Category Archives: Nov 2014

Spice of life: Unity in diversity, our idea of India

Barely 11, I was set to begin the nine-year trudge in pursuit of a cherished dream to serve the nation in uniform.


It was early morning on August 16, 1962, as we disembarked at the New Delhi railway station after an overnight journey from Jalandhar. With the coolie lugging my freshly painted box and new holdall, we headed for the waiting room as GT Express to Madras was in the afternoon.

The newspapers at the Wheeler Bookstall on the platform carried highlights of the Independence Day celebrations. Spontaneously, I shared with dad the memories of Independence Day proceedings at the Red Fort I had witnessed a few years earlier.

On the third day we were at Vijayawada. It was the first time I feasted on steaming hot idlis served with coconut chutney. Late in the afternoon, the train made sluggish entry into Madras station, dot on time. In the evening, we boarded Blue Mountain Express and arrived at Coimbatore in the morning. Most people, including porters, could communicate in English so we had no problem in finding our way.

Amaravathinagar, a hamlet nestled in the foothills of the Nilgiris, was a four-hour bus ride from Coimbatore. Finally, after a four-day journey, I was at Sainik School. Barely 11, I was set to begin the nine-year trudge in pursuit of a cherished dream to serve the nation in uniform.

We were around 150 of us in the first batch, coming from distant parts of the country, including Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While a few were wards of senior officials, most of us came from middle-class families. We shared one identity: Everyone had made it on merit through a competitive exam. Those whose parents could not afford to pay the school fee were given financial assistance by the state governments.

Our class of 20-odd included Anwar, Ranjit Singh and Peter. Initially, Ms Murphy was our class teacher. Later, it was Mr John from England, who was also our English teacher. Many local boys were proficient in Hindi. Soon those of us who came from the North were fluent in Tamil. Even today, conversation in Tamil with waiters at restaurants invariably earns me a complimentary helping of sambar.

The topics during the morning assembly highlighted India’s uniqueness, unity in diversity. This was evident on the sports field, too. In cricket, Sukhjeet Singh spearheaded the pace attack with Balakrishnan, the spin artist. Hockey forward line was anchored by Ravinder and self, Sunder the star goalkeeper. Similar was the case in other games and disciplines. This synergy and peer group learning was the main reason for our school’s outstanding all-round performance.

Five years on, half the class made it to the National Defence Academy. Over the next four years, during the pre-commission training, the idea of India we had imbibed in school was etched in our DNA, nation first always. Here on, repeatedly responding to the call, in the finest traditions of the army, became a way of life.

A few decades later, when I was faculty at Staff College, I happened to visit my school. Surprisingly, the whole environment had changed.

Over a period of time, the administrative control of Sainik Schools changed hands from the Centre to the states. Now, only students with domicile status are eligible to join Sainik Schools in their respective states. The multi-cultural identity of the school is now a matter of the past.

Reflecting on bygone times, India an idea stands overshadowed by the rising frenzy of sons of the soil syndrome and politically motivated narrow parochialism. Our generation owes to posterity to reverse this phenomenon. No sacrifice is too great for this cause.

Wuhan Reset – Strategic Etymology Kaleidoscopic View

Published in the Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLVIII, No. 612, April-June 2018

Mr Henry Kissinger’s seminal book “On China” begins with Chairman Mao Zedong briefing his top military commanders in October 1962, in the wake of Sino-Indian border standoff.1 Deep diving into history, he recalled that China and India had fought ‘one and half’ wars and there were valuable lessons to be drawn from each. The “first war” occurred during Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) when China dispatched troops to support Indian Kingdom against an aggressive rival. After China’s intervention, the two countries enjoyed centuries of religious and economic exchanges. The lesson as Mao put it; “China and India were not doomed to perpetual enmity. They could enjoy long period of peace again, but to do so, China had to use force to ‘knock’ India back to negotiating table.” The “half war” Mao referred to was, when Mongol Timurlane sacked Delhi, almost seven hundred years later in 1398, killing over 100,000 prisoners. (Mao reckoned China and Mongolia then were part of same political entity).  When ordering offensive against India, Mao instructed his forces to be ‘restrained and principled’.  Accordingly, after inflicting crushing defeat on Indian forces, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) retreated to the original line of control, returning even the captured heavy equipment.2

The singular uniqueness of Chinese leaders lies in invoking strategic principles from millennium old events. No other country can claim to link its ancient classic dictums of strategy to its present statesmanship. This is why; the world often gets China wrong while decoding the mind of its leaders. Even in the recent past, series of incidences that occurred on India’s border with China invariably synchronised with important visits. Depsang in April 2013 preceded Chinese Prime Minister (PM) Li Keqiang visit to India, Demchok-Chumar happened in September 2014 when President Xi was in India and Doklam in June-August coincided with PM Modi’s visit to the USA.

President Xi Jinping is known to have deep understanding of Chinese history and seems to follow Mao. As per Mr Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, Xi is a man of extraordinary intellect with well-defined world view.Late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had compared Xi with the likes of Nelson Mandela. Therefore, informal summit (Fei Zhengshi Huitian) at Wuhan on 27-28 April 2018, at the behest of personal invitation from President Xi Jinping to PM Modi merits in-depth introspection and analysis. It was the second time that Xi made an exception to welcome any leader outside Beijing, first time in 2015 when he hosted Modi at Xian. Xi definitely would not be making such exceptional gestures without a grand design.  To unravel the labyrinth of Wuhan reset, it is pertinent to take a kaleidoscopic view of the strategic etymology, particularly from the Chinese perspective and its interpretation to gauge impact on the future course of India-China relations.

Strategic Etymology- Kaleidoscopic View

The circumstances which led to the informal summit at Wuhan can be largely attributed to the strategic review of the global environment by President Xi, in the realm of his recently enunciated doctrine. After assuming power as Fifth Generation Leader, President Xi surprised everybody by grossly bending the constitutional rules followed by his immediate predecessors. During the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, Xi had his “Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” enshrined in the Constitution.4  During the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018,  he went on to abolish the Presidential term limit, to retain power for life.Thus, Xi has emerged as the most powerful leader after Mao.

Through its history, China has persuaded neighbours to acquiesce. It prospered only when the Emperor was strong and periphery peaceful. Xi commenced his second term with conviction that China needed strong personalistic leader. Accordingly, he gradually established himself both in the Party and PLA; twin pillars of Chinese power structure. Xi unleashed anti-corruption campaign to clean up the system and purge potential political rivals. Simultaneously, he initiated radical military reforms to prepare the defence forces for future global role and reinforce Party’s hold over the PLA.

During the Party Congress, Xi unfolded his doctrine centred on ‘China Dream’ (zhongmeng); which envisions ‘powerful and prosperous China’. It entails rejuvenation (fuxing) i.e. restoration of China’s past grandeur. To implement his grand vision, Xi outlined twin centenary objectives; People’s Republic of China (PRC) to become fully modern economy – achieve social modernisation by 2035 and acquire status of ‘great modern socialist country’ by middle of the Century.6 He also propounded the policy of ‘striving for achievements’ (fanfa youwei) and usher China into the New Era, advocating Beijing’s leadership role to shape China-centric global order. This marked a paradigm shift from Deng’s strategy of maintaining low profile till China completed its peaceful rise.

Xi has been empowered by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to be at the helm indefinitely,  to give him adequate time to complete the process of China’s rise as a global power. Besides, Chinese economy is in state of transition from low technology manufacturing to advance digitally enabled products. Further, continuity is considered vital in executing the mega global initiatives like the ‘belt-road’. With collective leadership on the backburner, the burden of performance now squarely rests on Xi. His failure could push China into chaos, given the high expectations of China’s rising middle class.

China has always opposed global security system based on American military alliances and partnerships. Therefore, China’s policy seeks diminution of American influence in the Asia-Pacific region. With US adopting ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, China accelerated its military modernisation process. In pursuit of the Chinese based world order, Beijing has undertaken series of initiatives to set up alternate multilateral structures to include Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Asia Infrastructure Development Bank (AIDB) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As per Beijing’s strategic calculus, in the coming decades, while China and USA will be the competing powers, the other important players will be India and Japan, both in its neighbourhood. Hostile periphery will not be conducive to China’s progress.

China at no cost will condescend to the idea of ‘Indo-Pacific’ gaining currency and Quad (US, India, Japan and Australia) grouping taking shape of an alliance. Even in the ancient times, its emperors dealt with the adversaries by pitching ‘one barbarian against the other’.7 To counter Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, China is keen to make Asia as the globalisation pivot. In the larger Pan-Asian sub-set, China views India as one of the important players. Beijing is also re-engaging Tokyo as part of its strategic review. Mr Li Keqiang visited Japan for the trilateral summit which included South Korea in May 2018. The trio strongly voiced for regional comprehensive economic cooperation encompassing ASEAN and other major economies; India, Australia and New Zealand. Sino-Russian relations over the recent years have transformed into strategic partnership.

In view of the aforesaid, Xi apparently has had a serious rethink on Beijing’s relations with its important neighbours. Doklam stand-off was also a trigger for China to reconsider its India policy. Xi is going about systematically to challenge America. In the process, Beijing is willing to yield tactical space to serve its larger strategic interests. How can PRC stake its claim to be a superpower; politically isolated and confined to Western Pacific?

From India’s perspective, there was an imperative need to recast China policy based on pragmatism through fresh initiatives.  PM Modi has established good personal rapport with president Xi. Hence, informal setting offered excellent opportunity to put across India’s concerns about the cross border terrorism, Chinese looming presence in India’s neighbourhood including India Ocean Region, China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC), impasse on the border issue and restoring glaring trade imbalance.

Wuhan Reset: Common Theme – Different Tones

Considerable effort went in by way of ministerial level meetings to set the stage for the Wuhan Summit. The basic rationale behind whole exercise was to build mutual trust and identify common ground to resolve vexed problems. Besides being on same page on a number of global issues, idea was also to evolve broad framework for strengthening bilateral relations.

Wuhan as a venue, situated on River Yangze in central China was a well-considered choice; given its rich historic past (unrest to unseat the Qing Dynasty started in the military barracks of the city) and to showcase China’s industrial prowess. Six meetings in the course of twenty four hours with open ended agenda allowed the two leaders to have a freewheeling dialogue with no pressure on the outcome. Mr Modi highlighted the need to have shared vision, shared thought process, shared resolve, strong relationship and better communications between the two neighbours. He further went on to define his vision of bilateral relationship in the form of five principles i.e. Thought (Soch), Contact (sampark), Cooperation (Sahyog), Determination (Sankalp) and Dream (Sapne). 8

In the absence of a joint communiqué, the two sides issued separate statements, with common themes and varying tones.9  Salient aspects are summarised below:-

(a)   One significant outcome was agreement between the two leaders to have such summits periodically, facilitating ‘strategic communications’ at the highest level.

(b)   Second important facet was of providing ‘strategic guidance’ to the respective militaries to build trust, mutual understanding and enhance cooperation in effective management of the border affairs. There was emphasis by both sides on ‘maturity and wisdom’ to handle differences; keeping each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations in mind.

(c)   With regards to India-China border question, the two leaders expressed support for the work of Special Representatives. They urged for intensification of efforts to seek fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement, while underscoring the importance of ‘maintaining peace and tranquility’ in all areas of border region. Apparently, it is further building upon the agreement reached in 2005 referred to as “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of Border Question”.10

(d)   On terrorism, both sides agreed to promote more active regional and international cooperation. They also concurred to join hands in offering innovative and sustainable solutions to global challenges like natural calamities and climate change.

(e)   With regards to trade and economy, the areas of emphasis were starkly divergent. While India wanted the trade deficit to be balanced and sustainable, China on the other hand was focussed on investment, by tapping full potential and exploring new areas of cooperation.

(f)    Another important outcome was agreement to work jointly on an economic project in Afghanistan. The details are to be worked out through diplomatic channels.

(g)   On the issue of strategic autonomy and stability, the two sides were at variation. India’s view on peaceful, stable and balanced relations envisaged creating conditions for the ‘Asian Century’. China sees the two biggest developing economies as a positive factor for global stability. Both sides agreed to continuously enhance mutual trust and carry forward the fine norms enshrined in ‘Five Principles’ of peaceful coexistence.


Wuhan Summit, although termed as an informal meeting between Modi and Xi, was a meticulously planned, deliberately structured and precisely choreographed dialogue with far reaching ramifications. It was aimed to provide the two leaders a platform for ‘heart to heart’ candid exchange of views. Being strategic in nature, the underlying intent was to take holistic perspective of complex issues and explore innovative options for future progress. The thrust was on developing shared understanding, establishing personal rapport and exploring avenues of consensus for establishing effective structures for stable and balanced relations. While the themes of summit were common, the accents of the two sides were at variance, given the divergent perspectives. China’s political aspirations being global, its post- summit statements were articulated accordingly. Indian approach on the other hand, was more in the regional setting.

China’s core national objectives – Stability, Sovereignty and Modernity remain sacrosanct. Stability implies unchallenged authority of the Communist Party. To this end, Chinese leadership remains very sensitive to Tibet and Xinjiang. Sovereignty, besides strategic autonomy entails unification of claimed territories with the motherland which includes Taiwan, island territories in East and South China Sea and South Tibet (Xizang-Arunachal Pradesh). Modernity connotes development and economic progress; critical to the very survival of the Communist regime.

President Xi’s commitment to the national aims in letter and spirit is evident from the fact that he started his second innings by exhorting the PLA to be combat ready and focus on winning wars. During the closing session of the 13th NPC, Xi vowed to safeguard national sovereignty and not concede an inch of its territory.11 He also issued stern warning to Taiwan against any attempt of separatism.  In view of the above, China is unlikely to soften its stand on the border issue or forsake claims on Arunachal Pradesh. Its heavy handed policy on Tibet is there to continue as also pressure on India to keep distance from Dalai Lama. There is likely to be no significant change in Chinese relations with all- weather ally Pakistan. Even on the issues of candidature for the membership of UN Security Council or to be part of Nuclear Supply Group, Chinese are expected to stick to their current position. With the strategic guidance to the respective militaries, the tension on the borders is expected to ease out.

It is in India’s larger interest to collaborate with China and manage the differences through dialogue. To ensure continued engagement with Beijing on equal terms, Delhi needs to carry out strategic review of its national aims and objectives on a wider spectrum, factoring both regional and global imperatives. There is need for a pragmatic China policy with thrust on achieving strategic equilibrium between the two neighbours. This can only be achieved if India makes an earnest effort to scale up its ‘Comprehensive National Power’ and reduce the prevailing yawning gap. This includes both the hard and soft power. Indian Armed Forces have to adopt a transformational approach in modernisation process to match the PLA which is all set to emerge as modern military at par with the Western Armies by 2035. India has a major geostrategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific region which it needs to leverage through astute diplomacy.

Wuhan Summit was not merely tango between the Dragon and Elephant. It was a well thought through diplomatic initiative to give fresh impetus to the India-China relations in the realm of changing international environment. Informal structure of the meeting provided the two sides to think beyond the stated positions to dismantle existing gridlocks. The new format of ‘strategic communication’ between the two sides sets a precedence, for more such dialogues to follow.

Chinese leaders have penchant for ancient history and realpolitik approach to address the contentious issues.  Xi and his team would definitely take long term view of the Wuhan deliberations to recalibrate strategic calculus in consonance with the ‘Grand National Objectives’. On the Indian side, given the reality of ‘five year’ cycle based strategic culture, post 2019 scenario will be crucial to take Wuhan process forward. This notwithstanding,  in the larger national interest, Wuhan format needs to be institutionalised as a platform for strategic dialogue at the highest level, which will go a long way in balancing and stabilising India-China relations.


1 Henry Kissinger, (2011), On China, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, p1-2.

2 Ibid.

3 Kevin Rudd, (20 March 2018), What West Doesn’t Get About Xi Jinping, New York Times. Available at Accessed on 20 May 2018, 10 am.

4 Mark Moore, (24 October 2017), New York Post, New York. Available at http://my post. Com. Accessed on 25 May 2018, 2pm. Times Global (25 October 2017) China Enshrines Xi’s Thoughts in Party Statute Elevating him to Mao’s Status, New Delhi.

5 Reuters (15 March 2018) China’s Unspoken Compact Put to Test by Xi Jinping Power Play.

6 China Daily Supplement-Hindustan Times (03 November 2017), New Delhi.

7 Op Cit 1, p20.

8 Narayan MK, (21 May 2018), Making Sense of Wuhan Reset, Hindu.

9 MEA Press Release (28 April 2018). Available at Accessed 15 May 2018, 2pm. Xinhua, (28 April2018), China India reach broad consensus in informal summit. Available at & hi+en-IN. Accessed on 15 May 3pm.

10 Agreement between India and China-2005. Available at + Government of +the +Republic +India+and +and +the +Government of+the+Peoples+Republic +of +China+on+the+Political+Parameters+ and+Guiding+Principles+for+the+Settlement+of+the+IndiaChina+ Boundary+Question.

11 The Economist (29 March 2018), Xi Jinping New Side Kicks- The Helmsman Crew.

Singapore Summit: North East Asia Set for Strategic Realignment

Published in IDSA on June 22, 2018

Given that for the last six and half decades, the opposing sides have been technically at war on the Korean Peninsula, besides President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un trading open threats of military confrontation only six months back, the Singapore Summit appears to be a minor miracle. Considering that a dozen odd former US Presidents were unable to break the Korean deadlock, what Trump has been able to pull off is no mean achievement. Whereas the future course will largely depend upon how Kim chooses to play it out, the Singapore Summit marks the beginning of a phenomenon which will go on to reset the existing strategic alignments in the region with far reaching ramifications.

The Score Card

The Singapore Summit materialised after some theatrics, with Trump almost calling it off. Contrary assessments notwithstanding, it certainly stands out as a path breaking initiative to resolve the Korean imbroglio. Trump was rather upbeat after the meeting and went on to comment, “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took over the office”. He followed it up with a tweet: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”. Subsequently, he told reporters, “I have solved the problem”. As for Kim, he was lauded back home in North Korea as a hero and the Singapore Summit hailed as the ‘meeting of the century’.

The post- summit joint statement issued by the two leaders was rather brief, vague and generic; more about aspiration than accomplishments. Some of its salient facets were:-

  • Establishment of new US-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) relations with commitment to build a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Trump’s commitment to provide security guarantees to North Korea (implying preserving the Kim regime) and end US-South Korea Joint war games.
  • Reaffirming the Panmunjom declaration, Chairman Kim committed to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula (without laying down any time frame).

Professor Graham Alison, former Director of Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), offering first hand insight on the Singapore Summit, recalled the Chinese maxim: “Journey of 1000 miles starts with first step”. According to him, Trump has taken one big step down the most promising path available at this point. Later, in an article in the National Interest, he assessed the Summit as “oversold and undervalued”.

According to Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now the Director of the ‘Future of Diplomacy Project’ at HKS, “while the Summit marks a good beginning and powerfully symbolic, the agreement per se is paper thin, without commitment or accountability from Kim.” Burns was also critical about Trump overselling the imminence of peace, considering that the negotiation process is expected to be a long drawn affair requiring strategy and patience. South Korea and Japan not being part of the process was a matter of concern, he added.

“Nuclear weapons are central to the legitimization of the oxymoronic Communist monarchy that rules North Korea”, opined Professor Joseph Nye. His scepticism about Kim’s promise of denuclearisation is evident from the fact that both Kim’s grandfather and father lied to US Administrations about their nuclear programme. Endorsing that prolonged negotiations are much better than war, Nye underscored the danger of the cosmetic ‘breakthrough’ weakening US alliances in the region.

The reactions of Brookings experts to the Trump-Kim Summit were more critical. Dr Jung Pak, Senior Fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAPS), felt that building upon the diplomatic process started with the Summit will be a tough call for US officials. Besides, Trump’s policy of exerting maximum pressure on North Korea has morphed into maximum manoeuvring space for Kim. In evaluating the outcome of the Summit, Dr Ryan Hass, Fellow at CEAPS, perceived China to be the big winner as a reduction of US military forces stationed in North East Asia and the widening gap between the US and its allies serve Beijing’s interests. Dr Tarun Chhabra, Fellow in the ‘Project-International Order and Strategy’ recounted the US stance – never to accept “freeze for freeze” approach, but in Singapore Trump agreed to freeze joint US-South Korean military exercises in exchange for continued freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile testing, with no concrete commitments on denuclearisation.

It is evident that Trump steered the Summit through personal diplomacy; he claimed to have established ‘a very special bond’ and ‘terrific relationship’ with Kim. While Trump’s intimidating statements and the cajoling words of President Xi Jinping might have resulted in bringing the North Korean regime to the negotiation table, the prospects of leveraging it into a concrete denuclearisation process remains an illusion. The Summit has disrupted the prevailing geopolitical status quo, making a strategic reset inevitable.

Strategic Realignment

Trump’s ‘one on one’ meeting with Kim and offer of concessions to North Korea has created new anxieties amongst America’s Asian allies. It has exacerbated their doubts about US long term commitment to safeguard their security interests. Trump’s surprise declaration during the news conference about the suspension of joint military drills between the US and South Korea, even terming these provocative and his desire to eventually pull out some of the 28,500 US troops off the Peninsula blindsided South Korea and other American allies.

America has always considered itself a Pacific power. Since World War II, it has been the leader and security provider in East Asia. But since assuming office, Trump has raised questions on stationing troops in the region and the heavy expenditure being incurred in sustaining them. He has increasingly shown disregard for traditional allies, the recent G-7 Conference being a case in point. As Michael Green, former Asia adviser to President George Bush, put it: “It suggests that when he is in the mood, the President will cut deals with our adversaries involving the interests of our allies”. Given Trump’s approach of taking on allies on trade issues, in the long run, America’s role as a leader in the region is likely to erode.

While Seoul has not been outrightly critical of Trump’s announcements about the joint wargame, officials in Tokyo have been much more vocal in expressing their views. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera stated that joint drills with US forces in South Korea play an important role in East Asia security. Japan has been anxious about its alliance with the US ever since Trump’s election. Its biggest fear is that future negotiations with North Korea are unlikely to result in substantial disarmament even as the US gradually withdrew from the region. This implies that Japan will have to review its security options. In fact Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made earnest efforts to bolster Japan’s military capabilities besides being an ardent protagonist of amending the country’s pacifist constitution. In fact, Tokyo is already in the process of developing a new partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

The biggest beneficiary of these developments is China, as Beijing considers the Western Pacific to be its area of influence and seeks a diminution of the American influence in the region. Therefore, the US ending military drills in South Korea and effecting a gradual withdrawal from the region will be a gift for China. With the US now preoccupied with North Korea, China can continue to consolidate its military build-up in the South China Sea without ruffling feathers in the neighbourhood. Contributing to the trust deficit between the US and its allies fits well into the Chinese traditional policy of pitching ‘one barbarian against the other’.

That China holds an upper hand is evident from Xi hosting Kim three times, twice just before the Singapore Summit and once immediately after. No doubt, Beijing is exerting immense influence behind the scenes, reaffirming its centrality in East Asian diplomacy. Xi is expected to make his maiden visit to North Korea soon to maintain the momentum in bilateral relations. Yet, China is taking no chances with North Korea. There is a likelihood of Kim venturing to counter balance China’s influence by embracing USA. Another possibility could be of US, South Korea and North Korea aligning together, thus isolating China. It is no coincidence that Kim, after coming to power in 2011, stayed away from China for six years and did not meet with Xi. Kim would certainly like to reduce Pyongyang’s dependence on Beijing.


According to Professor Allison, when Trump assumed the Presidency, he had three choices with regards to North Korea. First, continue doing what his predecessors had done in the past decades, i.e., seek to stop North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles by either tightening sanctions or promising economic relief. The second option was to attack North Korea before it acquired the capability to launch a nuclear attack against the US homeland. The third course, though bizarre, was for the two sides to engage in finding an alternate course. Call it providence, but it is the highly unorthodox third option that worked out. Even Trump’s most bitter critics have not been able to convincingly challenge the fact that North Korea’s nuclear threat to the US stands diminished.

With Xi playing the role of godfather to Kim, coupled with the past experience, the road to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is going to be long and bumpy. Both Xi and Kim are lifelong heads of their nations with time on their side. Hence it may be decades before the contentious issues get resolved and a formal agreement is inked. Considering China’s ability to play spoiler, Beijing will ensure that the long term outcomes in terms of shaping the architecture of the Korean Peninsula are in its favour.

While the US may be able to ensure the security of its homeland, it is bound to gradually yield strategic space to China in the region. All said, prevailing alignments in the region are in for a definite reset. The emerging geostrategic landscape of North East Asia is bound to have a cascading impact on the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Historic Summit at Panmunjom

Published by IDSA on May 04, 2018

Kim Jong-un’s historic meeting with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in across the ‘Military Demarcation Line’ (MDL) on April 27, 2018 will go down as a watershed moment in the destiny of Korean Peninsula. The Korean Peninsula, given its geographic location, has been the scene of inter power rivalry in the North East Asian region. Post the Korean War, despite adversaries being armed to the teeth and in a ‘trip wire’ state of readiness, major confrontation was obviated due the prevailing state of parity in terms of military potential. Hence, even after six and half decades, the status of MDL remained unaltered, despite sporadic incidences of incursion and violence.

In recent times, the delicate strategic equilibrium on the Peninsula has been under intense strain due to the persistent obsession of the North Korean regime to develop credible nuclear capability as a security guarantee. Consequently, Pyongyang remained a major security concern for the Obama administration. Armed with ballistic and nuclear missiles, North Korea posed a serious security threat to the US and its East Asian allies. Economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure proved ineffective in stalling Kim’s missile and nuclear programmes. The American policy of ‘sanctions and subsidies’ in fact gave an impression of a half-hearted and inadequate approach to shape the regional security architecture.

Fire-Fury and Frosty Thaw

Pyongyang’s missile launches, especially the 13,000 range Hwangsong-15, along with the sixth nuclear test in 2017, were highly provocative acts that disturbed the geo strategic equations in the region. At the same time, joint US-South Korea military drills, unprecedented in intensity and scope, were seen as an existential threat by Kim’s dictatorial regime. Absence of effective channels of communication and widening trust deficit added to the escalation of tensions.

The region witnessed dramatic turn of events over past few months. Sabre rattling by President Donald Trump and Kim’s vitriolic threats of merciless retaliation made it appear as if war clouds were gathering over the Peninsula, raising fears of a possible nuclear showdown. There was sudden climb down when during his New Year address on January 1 this year, Kim made unexpected reconciliatory overtures. He called for better relations with South Korea, even showing inclination to participate in the Winter Olympics.

This change of stance followed Trump’s hard hitting speech at the UN a few days earlier. It was a well calculated strategic move by Pyongyang with multiple objectives — to weaken US-South Korea alliance and provide relief to North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy. Presence of Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong accompanied by Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s presumed head of State during the opening ceremony at Pyeong Chang in February 2018 was a coup of Olympic proportions. It was the highest level visit by a leader from the North to the South and the first by a member of the Kim clan.

The hyper paced developments which brought Kim to the negotiation table without preconditions could be attributed to number of factors. These could include biting pressure due to fresh US sanctions, China tightening curbs on trade with the unruly neighbour (imports reduced by over 78 percent and exports by almost 34 percent, as of late 2017), and a desire to end the state of international isolation and gain recognition in the global polity. As a reaffirmation of the traditional bond between the Communist neighbours, Kim travelled to Beijing in March 2018 on his maiden foreign tour since assuming power in 2011. President Trump too despatched Mike Pompeo, then Director CIA and now Secretary of State to meet with the North Korean leader, which has set the stage for his forthcoming meeting with Kim.

Historic Summit at Panmunjom

Kim commenced the path breaking summit meeting with a sweeping promise, “I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation”. The salient highlight of Panmunjom Declaration was the pledge by the two leaders to officially end the Korean War. It envisages complete cessation of all hostile acts against each other and multilateral talks with other countries including the US. To realise the common goal, both sides agreed to pursue complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Announcing the beginning of a ‘new age of peace’, the two sides declared that there will be no more wars on the Korean peninsula. Both the leaders agreed to transform the fortified border into a peace zone. Practical schemes would be devised to transform the current ‘Northern Limit Line’ in the West Sea into a ‘maritime peace zone’. Mechanisms will also be put in place to hold frequent defence ministerial and working level meetings in a bid to immediately resolve military issues, with the first meeting scheduled in May.

The two sides further committed to fully implement existing agreements and declarations. They also committed to jointly participate in international sports events and resolve the humanitarian issues resulting from the nation’s division. Measures are to be instituted to encourage more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts between the two sides. A joint liaison office is to be established in the Kaesong industrial zone with resident representatives from both the sides.

Beginning of a New Era

Despite these positive developments, given the conflicting interests of the key stakeholders, there are number of imponderables which need to be addressed. Peace prospects will largely depend on the outcome of the Trump-Kim meeting, tripartite talks between US and two Koreas and ‘four party’ talks involving China. To make any tangible progress, Washington will have to allay Pyongyang’s security concerns and Beijing will need to be an honest broker.

Going by the past record, Pyongyang is no naïve player. On two occasions, South Korean Presidents had travelled to North for summit meetings. Post the inter-Korean summit in 2007, the joint declaration had almost identical goals as the recent one, including on the nuclear issue. Yet the international peace process failed to make any progress and North Korea went on to resume its nuclear weapons programme.

For the US, denuclearization tops the agenda which includes removal of chemical and biological weapons and elimination of the ballistic missile threat. Going by Trump’s stance on renegotiation of the Iranian nuclear deal, the terms and conditions with respect to North Korea are expected to be very stringent. Besides, America will press for a peace treaty to end the state of hostility and move towards normalization of relations. If achieved, it will be a major victory for Trump. However, US will always be vary of losing its influence in the region, especially regarding issues like the future of 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea.

China is an important stake holder in the region. As a peaceful periphery is vital for its economic progress, a nuclear free and stable Korean Peninsula best serves Beijing’s strategic interests. Fearing the loss of North Korea as a buffer, Mao Tse Tung had entered the Korean War in November 1950 in the wake of the northward advance of General Douglas MacArthur’s forces. Mao succeeded in fighting the adversary to a stand-still astride the 38th Parallel; in the process suffering over 600,000 fatalities, including of his own son Anying. In case its interests are not well served, Beijing can well block the peace deal by not being an honest broker.

For North Korea, the key concern is the survival of its authoritarian regime. Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-Il painstakingly built the nuclear arsenal as a guarantee to obviate the repeat of US interventions in Iraq and Libya. That is why, North Korea is insistent on guarantee against any US misadventure, before it even considers giving up its nuclear arsenal. While Kim has stated that his nation’s nuclear sites will be open to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspection, he has not made any tangible concessions on his nuclear weapons.

Kim’s motives for rapprochement are open to conjecturing. His outreach to President Moon is a smart move to weaken sanctions and erode Trump’s clout. By replaying the cycle of provocation and reconciliation pioneered by his grandfather and father, Kim has catapulted himself as a world class player. President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer had flagged conciliation with North Korea a key issue of his Presidential campaign. Consequently, he has made proactive moves to deliver on his promise. For South Korea, the highest priority is to prevent conflict on the Peninsula and open avenues to find lasting solution to the prevailing imbroglio. The recent summit is bound to deliver enormous political dividend for Moon at home, with national elections slated for June 2018.

For Japan, having witnessed Kim’s missiles flying over its territory, reduction of tensions would come as a great relief. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe termed the recent Korean Summit as a positive move forward towards resolution of various issues. President Vladimir Putin referred to the dialogue as positive news with certain prospects.

One issue that is highly complex and contentious relates to ‘denuclearisation’, as the three key stake holders have varying perceptions. According to Trump, “it means North Korea gets rid of its nukes”. However, North Korea itself has made no explicit pledge to do so during the current rapprochement. The Chinese state media has cited Kim as saying that the issue could be resolved if Washington and Seoul take progressive and synchronous measures for realisation of peace, implying some kind of ‘quid pro quo’. As per Seoul, Pyongyang has offered to give up nuclear weapons for unspecified security guarantee. Hence, resolving this issue will entail a long drawn process and multiple rounds of negotiations, before a deal is reached to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Intense rivalry amongst the major stakeholders in pursuit of their national interests is going to pose major challenges for the impending negotiations to resolve the Korean issue, as it concerns the future of North East Asia. Japan and South Korea are already worried that Trump may sacrifice their interests in pursuit of an ‘America First’ policy. Even the peace treaty to formally close the conflict and help in the subsequent unification of the two Koreas will be a complicated process as both Seoul and Pyongyang claim sovereignty over the whole Peninsula. The process will have reasonable chances of progress only if the key players re-evaluate their basic goals and reframe the issues. This will entail massive diplomatic effort. While the recent Korean Summit marks the beginning of the new era, to achieve lasting peace will require intense diplomatic efforts.

Xi Sets China on a New Long March


             IDSA COMMENT



Published in IDSA on March 14,2018

In Chinese tradition, dynastic bloodline has never been the criterion to determine the line of succession. It is the capable ministers and victorious generals who were bestowed the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming) to rule China. Hundreds of rulers earned the legendary title of Huang di – the ‘first Yellow Emperor’ who founded China on the rich flood plains of the Yellow River (Huang He).Few wielded more power than Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the founding emperors of China’s Communist Dynasty. Now, Xi Jinping has made history with the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s Parliament – a rubber stamp body –voting to abolish the 10-year presidential term limit, thus enabling him to lead China for several years more.

Mao, as the First Generation leader, ruled China for nearly three decades till his death in 1976. Deng succeeded Mao, albeit after a brief power struggle, and remained at the helm for almost two decades. To avoid a repeat of the aftermath of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, Deng incorporated a provision in the Party constitution in 1982 to limit the tenure of the President. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as the Third and Fourth Generation Leaders respectively, served two- five years terms each, adopting a collective leadership style.

Xi, the son of Xi Zhongxun – a revolutionary and Mao’s compatriot – joined the Party in 1974 at the age of 21. He burst on the political scene as a graft fighting Governor of Fujian in 1999. Xi was a consensus candidate to take on the mantle of the Fifth Generation leadership in 2012. Given the smooth transition of power for the third consecutive time, coupled with his low profile (then he was better known as the husband of popular folk singer Peng Liyuan), speculation was rife that Xi will abide by the constitutional rule that his immediate predecessors had abided by. However, he played his hand differently to emerge as the most powerful leader after Mao and promising to usher China into the ‘New Era’.

Xi bends the curve to forge ‘Generation Rule’

While commencing his first term in 2013, Xi had stated that “to forge iron, you ought to be strong”. He then set about systematically consolidating his position by strengthening his hold on the twin levers of power: the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He wasted no time in assuming the triple titles of: General Secretary of the CPC, the most powerful appointment; Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body; and, the Presidency, the least important of the three. Incidentally, Jiang Zemin had held on to the Chairmanship of the CMC for almost two years after handing over the reins to Hu Jintao, thus creating dual power centres.

Xi unleashed an unbridled campaign to clean up the system as corruption had got deeply engrained in the Party culture. Some of the stalwarts who were either punished or removed for corruption or other violations included Zhou Yongkang, member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), and Bo Xilai, member Politburo and Party Secretary of Chongqing. Besides, more than 40 PLA Generals were netted in the anti-graft operations. These included Generals Guo Boxing and Caihu, Vice Chairmen in the CMC and recently General Fang Fenghui, former Chief of General Staff and member of the CMC. The anti-corruption campaign has also proved handy for Xi to purge potential political rivals.

Concurrently, Xi initiated radical military reforms with a dual aim; to prepare the defence forces for their future role and reinforce the Party’s firm control over PLA. The reforms process started in 2013 during the Third Plenum of the Party Congress with the establishment of the National Security Commission with Xi as its Chairman. In the reorganized CMC, the role of the President as the ‘Commander in Chief’ enables Xi to exercise direct operational control over the military through the ‘Joint Operational Center’. By ordering a series of reshuffles in the PLA hierarchy, Xi ensured that his loyalists occupied key positions. To reaffirm the role of the military, Xi visited Gutian, a town in Fujian Province, on 30 October 2014 and reiterated what Mao had legislated at the same venue in December 1929; “PLA remains Party’s Army and must maintain absolute loyalty to political masters”.

At the time of the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, Xi was holding over a dozen titles, and was referred to, in a lighter vein, as ‘Chairman of all’. During the Party Congress, Xi further cemented his authority by enshrining his “Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” in the Constitution. His eponymous political ideology proposes an alternate to liberal democracy and serves as a philosophy around which the CPC can coalesce. In a clear departure from the well-established tradition followed since the last three decades, no one was chosen as the ‘Sixth Generation’ leader, a successor to be groomed to take over from Xi after he completes his second five year term in 2023. This set a new precedence, giving rise to speculation that Xi was planning for a third term.

During the 19th Party Congress, Xi unveiled his ‘China Dream’ (fuxing),whichenvisions a powerful and prosperous China entering a ‘New Era”. To this end, he outlined the twin centenary objectives: China to become a fully modern economy and achieve social modernization by 2035; and acquire the status of ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this Century. He propounded the policy ‘striving for achievement’ (fanfa youwei), advocating a greater Chinese leadership role in global affairs to shape the new world order. This marked an abandonment of Deng’s strategy of maintaining a low profile, never taking a leadership role and biding for time till China completes its peaceful rise.

Post the Party Congress, Xi surreptitiously engineered the process to do away with the two-term Presidential limit, although the appointment is of ceremonial nature to facilitate the discharge of political functions. In January 2018, some 200 senior officials of the Communist Party Central Committee gathered behind closed doors to abolish the Presidential term limit so that Xi could hold on to power indefinitely. The decision was kept under wraps and abruptly announced just before the commencement of the NPC annual session. As expected, the controversial constitutional amendment to abolish the limit set on the presidential term was passed with an overwhelming majority by the NPC on 11 March 2018 at the Great Hall of People, thus enabling Xi to continue to retain power for life.

China Set for a Long March to Enter ‘New Era’

When China started to integrate into the ‘global economic order’, the West began to believe that the PRC would bind itself to the rule based system and evolve into a market economy. It was further assumed that, as Chinese people grew wealthier, they will yearn for democratic freedom thus paving the way for political reforms. Xi was expected to initiate far reaching economic and political reforms. However, this turned out to be an illusion.

There are a few reasons that explain the CCP’s decision to empower Xi indefinitely. Firstly, the process of China’s emergence as a global power remains a work in progress and is expected to continue for the next few decades. Secondly, the Chinese economy is in a state of transition from low technology manufacturing to advanced digitally enabled products. Thirdly, Xi’s pet project, the ‘Belt-Road Initiative’ which envisages an investment of US $ 1 trillion abroad, and is perceived to be vital for sustaining China’s pace of economic growth and creating a strategic web to expand the Dragon’s influence, requires leadership continuity. Fourthly, Xi’s on-going anti-corruption drive demands a strong person at the helm.

China’s political system is authoritarian and leaves no space for dissent. Hence, despite Xi’s political coup and underlying fears of oppressive measures, large scale protests are unlikely. Moreover, the public at large perceives Mao to have made China great, Deng rich, and Xi to be building a strong nation. For the time being, the major concerns of the Chinese people are economic, i.e., jobs, prosperity and quality of life; politics is certainly not a key issue.

According to retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces, Xi’s elevation as a lifelong Emperor will lend China a short term advantage by way of consistency of policies and clear strategic direction vis-a vis the democracies where leaders and policies change frequently. However, in the long run, dictatorial regimes are prone to political instability, especially during transitions of power; China itself being a case in point. Another fact could be the rise of China’s middle class over a period of time which would consist of people with varied experiences and independent mindseta who could possibly seek greater political freedom.

Global polity is often surprised by the Communist leadership, primarily due to a lack of understanding of Chinese history, culture and a system shrouded in secrecy. All Chinese regimes since the demise of the Qing Monarchy have consolidated national sovereignty and pursued power through all available means. Most commentators who got Xi wrong claim that not much was known about him before he came to power. The lateLee Kuan Yew, when expressing his opinion about Xi Jinping, had stated that he has the soul of iron and does not let past suffering weigh upon him. He had compared Xi with the likes of Nelson Mandela. According to Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, Xi is a man of extraordinary intellect, is self-confident and has a well-defined world view.

Xi began his second term by exhorting the two million strong PLA to be combat ready by focussing on how to win wars. In his recent speech at the 19th Party Congress, Xi stated that while he would strive to resolve disputes through dialogue he will not compromise on sovereignty. During his interaction with the delegates of the current NPC, he warned officials to shed ‘pillow talk’ and refrain from indulging in corruption. If the above statements are any indication, the world can expect Xi to be internally oppressive and externally assertive in pursuit of his ‘China Dream’, which could intensify the ensuing ‘great power rivalry’

China under a powerful autocratic leader does not augur well for India. The I962 War and the stand-offs in 1967 and 1987 occurred during the Mao and Deng eras. And the recent face-offs at Depsang, Demchok and Doklam have taken place during Xi’s rule. India will have to be well prepared to counter Chinese intimidation and aggressive behaviour. This will require decoding Xi’s strategic design and exploit windows of opportunities to enhance cooperation and reduce confrontation. The formulation of a holistic China policy driven by India’s long term core interests is no more an option, but an imperative.

Xi rides the Dragon which is externally formidable but internally fragile. He is aware of the consequences of his policies going awry. There is scepticism about China’s ability to maintain its pace of economic growth, given the signs of slow down. Xi has offered the China model based on ‘neo authoritarianism’, where political stability and economic development trump democracy and individual rights, as an alternate to the Western liberal democratic capitalist model. China’s long march to enter the ‘New Era’ will come at a price as it retracts into Mao era centralisation.,

According to the Chinese 11th Century Classic ‘The General Mirror for the Aid of Government’ (Cu Chi Tang Qian), “Anyone who is able to prevent violence and remove harm from the people so that men’s lives are protected, who can reward good and punish evil and thus avoid disaster – such a man be called an emperor.” Xi is known to have deep insights in Chinese history. He has taken a tough call fraught with tremendous risk but with the conviction that he has it in him to be in the league of Mao and Deng, although, as a princeling, he may not belong to the same tribe.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.


Nineteenth Party National Congress : Xi Sets Course for Ushering China into New Era

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLVII, No. 610, October-December 2017.


The Communist Party Convention, which is twice-a-decade event, is of immense political significance in People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is during the course of this Convention that the National Congress, symbolic body of Communist Party of China (CPC), ratifies key decisions made behind the closed doors by Party’s top brass. These include changes in the apex leadership structure, review of past achievements, amendments to Party constitution and realigning future direction.  The Nineteenth National Congress of CPC was held from 18-25 October 2017 at the ‘Great Hall of People’ in Beijing. It was attended by 2287 delegates, elected from amongst 89 million Party members.1 Incidentally, the First Party Congress was held in Shanghai from 23-31 July 1921. Then 13 delegates had participated while the Party membership was barely 50.

As per the ancient Chinese belief, it is the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming), the divine source of authority that grants an individual right to rule.2 Based on Confucian idea, it ensured dynastic succession, where power and not the lineage mattered. The tradition continued to be observed by various emperors as also politicians till the demise of last Qing Dynasty in 1911, marking the end of feudal monarchy system. Post Chinese Communist revolution in 1949, collective ‘Generational Leadership’ model was instituted to rule the nation.

The ‘First Generation’ CPC leaders were revolutionaries – People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Veterans, namely Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Chen Yi, led by Mao Zedong. To propel China into the league of industrialised nations, Mao came up with an innovative idea of adopting labour intensive approach. It involved setting up backyard furnaces in the rural areas to produce steel to catch up with the West. Perceived to be ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958-60), the initiative turned out to be a disaster, leading to serious famine, killing millions of people. To retain his popularity and defang the opponents, Mao launched ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76), which again proved to be a fiasco, causing serious economic turbulence. Over a period of time, Mao emerged as an autocrat. His ideology; ‘Mao’s Thoughts’, a political theory which propagated ‘collectivism in a classless society’, encapsulated in famous ‘red book’ was enshrined in the Party Constitution.3

Deng Xiaoping, a PLA Veteran assumed the ‘Second Generation’ leadership post Mao’s death. There was a brief spell of power struggle as Mao had left no successor. Deng did away with most Mao’s practices in 1978. His guiding ideology was ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, focussed on economic growth by easing government hold on the means of production.4 It entailed reforming agriculture by de-collectivising of farms. To unleash entrepreneurial spirit, Deng pushed for restructuring the industrial sector by allowing privatisation of small scale enterprises and, thereafter, opening of Chinese economy to foreign investors.  It was a clear departure from ‘class struggle’ enunciated by Mao. During Deng’s regime, while the general standard of living improved, the inequality gap widened too.

Jiang Zemin emerged as the core of the ‘Third Generation’ leadership after Deng’s demise in 1997 and pursued collective style of leadership. He officially adopted market economy and reformed ‘state owned enterprises’. His ‘three represents’ ideology, (san ge daibiao) propagated that the CPC should be the representative of advance social forces (to drive economic growth), culture and core interests of the Chinese society.5  Jiang believed in status quo and was averse to the idea of bold reforms. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao, as the head of ‘Fourth Generation’ leadership laid emphasis on reforming social security. He introduced the concept of ‘scientific development and harmonious society’.6

For the ‘Fifth Generation’ Leadership, Xi was selected as a consensus candidate. On assuming power in 2012, he moved fast. Xi systematically consolidated position by strengthening hold on Party and PLA (twin pillars of power in China’s political structure) by virtue of triple titles; Secretary General of CCP, Chairman Central Military Commission (CMC) the highest military body and President of People’s Republic.

Given the menace of corruption that had got deeply engrained in the Party culture, Xi unleashed an unbridled campaign to clean up the system. This involved targeting both the low ranking bureaucrats, referred to as flies, to the highest level officials referred to as tigers. As a result, 278,000 persons have been implicated in the anti-corruption drive including 440 high ranking officials holding ministerial or higher positions in the government, both civil and military.7 Some of the stalwarts against whom disciplinary action had been initiated are; Zhou Yongkang – former member of the apex political body, Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and Bo Xilai – member Politburo and Party Secretary Chongqing. Besides, two senior most PLA Generals – Guo Boxing and Xu Caihu, Vice Chairmen of Central Military Commission (CMC) too faced corruption charges. The anti-corruption campaign has also proved handy in purging the political rivals.

According high priority to defence modernisation, President Xi initiated path breaking military reforms. The rationale was twofold; firstly to prepare defence forces for their future role and secondly, maintain Party’s firm control over the PLA. On 30 October 2014 at Gutian, a small town in Fujian Province, President Xi reiterated; “PLA remains Party’s Army and must maintain absolute loyalty to political masters”; exactly repeating what Mao had said eight and half decades back.8 The reforms process started in 2013 with the establishment of National Security Commission, with Xi as the Chairman.  As a sequel to the reorganisation of CMC, President as the ‘Commander in Chief’ exercises direct operational control over the military through the ‘Joint Operational Center’. By ordering series of reshuffles in the top military ranks, Xi ensured that his loyalists occupied the key positions.

Nineteenth Party National Congress – Xi Sets Course

The Party Congresses are primarily about leadership, political vision and ideology. As brought out above, President Xi had worked assiduously during his first five year term to gain control of all levers of power. Nineteenth Party Congress was only a culmination of the power play wherein Xi further entrenched his position. By cementing CPC’s absolute authority and enshrining of “Xi Jinping Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” in the Party constitution as guiding principle makes Xi China’s most powerful leader, in the league of Mao.9 His eponymous political ideology proposes an alternate to liberal democracy around which CPC coalesces. Here on, any criticism of Xi policies will be deemed as an attack on the Communist Party itself.

In a clear departure from the Party’s well established tradition being followed over last two decades, PSC did not choose ‘Sixth Generation’ leader as successor to be groomed to take over from Xi when he completes his second five year term. Hence, it is apparent that Xi is set to continue well beyond 2022, by seeking third term, which will mean setting a new precedence. Interestingly, two probable contenders; Hu Chunhua (Party Chief of Guangdong Province) and Chen Miner (Party head of Chongqing City), Xi’s protégé did not make to the PSC; a mandatory requirement for the incumbent Party Secretary General.

It is evident that for the long term survival of ‘one party system’, it is an inescapable imperative that China sustains its fast pace of growth. This demands deft management of socio-economic transformation while excluding political reforms to avoid internal instability. Xi’s focus is on revival of CPC to improve the state governance. To achieve this, new generation of competent people are being inducted into the Party. Enforcing ‘rule of law’ is high on Xi’s agenda which implies strengthening the institutional mechanism, while idea of independent judiciary remains elusive. To navigate through the above paradoxes is a tall order for the Communist leadership.

Xi has unfolded ‘China Dream’ (fuxing) which envisions powerful and prosperous China. It aims at national rejuvenation, besides encouraging people to seek fulfilment beyond material wealth. While presenting his report during the opening session of the recent Party Congress, Xi rolled out his grand design. It referred to China, entering a ‘New Era’ marked by social contradictions. He has propounded policy of ‘striving for achievements’ (fanfa youwei), while advocating a greater Chinese leadership role in the world affairs. This marks an obvious departure from Deng’s strategy being followed implicitly for last over two decades, which professed China to ‘maintain low profile and bid for time’ till it completes peaceful rise.

To translate ‘China Dream’ into reality, Xi has outlined ‘twin centenary objectives’; to become ‘fully modern’ economy and society by 2035 and acquire ‘great power’ status by 2050, timed with the centenary foundation of the PRC.10 Xi’s vision envisages China to be a key player in shaping new world order with Chinese characteristics and regain its past grandeur; rightful place in the global polity.


Today, the global order is in flux. Three key players – the US, Russia and China are in the fray to shape it in consonance with their respective national interests. Given President Trump’s ‘Doctrine of Uncertainty’, the USA is in a state of ambiguity regarding its global role. Russia, under President Putin is still in delusion of Cold War symmetry. It seems to be heading for a major political crisis.11 On the other hand, President Xi has articulated a clear vision and long term strategy on China’s future role.

During marathon recital at the Party Congress opening session on 18 October, Xi stated that ‘no country alone can address the many challenges facing mankind and no country can retreat into isolation’. His envisioned architecture of great power interface is based on parity in US-China relations. Xi also reiterated China’s rejection of ‘Cold War political mentality’.  Now as a paramount leader, he is expected to pursue proactive diplomacy in restructuring the international systems, whose underlying rules will be increasingly framed by China.

With the US yielding strategic space in pursuit of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy coupled with eroding credibility of Western leadership,  Xi has projected himself as the flag bearer of globalisation and trade liberalisation.  At Davos World Economic Forum 2017, Xi strongly batted for globalised economy. Over the last five years, new institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have been established. Concurrently, major projects like the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR) have been launched. These initiatives have been termed as the “community of common destiny”; extension of neighbour centric ‘periphery policy’ enunciated in 2013. Such measures will facilitate China to leverage its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) in pursuit of revised strategic objectives.

In his recent Congress speech, Xi had stated that China would strive to resolve disputes through dialogue but will not compromise on national sovereignty. He has begun his second term by exhorting over two million strong China’s military to be combat ready by focussing on how to win wars. China’s official stated position on the integration of claimed territories does not discount use of force as an option. For India, China under a powerful autocratic leader does not augur well, given the past record. 1962 War, standoffs in 1967 and 1987 occurred during Mao and Deng rule. Recent face-offs at Depsang, Demchok and Doklam have all taken place during Xi’s time. India will have to be prepared to counter growing Chinese assertiveness.12

Today, Xi rides the Dragon which is externally formidable but internally fragile. He is well aware of the consequences should his policies go awry. As political reforms are not on Xi’s agenda, it is economic growth that is the key to translate Xi’s China dream into reality. There is skeptism about the sustainability of China’s current economic model, given signs of slowing down. Therefore, some tough reforms are inevitable in the future which are likely to lead to social turbulence.

While beginning his first five years term, Xi had stated that to forge iron, you ought to be strong. Hence, he went about systematically to grab power and pushed through the process of consolidation ruthlessly, making himself unassailable. Xi envisions China to be a beacon of stability and prosperity following an alternate path, defying the Western model. Ironically, Chinese leadership’s oft-touted claim of peaceful rise is not in sync with actions. As per eminent scholar Graham Allison, the founder of Harvard Belfer Center, greatest challenge facing the globe is China’s rise. In his latest book “Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap”, he has stated that only through moderation and imaginative diplomacy can the conflict situation be avoided.13


Xi joins the league of Mao and Deng while he does not belong to the tribe. Being smart and compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela by no lesser person than late statesman Lee Kuan Yew, he is not likely to commit the same mistakes as his predecessors. Xi is in quest of legacy as a great reformer. To this end, he has unfolded a grand design and set the course to usher China into a ‘new era’ and acquire superpower status in coming three decades. It’s a tough call fraught with high risks; but a price Xi is willing to pay to secure his ordained place in the history.


1 China Daily Supplement -Hindustan Times, 03 Nov 2017, New Delhi.

2 Jonathan Fenby, (2008), The Penguin History of Modern China, Penguin Group, London p 4.

3 Mao Ideology, available at Accessed 20 Nov 2017, 3pm.

4 China Report 34, (1998), Sage Publication, New Delhi

Three represents CPC (23 June 2006). Available at Accessed on 19 Nov 2017, 11 am

6 Kerry Brown (2012), Hu Jintao Silent Ruler, World Scientific, London, p 141-142.

7 Kevin Rudd (22 Oct 2017), Xi Jinping offers Long Term view of China’s Ambition, Financial Times Ltd. Available at http// Kevin kevin rudd, accessed on 15 Nov 2017, 11am.

8 David Shambaugh (1996), Soldier and State in China, and The Individual and State in China, Clarendon Press Oxford, New York, p 108.

9 Mark Moore, (24 Oct 2017), New York Post, New York. Available at https:// my, accessed 20 Nov 2017, 4 pm.

10 Op. Cit. Note 1.

11 Oliver Carrol, (19 Nov 2017), Russia’s Uncertain Future, Independent Available at https:/, assessed 20 Nov 2017, 5pm.

12 Chankya, Hindustan Times, 29 Oct 2017.

13 Graham Allison, (2017), Destined For War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, p vii.


Renewed Mandate from Heaven: Xi Unfolds Grand Strategy for China’s Long March

IDSA Comment
Published in IDSA on November 10, 2017

According to Chinese traditional belief, it is the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming) that selects an individual to rule. A Confucian idea to facilitate the dynastic cycle, it implied that while good rulers would be allowed to govern with a renewed mandate, the mandate would be revoked in the case of despotic and unjust rulers.

The first Chinese ruler to claim the mandate of heaven was King Wen of Zhou (1050 BCE), a pre- dynastic feudal state in the Wei River Valley. Wen remained a model for many subsequent emperors and politicians. Rival dynasties often used the concept of mandate as a pretext to gain legitimacy for perpetuating political unrest. A case in point was the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) under Shi Huangti, who used it to justify the conquest of all other states, thus unifying China for the first time.

Post the 1949 Communist Revolution, Mao emerged as an autocratic paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). His ideology ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, encapsulated in the famous ‘red book’, was enshrined in the party’s constitution. After Mao’s death in 1976 followed by a brief power struggle, Deng Xiaoping assumed the ‘Second Generation’ leadership. Deng’s ideology was ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics, a clear departure from the ‘class struggle’ enunciated by Mao. After Deng’s demise in 1997, Jiang Zemin emerged as the ‘core’ of the ‘Third Generation’ leadership and adopted a collective leadership approach. He was the architect of the ‘three represents’ ideology (san ge daibiao); implying that the Communist Party should be representative of advanced social productive forces – economic growth, culture and interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people – under new historical conditions. His successor Hu Jintao, representing the ‘Fourth Generation’ Leadership, followed a similar model, professing the concept of ‘scientific development and harmonious society’. To take on the mantle of the ‘Fifth Generation’ leadership, Xi Jinping was picked as the consensus candidate.

Singapore’s late elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew had described Xi Jinping as a person who had a soul of iron and compared him with the likes of Nelson Mandela. After taking over the reins of power in 2012, Xi moved quickly to consolidate power and project the image of a strongman. Over the last five years, he has established himself as the “core” leader and strengthened his hold on the Party and the PLA, the two key structural pillars of the People’s Republic.

Having famously stated that “Things must have gone rotten before insects can grow”, Xi initiated an unforgiving anti-corruption campaign. The relentless drive resulted in 278,000 officials facing disciplinary action, including 440 holding ministerial or higher positions in government establishments, ‘state owned enterprises’ and the military. Some of the big names caught in the anti-corruption campaign were:

  • Zhou Yongkang, a former security czar and member of the apex ‘Politburo Standing Committee’ (PSC),
  • Bo Xilai, Member of the Politburo and Party Secretary Chongqing,
  • Generals Guo Boxing and Xu Caihu, Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body.

The anti-corruption campaign also saw the elimination of potential rivals, specifically those belonging to factions not aligned with Xi. Cleaning up the system remains a work in progress with two more senior most Generals being implicated recently.

The Party Congress is a five yearly affair, shrouded in secrecy and preceded by intense back room parleys. In the just concluded week long 19th Party Congress, Xi has further strengthened his iron grip over the power levers, specifically in the Party’s policy making structure, and emerged as China’s most powerful leader after Mao. Having been re-elected for a second five year term, he is apparently set to call the shots well beyond 2022, since the new PSC has no chosen successor to be groomed, which is a glaring shift from the Party’s well established tradition during the last two decades. Two probables – Hu Chunhua (Party Chief Guangdong Province) and Chen Miner (Party head of Chongqing City and Xi’s protégé tipped to be his successor) did not make it to the PSC, a pre-requisite for eventual emergence as Party Secretary General.

Xi’s Grand Strategy

The enshrining of “Xi Jinping Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” in the Party constitution as a guiding principle puts him in the league of Mao and signals the further cementing of his power base. Henceforth, any criticism of Xi’s policies will be deemed as an attack on the Communist system itself.

To realise his ‘China Dream’ (fuxing – restoration), which envisions a ‘powerful and prosperous’ China, Xi unfolded his grand design while presenting his report on the opening day of the Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People. He referred to China entering a ‘New Era’ marked by social contradictions. To this end, Xi has propounded the policy of ‘striving for achievements’ (fenfa youwei) and advocating a greater Chinese leadership role in world affairs. This is an obvious departure from the strategy that Deng had advocated, namely, ‘maintain low profile and bide for time’ till China completes its peaceful rise, which was followed scrupulously thus far.

To translate his ‘China Dream’ into reality, Xi outlined the ‘twin centenary objectives’: to become a ‘fully modern’ economy and society between 2020 and 2035; and acquire ‘great power’ status by 2050, coinciding with the centenary of the foundation of the PRC. Undoubtedly, Xi envisions China as a key player in shaping the new global order with Chinese characteristics. His grand strategy is in consonance with the Chinese strategic culture of ‘thinking deep and far’, i.e., taking a holistic and long term perspective.


Today, USA is conflicted about its global role, with President Trump advocating an ‘America First’ policy. Russia under Putin is still in delusion about Cold War symmetry. Xi, on the other hand, has enunciated a clearer strategy for China. As evident from his speeches, he has articulated the idea of a new type of great power relationship based on parity in US-China relations. Now with the stature of a paramount leader, Xi is expected to pursue assertive diplomacy in restructuring the international system whose underlying rules will be increasingly framed by China. Major projects like the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR) are means for promoting the objective of a ‘community of shared future’; part of Beijing’s new peripheral diplomacy. This will also enable China to leverage its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to pursue core national strategic interests.

Xi stated in his speech on 18 October that China would strive to resolve disputes through dialogue but will not compromise on national sovereignty. He has begun his second term by exhorting the 2.3 million strong PLA to be combat ready and focus on ‘how to win wars’. China’s official stated position on the integration of claimed territories with the motherland does not preclude the use of force. For India, China under a powerful autocratic leader does not augur well, given the past record. The 1962 War and stand-offs in 1967 and 1987 occurred when Mao and Deng reigned supreme. The recent face-offs at Depsang, Demchok and Doklam have all taken place during Xi’s tenure. India will have to be prepared to counter China’s growing assertiveness and be wary of the latter’s strengthening nexus with Pakistan.

Xi today rides the Dragon which is externally strong but internally fragile. As political reforms are not on Xi’s agenda, it is economic growth that is the key to translate his dream into reality. There is scepticism about the sustainability of China’s current economic model, given signs of slowing down. Therefore, some tough reforms are inevitable in the future which are likely to lead to social turbulence.

At the beginning of his first term five years back, Xi had stated that one has to be strong to forge iron. Accordingly, he systematically went about centralising power and pushing through the process of consolidation ruthlessly. Xi’s strategy to catapult China to the status of a superpower in the next three decades has no precedence, both in terms of enormity and scope. Lee Kuan Yew had stated that the sheer size of China’s displacement meant that the world has to find a new order. Time has come for the global polity to take note of Xi’s grand design as he flags off China for a ‘long march’ to reshape the world order.

(The authoris former Assistant Chief Integrated Defence Staff, served as Defence Attaché in China, Mongolia and North Korea, and currently professor International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University)

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.


Lull at Doklam: Time for a Holistic Strategic Review


Published in IDSA on 06 Oct 2017

IDSA Comment


The recent standoff at Doklam had raised genuine concerns about the situation escalating, given that the opposing troops stood ‘eye ball to eye ball’ for over 10 weeks. While the crisis has been defused for the time being, the probability of a future flare up cannot be ruled out. Post the disengagement, Chinese troops have fortified their positions in the Doklam Plateau with the declared intent of resuming the road construction activity at an appropriate time. The military build-up, which had been undertaken by the two sides in the wake of the crisis, remains in place. The current period of lull is, therefore, a tactical pause. In all prudence, Doklam should be taken as a nudge to initiate a holistic strategic review.

There is an old adage that “the longer you look back, the farther you can look forward”. Chinese leaders have a good understanding of their nation’s history and are known to make comparisons between the present and the past. Zhou Enlai had famously said “diplomacy is continuation of war by other means”, morphing the famous maxim by Clausewitz. Doklam was a well-calibrated small team action aimed at changing the status quo on the ground but with overarching strategic ramifications. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will make further moves on the ground only after the issue has been well deliberated by the Communist leadership.

After being appointed as ‘First Lord of Admiralty’ in 1911, Winston Churchill wrote a memorandum to his cabinet colleagues in which he stated that “Preparation for war is the only guarantee for preservation of wealth, natural resources and territory of the state.” To this end, he identified three key areas; probable dangershistory’s lessons and employment of war material. Interestingly, these guiding tenets are relevant to this day in the Indian context as well.

Probable Dangers

According to Graham Allison, the preeminent geostrategic challenge of the era is not violent Islamic extremism or resurgent Russia but the impact of China’s resurgence. Lee Kuan Yew had observed that the sheer size of China’s displacement meant that the world has to find a new order. Hence, when China cautions Japan to get used to its actions in the East China Sea and India to prepare for more Chinese roads in Doklam, these should not come as a surprise.

Through its assertive behaviour and expansionist approach, China has pursued the strategy of encroachment – ‘nibble and negotiate’ – evident from its actions both along its land borders and maritime frontiers. This is in consonance with the Chinese culture of maintaining a peaceful periphery by keeping the neighbourhood subdued. The Chinese are averse to any challenge or competition. A lonely power, China has optimally used its two allies – Pakistan and North Korea – to serve its strategic interests in the Indian subcontinent and the Korean Peninsula. With the deepening Chinese economic engagement with Pakistan as part of its global outreach, the nexus between the two countries is set to strengthen further.

Given the exponential accretion in China’s Comprehensive National Power (CNP), there is a marked shift from its earlier strategy enunciated by Deng Xiao Ping – ‘to bide for time and maintain a low profile’ till the completion of peaceful rise. Now, President Xi Jinping has emerged as an all-powerful ‘Fifth Generation’ leader whose China dream – fuxing (restoration)– envisions a “powerful and prosperous China”, symbolic of its past grandeur. In the quest to shape a ‘Sino-centric global order’, China seeks a unipolar Asia and a bipolar world. Mega projects like the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route launched at Xi’s behest are means of power projection, designed to catapult China into the superpower league.

Xi has accorded high priority to defence modernization, an important component of CNP. Consequently, the PLA is in the midst of path breaking reforms to emerge as a modern military that is capable of winning “limited war under informationised conditions”. To this end, the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body, has been reorganized. All the members of the CMC are senior most PLA Generals, including General Chang Wanquan who has been the Defence Minister since 2012. The massive infrastructure development on the borders aims to overwhelm the adversary with sheer speed and shock action. While a major conflict with India is not in China’s larger interest, it will keep up the pressure astride the Line of Actual Control (LAC) through pre-emptive tactical actions.

Historical Perspective

An analysis of past skirmishes along the border reveal a definite pattern. Mao initiated the 1962 War when he was under serious criticism post the disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’. The Nathu La Incident in 1967 coincided with an intensely turbulent phase of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. The Sumdurong Chu crisis in 1987 synchronised with the 13th Party Congress. The standoff in the area of Depsang Plateau in April 2013 preceded the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The face off in Chumar in September 2014 happened during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India. Doklam was triggered in mid-June just before Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US. The timing of the Doklam crisis may also have some connect with the 19th Party Congress due in mid-October 2017. China’s diplomatic moves to defuse the situation at Doklam were primarily to prevent the derailment of the BRICS meeting which would have severely dented Xi’s image. It is evident that China’s internal dynamics have definite linkages with incidences on the border. Beijing has repeatedly resorted to military force against neighbours to achieve political objectives.

Employment of war waging material

In an era of ‘limited wars’, defining lines between strategic and tactical objectives stand blurred. Even small tactical incidents have strategic implications, wherein it is not unusual for the top leadership to willy-nilly get involved, Doklam being a case in point. In a limited war scenario, it is not total force ratios that are critical. What is crucial is the quantum of combat potential that can be brought to bear in an integrated manner at the point of decision, in a telescopic time frame. A flat decision making structure and synergy are sine qua non in modern warfare. Thus, well-developed infrastructure particularly in forward areas is vital. China has gained a strategic edge in this regard. However, its vulnerability of fighting from exterior lines of communications can be optimally exploited.

Strategic Review

In the light of the aforesaid imperatives, a holistic strategic review is no more an option. This ought to be carried out over a wide spectrum and in a multi- dimensional manner with specific timelines. As the Chinese leadership believes in negotiating only with equals, India has to address the current state of asymmetry vis-à-vis China in right earnest. It is only a state of strategic equilibrium between the two countries that can pave way for meaningful dialogue and regional stability. Some of the key facets which deserve attention are enumerated below.

Firstly, as a part of grand strategy, India needs to rebalance in consonance with the geopolitical shift that is in the offing in the Indo-Pacific. To counter Beijing’s growing influence especially around the neighbourhood, New Delhi needs to shed its traditional policy of ambiguity. It has to be forthcoming to play a larger role in the region by aligning with strategic partners, namely the US and Japan, besides other friendly nations. In the process, India must push strongly for a multipolar global architecture to effectively thwart China’s designs.

Secondly, the enhancement of CNP as an integral component of national policy ought to be accorded highest priority to correct the prevailing imbalance. It entails sustaining a fast pace of economic growth, strengthening institutional mechanisms and the optimal utilisation of national resources.

Thirdly, as hard power is a vital component of CNP, enhancement of military capability is a critical imperative. So far, the process of military modernization has followed an ad hoc, incremental, approach in the absence of a well-defined national policy. This demands a strategic shift to make way for a transformational process in order to enable the Indian Army match the PLA. It entails dismantling bureaucratic gridlocks, abolishing service-specific organizational structures, sharpening the teeth-to-tail ratio, fast tracking the procurement cum acquisition procedures and leveraging technology. The consistent downward trend of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP, which now stands at about 1.6 per cent, needs to be corrected.

Fourthly, there is an urgent need to prepare a ‘White Paper on National Defence’ which should clearly define the prevailing security environment, threat assessment and thrust of military modernization. Given the regional security dynamics, while major wars are unlikely, localised conflicts remain a possibility. The rapid advancement in technology has compressed time and space in addition to making battlefields non-linear. The traditional view of deterrence stands redefined by new concepts of ‘pre-emption’ and ‘prevention’ and these are being increasingly practiced by India’s adversaries.

Fifthly, it is ironic that we are yet to formulate a ‘Doctrine of Limited War’. This has to be a top driven process emanating from a National Defence Policy. Even the much talked of ‘two front scenario’ has varying interpretations between the three services. The current state of infrastructure stands out as a major impediment for the timely employment of combat power at the point of decision. The development of integrated and sustainable logistics is a pre-requisite for success in a limited conflict. The creation of super highways, freight corridors, forward airfields, strategic airlift capability and state of art communications set-up is the way forward.

Lastly, the concept of ‘border management’ requires a relook as the present system suffers from serious lacunae. There is an urgent need to have a single nodal agency to coordinate the functioning of the multiple organs involved in safeguarding India’s borders. Operational control on the Line of Control (LoC) and Line of Actual Control must rest with the Army. The operational capability of the Paramilitary Forces needs to be enhanced on priority basis. The mere enhancement of budgetary allocations without a coordinated security policy will not suffice. As the probability of face-offs and local skirmishes remains high, contingencies must be in place to deliver timely and calibrated responses. Disputed areas must be held in strength ab initio in order to prevent the adversary from presenting India with a fait accompli.

Given divergent national interests and overlapping strategic objectives, rivalry and competition is inherent in India-China relations. The vexed border issue coupled with the Tibet factor further add to the complexities. Hence, politico-diplomatic showdowns and standoffs on the border have to be accepted as a new normal. While sustained efforts to revamp the existing mechanisms of engagement remains a work in progress, there can be no laxity in defence preparedness. China respects strength and despises the weak. Defence and diplomacy being two sides of the same coin, it is boots on the grounds that determine the extent to which an envelope can be pushed at the negotiation table.

Maj Gen G G Dwivedi (retd) is former Assistant Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, has served as Defence Attaché in China, North Korea and Mongolia, and is currently Professor of International Studies at Aligarh Muslim University.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

Korean Peninsula – Prevailing Imbroglio: Quest for Strategic Equilibrium

Published in USI Journal of India 


Given the geostrategic location, Korean Peninsula has been the fulcrum in the North East Asia’s balance of power dynamics. Post the Korean War 1950-53, due to the existing parity of forces, North and South Korea despite being in possession of massive conventional arsenal and potential to engage in high intensity conflict, remained constrained, thus avoiding any form of misadventure.

The line of armistice running along the 38th Parallel, one of the most fortified defence lines in the world has held on, in the wake of ‘eye ball to eye ball’ situation, while the opposing forces technically still remain in a state of war. The strategic equilibrium that had existed in the Peninsula for over last six decades is under extreme stress today, due to intense geopolitical turbulence as the key stakeholders are feverishly engaged in pursuing their strategic national interests.

The Korean Peninsula today is an antidote to its earlier name ‘Chosun – the land of morning calm’ given by local tribals over two millennium BC. There are numerous factors which have led to current state of instability in the region. The salient ones are; increasing frequency of missile testing by North Korea, recent joint US-South Korea military exercises – unprecedented in scale and intensity which included strategic assets like the B-52 Bombers and Aircraft Carrier USS Carl Vinson, deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea by the US and ouster of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The Peninsula due to the heightened state of tension has turned into a potential flash point – a tinder box.

State of asymmetry which is manifesting due to North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear-cum-missile capabilities coupled with lack of cogent response from the opposite side has encouraged Pyongyang to indulge in the provocative actions. The current crisis situation has almost reached the tipping point. Option of altering aggressive behaviour of the North Korean regime through the use of kinetic force carries a major risk. The challenge before the US and its allies is how to bring about moderation so that the situation does not spin out of control. This demands employment of all the tools of national power by the US and South Korea; including diplomacy, economic, financial, legal and military.

In the succeeding paras, a brief review has been undertaken of the prevailing situation alongside a critical analysis of the moves underway in the quest for restoration of strategic equilibrium by the involved stakeholders.

Prevailing Imbroglio – An Overview

There are two key developments which have led to the present state of imbroglio. First, the rapid rise of People’s Republic of China (PRC) and relative decline in clout of the US, Russia and Japan, leading to state of disequilibrium. Second, the persistence of North Korean Regime in development of viable nuclear capability as a security guarantee. Five nuclear tests and series of missile launches it has undertaken offer strong evidence of North Korea’s strategy to mitigate the perceived existential threat.

The recent missile launch on 22 May 2017 by North Korea is of enhanced calibre capable of carrying large size nuclear warhead with a range of 3000-4000 km.1 It signifies quantum leap in Pyongyang’s capability. Unchecked nuclear weapons development by Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK) poses growing security threat to South Korea, Japan and even to the US mainland, resulting in the possibility of conflict in the region.

The present state of affairs can be largely attributed to US failure to recalibrate its policy to check DPRK’s nuclear-missile programme and increasing influence of China in the North East Asia. US’s prolonged commitments in West Asia also contributed to the present situation. Sanctions imposed by the UN and the US to cripple North Korean Regime economically have largely proved ineffective. Absence of channels for dialogue has further added to the trust deficit between the belligerents, thus further escalating the tension in the region.

President Trump’s policy of ‘America First’ implies reluctance to be a security guarantor by limiting its global role. At the same time, he has promised to act tough with DPRK, indicating the end of ‘strategic patience’ era. Even Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command has called North Korea a ‘clear and dangerous threat’, stressing the need for greater cooperation amongst the allies and for all countries to implement stronger sanctions against Pyongyang. “Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of volatile leader like Kim Jong-un is a recipe for disaster” added Harris.2 Glaring dichotomy in Washington’s policies of ‘sanctions and subsidies’ gives an impression of its half-hearted efforts to shape the regional security architecture.

China enjoys considerable leverage with North Korea as it is the only major power that extends political and economic support to Pyongyang’s authoritarian regime. 90 per cent of DPRK’s trade is with PRC.3 Beijing has cleverly manipulated Pyongyang to regulate tension in the Peninsula. China is known to have supplied nuclear material and know-how to DPRK including the missile launch vehicles. Over a period of time, its soft approach and unwillingness to apply pressure has emboldened the North Korean leadership. Somehow, the US has always believed that China can rein in DPRK, given its clout with the latter. The recent actions of Kim Jong-un tentamounting to defiance indicate limitations of Chinese influence.

With regard to Republic of Korea (ROK), PRC has two key security concerns. These are : to maintain peace and stability on the Peninsula and prevent South Korea from getting too entrenched into the US security framework. China has come out strongly against South Korea in allowing the US to deploy THAAD System on its soil. China had persistently warned South Korea against agreeing to such a move. Beijing sees it as a provocative act of Seoul crossing the redline; its own policy failure notwithstanding.

There have been reports of China resorting to impose sanctions on South Korea to pressurise Seoul into reversing its decision on THAAD, as a punitive measure. Coercive diplomacy is part of Chinese tactics. The process entails initially integrating neighbours into the ambit of Chinese driven ‘East Asian Economic Order’ and thereon exploiting them to gain political advantage. South Korea has a trade surplus of US $ 73 billion with China as per 2015 figures. Hence, Beijing has the capability to hurt Seoul economically.

Major General Cai Jun from the Joint Staff Department of ‘Central Military Commission’ PRC commenting upon the impact of THAAD System had recently stated; “This will further tighten the Asia-Pacific anti-missile barrier enclosing China and Russia, weakening their strategic capacities, something we adamantly oppose”.4 Elaborating further, he said that American anti-missile plans seek absolute military advantage which will exacerbate regional tensions, triggering an all-out arms race.

President Putin, given his disillusioned vision of Cold War symmetry marked by ‘zero sum’ mentality alongside rising Russian nationalism, is unlikely to cooperate with Trump in reduction of tension in the Peninsula. Putin believes that constructive engagement with Pyongyang provides Moscow leverage over the conduct of North Korean Regime at a crucial time when PRC’s hold over DPRK is waning and US-North Korean tension is at an unprecedented level. In all probability, Moscow is likely to subtly oppose US designs in the region.

Contrary to the general image of violent brash youngster, Kim Jong-un has been successful in safeguarding regime’s legitimacy since he assumed power in December 2011, after the demise of his father Kim Jong-Il. He has consolidated his position without confronting any serious opposition. Kim Junior has gone about methodically strengthening DPRK’s defence capability along with economic growth. He has introduced reforms to move away from central planning to market based economy while maintaining tight political control. He is well entrenched for a long haul to carry forward the reign of Kim Dynasty.

Quest for Strategic Equilibrium

It is the disproportionate accretion in the North Korean military potential alongside its nuclear capability which is destabilising the regional strategic balance. Pyongyang is estimated to possess enough nuclear explosive material for at least 10 nuclear warheads. Experts believe that by 2020 it will have enough fissile material for 100 warheads. In all likelihood, DPRK already has capability to deliver some of these weapons by the short and medium range ballistic missiles it has in the arsenal.5

The American and Chinese camps are engaged in classic ‘balance of power’ game. American quest is to maintain the status quo as the sole superpower. As a Pacific power, Washington is resolved to maintaining influence in the Asia-Pacific as part of its ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy. China as a rising power seeks bipolar world with unipolar Asia. It considers the Asia-Pacific as sphere of influence and is aiming at diminution of US influence in the region alongside containing Japan. The stakes are rather high for the US and its allies. For DPRK, the key issue is survival of the regime.

In early May, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, in pursuant to the directions from President Trump and the Congress, formally announced ‘Ballistic Missile Defence Review’ which will address wide ranging issues related to defence policy and strategy. The review is expected to be completed by the year end. As a sequel to the above review, number of options could be on the table including deployment of additional ground based interceptors and acceleration of missile defence technology.6

Despite the mutual defence treaty, Seoul remains skeptical about Washington’s constraints to step in, should there be escalation leading to a military showdown. It has taken strategic review entailing several independent measures to scale up its defence preparedness. A sum of US $ 550 billion has been allocated towards military modernisation over next 15 years. Its defence budget for 2017 was US $ 34 billion, marking an increase of four per cent over the previous year.7 President Moon who recently won the South Korean elections advocating moderate approach towards North Korea has cautioned against high possibility of conflict with hostile neighbour due to recent rapid advances in the nuclear and missile capabilities.

Japan is deeply concerned about China’s rapid accretion of military capability and North Korea’s nuclear-cum-missile programme. Under Prime Minister Abe’s leadership, Tokyo has adopted ‘New Defence Policy Guidelines’ paving way for re-crafting of its military strategy. It removed one percent GDP cap. Japan’s defence budget for the year 2017 registered an increase of 1.4 per cent; pegged at US $ 43.8 billion.8 Mr Abe is also proactively pursuing the process to amend the nation’s pacifist constitution. Tokyo has taken pains to develop new strategic partnerships with the nations in the Asia-Pacific, while strengthen existing security alliances. In the future, trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea is likely to witness significant up swing.

China finds itself in quandary, given Kim Jong-un’s provocative behaviour and President Trump’s threat to act against DPRK with or without PRC’s cooperation. Expressing support for dialogue, it has called both the sides to exercise restraint. Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi approached his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on 15 April 2017, seeking Moscow’s help in preventing conflict between the US and North Korea.9 Historically, cooperation between the two on Korean crisis has been primarily in the form of multilateral framework rather than bilateral. The sudden surge in bilateral cooperation between Beijing and Moscow is driven by two factors: stringent opposition to the US military unilateral action against North Korea’s nuclear facilities and to ensure better diplomatic leverage against Pyongyang.

Chinese and Russian policy makers hold a steadfast belief that any US attempt to completely isolate North Korea from the global economic structure creates a sense of paranoia and siege mentality in Pyongyang. Sense of desperation drives Kim Jong-un to raise the pitch of nationalism and adopt provocative and belligerent stance. Since Kim Junior assumed power in 2011, North Korea has conducted 78 ballistic missile tests; the recent ones were the solid-fuelled Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) capable of reaching the US Military bases on Guam. Hence, the two advocate limited time bound sanctions in consonance with the conduct of DPRK leadership.

Rhetoric and provocative statements notwithstanding, the prudent heads in Washington are strongly in favour of diplomacy and negotiations as the best option to deal with Pyongyang, in order to bring about notion of stability in the region. It may appear unrealistic to set pre-conditions; like US calling for North Korean denuclearisation as Kim Jong-un is not going to give up his nuclear programme and conversely, DPRK seeking embargo on the US-South Korean naval drills is unacceptable to America and its allies. However, during their recent meeting at Mar-a-Lago, President Xi reportedly urged President Trump to accept ‘suspension for suspension’; essentially implying Mr Kim’s freeze on additional ICBMs tests and in response the US to postpone or modify military exercises in the region. Mr Xi even proposed that America and China consider new East Asian Security architecture.10

Ratcheting up sanctions on North Korea will prove to be an exercise in futility as the regime in Pyongyang is highly skilled at skirting these. Option of pre-emptive military strike against DPRK’s nuclear installations and missile test sites will be strongly opposed by even Japan and South Korea. Policy of confrontation over dialogue will only result in adding fuel to the fire.


The precarious situation in the Peninsula requires deft handling as resorting to failed policies of the past will only mean hitting the wall. This implies going beyond economic sanctions, six party talks and unilaterism. Bold initiatives like direct talks between Washington-Pyongyang coupled with China’s willingness to take the call could help avert the crisis. Given the prevailing gravity of the situation, Peninsula imbroglio merits urgent dialogue to obviate imminent conflict situation and restoration of strategic equilibrium; while resolution of this long lingering complex issue in the coming future remains a remote possibility.


1 Times of India, North Korea Missile Programme Progressing Faster than Expected- says South, 16 May 2017.

2 Christine Kim, South Korea Moon Says High Possibility of Conflict with North, World News, 17 May 2017.

3 Times of India, op cit.

4 Gerry Mullany, US Anti-Missile System in South Korea Said to be Nearly Operational, The Diplomat, 27 Apr 2017

5 Available at r=0 accessed on 31 May 2017.

6 Available at accessed on 31 May 2017.

7 Prashanth Parameswaran, South Korea Boosts Defence Budget Amid Rising North Korean Threat, The Diplomat, 06 Dec 2016.

8 Jon Gravatt, Japan Approves Defence Budget 2017, HIS Defence Weekly, Bangkok, 22 Dec 2016.

9 Samuel Ramani, What’s Behind Sino-Russian Cooperation on North Korea, The Diplomat, 27 Apr 2017.

10 Graham Allison, Thinking the Unthinkable With North Korea, New York Times, 30 May 2017.

Doklam, China’s Strategic Calculus and India’s Policy Options

Published by IDSA on August 11, 2017

It is almost two months since Indian and Chinese soldiers became locked in a standoff at Doklam in the Sikkim Sector. The faceoff was triggered when a team of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was prevented by Indian troops from extending a class-5 track in the Doklam Plateau area which is part of Bhutanese territory. The Indian Army acted in response to a request from the Royal Bhutan Army under the terms of the 2007 Bilateral Friendship Treaty. Moreover, the PLA’s track building is in contravention of the 2012 Agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China, whereby the status quo was required to be maintained in the said area until the resolution of the trijunction in consultation with Bhutan.

Post 1962, there have been numerous border incidences between the Indian and Chinese militaries; Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdrong Chu two decades later. In the recent past too, the Depsang Plateau and the Chumar-Demchok area witnessed face-offs in April 2013 and September 2014, respectively, with the latter intriguingly coinciding with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India. Incidentally, the current Chinese incursion in Bhutan happened around the time of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States.

Given the opaque Chinese system, deciphering the intent of its Communist leadership poses a real challenge. According to the eminent scholar Derek Bodde, those who deal with China are often bewildered when the actions of its leadership send mixed signals, making clear interpretation extremely difficult. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) draws from its ancient thinkers. Its actions are always deliberate, like the moves on a checker board. It is imperative to gain an insight into the Chinese psyche and decode China’s strategic calculus in order to effectively cope with its grand designs.

Decoding the Chinese Strategic Calculus

The PRC’s assertiveness around its periphery is attributable to its age old belief of a ‘subdued neighbourhood’ being an essential prerequisite for stability. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger has brought out that the PRC perceives itself to be a returning power and does not view exercising influence as unnatural. Alastair Johnson, an expert on Chinese strategic culture, has stated that there is no pacifist bias in the Chinese strategic tradition but only realpolitik. Nations are either friendly or hostile. This is why servile countries such as Pakistan and North Korea are generously rewarded, while those like India or Vietnam which counter China’s aggressive behaviour invite its wrath.

Chinese thinking since ancient times advocates mitigating a threat by eliminating it. Thus, during the period 1950-85, the PRC opted to use force eight times. When confronted with a stronger adversary, non-coercive means may be adopted as an interim expedient.

China’s grand strategy encompasses three concise objectives: safeguarding sovereignty, maintaining stability, and sustaining economic progress. Any danger to the Communist Party is perceived as an ‘existential threat’. Sovereignty implies, besides external non-interference, safeguarding core interests, control of the South China Sea, unification of Taiwan, and integration of claimed territories with the mainland including South Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh). In the pursuit of these vital national interests, the use of force remains an option.

President Xi has emerged as an all-powerful leader. Designated as a ‘Core’ leader and addressed as ‘Chairman’ (Zhuxi), he is poised to join the league of Mao and Deng. During the forthcoming 19th Party Congress in November, Xi is set to consolidate his grip further. The earlier policy enunciated by Deng that China should “bide time, hide capability and not to claim leadership” has undergone a visible shift under Xi. Xi’s ‘China Dream’ envisions a ‘prosperous and powerful’ China restored to its past greatness.

In the Chinese concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), hard power is the key component. China’s military culture lays immense emphasis on the ‘strategic configuration of power’, creating a favourable disposition of forces to obviate actual fighting. By exploiting its asymmetric edge to coerce smaller nations, China has effectively pursued the surreptitious strategy of ‘fighting and talking concurrently’ in order to extend its control over the South China Sea. China’s military doctrine of “Local Wars under Informationalised Conditions” envisages short-swift engagements to achieve political objectives. Under President Xi, the PLA is in the process of path breaking transformation to emerge as a modern military in the coming decades.

Internationally, PRC remains a lonely power. It has used diplomacy effectively to exploit differences among the adversaries to its advantage. China’s threat assessment perceives the US and Japan to be the prime security concerns, while India is seen as a potential threat. As US and Western countries yield space, China under Xi has pronounced itself as a champion of globalization and sustainable growth to fill the void. Major initiatives like the ‘Belt-Road’ and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ have been launched in a quest to shape a Sino-Centric global order.

The PRC’s action at Doklam is in consonance with its policy of intimidating smaller neighbours. Apparently, China did not anticipate India to step in. The Communist leadership is infuriated with India for abstaining from its signature projects. New Delhi’s growing proximity to Washington and Tokyo has also irked Beijing. Given its focus on the Western Pacific, the mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula, economic imperatives and internal stability concerns in the run-up to the forthcoming Party Congress, China will avoid an armed confrontation with India, despite its rhetoric. However, it will keep up the pressure militarily and pursue aggressive diplomacy to deal with the issue.

The PRC has pursued the policy of delinking complex political issues from economic ones. It enjoys strong trade linkages with the US, Japan and Taiwan, despite serious political differences. Beijing will continue with its policy of marginalising New Delhi politically in international forums, while seeking to avoid a negative economic fallout.

India’s Policy Options

In its efforts to engage China, India has followed a policy of appeasement. And its responses to PRC’s misadventures have been in the form of crisis management. To effectively cope with the PRC’s hostile attitude, India needs to evolve a pragmatic China policy centred on core national interests. Some essential facets which merit serious consideration are summarised below.

Firstly, given the PRC’s policy of asymmetric coercion, India has no option but to narrow the existing CNP gap between the two countries. Developing strategic partnerships, initiatives like ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’, ‘Act East Policy’ and counter balancing strategies are steps in the right direction.

Secondly, national security policy needs clear articulation, based on a realistic threat assessment. Apex organizational structures require streamlining to telescope the decision making process. The current format of military modernization demands a holistic review.

Thirdly, in an era of ‘limited wars’, a ‘joint military doctrine’ is a sine qua non and ‘tri service theatre commands’ are prerequisites for synergised application of the war waging potential. In the prevailing scenario, facing the PLA’s Western Theatre Command are India’s seven Army and Air Force commands, which is a serious lacuna. In short engagements, the timely application of requisite combat power at the point of decision is critical. This calls for creating essential infrastructure on highest priority.

Lastly, the border management mechanism needs to be revamped. A single nodal agency is required to coordinate the functions of the various organs. Operational control astride the Line of Actual Control ought to rest with the Army. A well calibrated response mechanism must be put in place, with disputed vulnerable areas effectively dominated and troops fully prepared to meet any eventuality. Paramilitary Forces deployed for manning the borders require urgent upgrade to match the PLA’s Border Regiments.

While many seem to know China, few understand it. In the desperation to engage the PRC, there is a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture. Given the conflicting interests coupled with unresolved issues, relations between India and China are bound to be marked by contradictions, leading to frequent confrontations. However, through deft diplomacy, differences can be managed. While solutions to vexed problems may not be on the horizon, disputes turning into conflict can be avoided in the larger interest of both nations.

The Chinese are shrewd negotiators with tremendous stamina and penchant to sit across the table, but with equals. India must, therefore, firmly stand its ground and forthrightly safeguard its strategic interests. To deal with China on a level footing, the Indian leadership needs to make pragmatic assessments, possess the courage to accept home truths and display audacity for bold decisions.

The writer has served as Defence Attaché in China, North Korea and Mongolia; commanded a Division in the Eastern Sector; and currently is Professor of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.