There is something curious about the latest round of confrontation between India and China on the former's final testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile. It's not as if that by testing one ICBM, albeit with a capacity to carry a nuclear warhead into Chinese mainland, India has caught up with China's military might and drew parity with their vastly superior strategic nuclear weaponry. With a GDP five times that of India's and a defence budget that at $150 billion outstrips India's by four times, China is bent upon world domination and dreams of replacing US as the next global superpower.
It therefore sounded a little jarring when Chinese media on Thursday indulged in nakedly aggressive posturing over India's final test-firing of Agni-IV and played its Pakistan card rather openly, warning India that more missile testing will develop into an arms race in south Asia because it won't shy away from arming Islamabad to match India's arsenal.
This represents an interesting new deviation in Chinese policy. Though this wasn't an "official response" to India's flight-testing of Agni-IV that carries a strike range of 4,000km, the country's state-run media is traditionally used to convey messages that are considered too incendiary for official conduits. The diplomatic reaction, transmitted through China's foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, wasn't too staid either as Beijing accused India of breaking UNSC resolutions through the testing of ballistic missile.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has long given Deng Xiaoping's '24-character strategy' a quiet burial in favour of a muscular, assertive foreign policy but that geopolitical aggression is usually masked by plausible deniability or an exaggerated show of humility. Not exactly Gandhian principle of "true power speaks softly" but China rarely indulges in sabre-rattling even as under Jinping it goes about pursuing the 'Chinese Dream' and translating aggressively its might as world's second-largest economy into hard military power.
Its revisionist policies under the new "core leader" and leveraging of economic prowess into geostrategic depth and political weight-throwing has always gone hand in hand with a perverse modesty.
Not this time.
India's test-firing of DRDO-developed long-range weaponry that may carry nuclear weaponry deep into Chinese territory seems to have touched a raw nerve that prompted Beijing to launch an open threat and use the one card that it prefers to hide beneath its sleeves — Pakistan.
The Global Times editorial wrote: "In general, it is not difficult for India to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles which can cover the whole world. If the UN Security Council has no objection over this, let it be. The range of Pakistan's nuclear missiles will also see an increase."
Beijing's use of Pakistan to contain India is nothing new. It has exploited the animosity between the neighbours to great effect. Whereas on one hand, it has built strategic depth inside Pakistan by almost-colonising the economically bankrupt nation, it has also propped up the warmonger Rawalpindi generals by supplying arms and military technology so that they may remain up to scratch in an arms race and keep India within their crosshairs. But in every step of the way, China has maintained a façade of neutrality. What explains the departure?
In his book Choices, former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon provides some valuable insights. According to Menon, who served as India's foreign secretary and was instrumental in engineering the 1993 Border Peace Agreement with China during the Narasimha Rao regime, the balance of power between India and China is of great importance to the latter. Though Beijing never shies away from pointing out the difference between India and China in terms of economic and military might, it is perennially worried about India inching towards some sort of parity.
The shades of this were evident in the border dispute between the two countries. While China had vastly improved its military and civilian infrastructure along the Sino-Indian border in the 1980s and 1990s, it became — according to Menon who served as India's envoy to China from 2000-03 — extremely annoyed when New Delhi tried to close the infrastructure gap and enhance military deployments and capabilities along the LAC. The Chinese, says the author, has been pressing hard of late for an agreement that would "freeze the existing imbalance" along the border.
Not surprisingly, this has become the latest flashpoint of conflicting interests and Chinese irritation has been further exacerbated by Indian steps along the 120,000 square-mile long LAC. As a Times of India report points out, New Delhi has decided to base the first squadron of Rafale fighter jets at Bengal's Hashimara base from 2019 as part of "conventional deterrence against China". Other steps include additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, spy drones & helicopters in the North East, deployment of T-72 tanks in eastern Ladakh and Sikkim, new infantry divisions, Mountain Strike Corps, Super Hercules Aircraft and the works, according to the report.
The Chinese threats, therefore, are an expression of insecurity that should help India gain strategic leverage against the Dragon.