massive buildup of Western and Japanese military forces in the dragon's backyard, the Chinese don't have the capacity to open yet another front.
This is not Gandhi's India
For decades India's political leadership had remained deferential to China, but that is now history. The Chinese have realised they are now dealing with a different kind of India - not Nehru or Gandhi's India that was constantly babbling about peace without having the ability to wage war, but a country that recognises China as its primary adversary and is prepared to take it on militarily. Keeping this in mind, the Chinese are calibrating their India policy.
The first hint that Beijing's attitude towards New Delhi was softening became evident in 2012 when the DRDO tested the 5,800-km range Agni V missile, giving India's military the ability to nuke downtown Beijing. In an editorial on December 5, 2012, China Daily said: "The boundary question is just a tiny part of China-India relations." The newspaper, which reflects official policy in China, went on to say the two countries are "cooperative partners, not competitive rivals, as they have far more common ground than differences".
The Chinese discovered how dramatically the scene had shifted just weeks after Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister. In July 2014 India pushed back hard during the final round of the negotiations at the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil. The BRICS bank had been delayed for two years because India and Brazil had fended off China's attempts to get a bigger share - than other members - in the bank's shareholding. In the final hours of the summit, it was decided that they would have equal shareholding. India got the first presidency for six years, followed by five-year terms for Brazil and Russia. China may have bagged the headquarters, but it will not preside over the bank for 21 years. Plus, the organisation was called the New Development Bank, a name suggested by Modi.
Again, in June-August 2017 the entire world had front seats to the Indian Army's aggressive maneuvers during the Doklam standoff where Indian soldiers were seen literally beating the living daylights out of Chinese soldiers, landing flying kicks on PLA flunkies. After two-months, having failed to grab an inch of territory, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) backed off. China realised its salami slicing technique - annexation of foreign land in small increments - won't work again.
America's Pacific Pivot
After the collapse of the Soviet Navy, the US shifted its naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Heavily armed American warships, attack submarines and stealth fighters based in Guam and Darwin, Australia, are now positioned to strike China's eastern seaboard - its economic heartland. The spearhead of this Pacific Pivot is the US 7th Fleet which operates up to 70 ships and submarines and 140 aircraft with approximately 20,000 sailors. Just one nuclear powered submarine from this fleet can destroy the Chinese economic miracle in a matter of hours.
The US also has a number of allies which are patrolling the Pacific waters. Both the UK and France now regularly deploy their warships in joint exercises in the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims as its lake.
In May 2018, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the US Pacific Command would henceforth be called the US Indo-Pacific Command or IndoPaCom in view of the connectivity of the Indian and Pacific oceans. With Mattis declaring the US would not allow countries in the Asia-Pacific region to be impacted by "any nation's predatory economics or threat of coercion", IndoPaCom is clearly aimed at countering Chinese economic and military pressure in the region.
In sync with the presence of the large Western armada, such combative American posturing is causing jitters in Beijing. According to senior Chinese military officials, one of China's greatest fears is the threat of blockade in the event of a conflict. Since China lacks direct access to the open ocean and all its entry points to the primary sea routes are constantly monitored by the US and its allies, China's vulnerability to blockades will always remains its Achilles' heel.
IndoPaCom neatly dovetails with the growing India-US military partnership. Not only do India and the US practice submarine hunting in the region, the Indian Navy has also started deploying warships on patrols in waters too close for China's comfort.
In a demonstration of its operational reach and commitment to India's 'Act East' policy, in May 2016 the Indian Navy's Eastern Fleet sailed out on a two and a half month long operational deployment to the South China Sea and North West Pacific. This wasn't a token detachment, but included two guided missile stealth frigates, a sophisticated fleet support ship, and an indigenous guided missile corvette.
On April 29, 2019 the Eastern Fleet was once again deployed to the South China Sea.
With India aiming for a 260 ship navy, in the coming years it will have more warships and submarines available for deployment off China, further adding to the PLA's headaches. A pissed off India is therefore not in China's interests.
Rise of Japan
It is said about the Chinese that they hate the West, despise India and the only country they fear is Japan. If the emergence of US military power close to its shores wasn't bad enough, the Chinese find their ancient enemy embarking on a massive rearmament programme.
Under nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo has given the boot to its American-drafted constitution that had long kept its military shackled. Japan has lifted the cap on its defence budget, which was set at 1 per cent of GDP, and its companies are developing stealth fighter jets, the world's quietest submarines and large surface combatants. Plus, in view of the nuclear threat from China and North Korea, it is only natural for Japan to go nuclear instead of relying on American security guarantees.
One of Abe's most significant decisions was to approve a reinterpretation of Japan's constitution on military affairs, allowing use of force overseas. With Japan's armed forces - which invaded China in the 1930s - now released from their US-imposed straitjacket, Beijing will have to deal with this new factor.
China's worst nightmare: An India-Japan military alliance
Every time a PLA Navy submarine enters the Indian Ocean, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force - which has considerable expertise in tracking Chinese warships - passes on the information to India. The Indian Navy then takes on the chase, allowing both countries to tail Chinese submarines on a constant basis.
The navies of both countries now regularly conduct joint missions, and one of the spinoffs is intelligence sharing on Chinese vessels. In fact, barely a week before China's decision to dump Masood, two P-3C long-range submarine hunting aircraft carrying a 34-member naval detachment from Japan had landed at the INS Hansa naval airbase in Goa to participate in joint exercise with the Indian Navy.
With the dragon already feeling the heat from the US pivot to Asia, and the highly motivated and disciplined Japanese military deployed virtually at their doorstep, Chinese war planners will face a nightmarish scenario if India deploys the planned 92,000-strong Mountain Strike Corps on the Tibetan border.
Friendly Chinese overtures to India happen when Beijing perceives an uptick in military activity. The communist leadership is so predictable you could set your watch by it.
Islamic terrorism in China's backyard
Islamic terrorists are swooping down on China's Muslim majority Xinjiang province. The rattled Chinese have herded over a million Uighur Muslims into concentration camps where they are being forced to eat pork, drink alcohol and sing Chinese patriotic songs in an attempt to make the community forsake Islam.
For more than two decades, China had shielded Masood Azhar as a quid pro quo for Pakistani support in China's crackdown on the Uighurs. However, with Pakistani leaders camping out in Beijing with begging bowls, they are in no position to protest China's decision on Masood.
Wang Jisi, the dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University, feels Beijing has belatedly realised its friendship (or more accurately, its master-slave relationship) with Pakistan has a cost. "We have to fend off extreme Islamic terrorism from getting into China from Pakistan," he says. Wang adds that after decades of trying to contain India and having failed, China now wants a reset with India.
Clearly, it's not Nehru's Panchsheel or the left liberal slogan of Hindi-China Bhai Bhai that has tamed China but India's ability to turn Beijing and Shanghai into parking lots.
The author is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst.
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