It has become common for those observing Indian geopolitics to hear about the potential danger of a “two-front war,” or sometimes even a two-and-a-half front war. This is the fear that an overstretched Indian military will struggle to take on both the Pakistan and Chinese forces at the same time, with the “half” referring to a fresh round of insurgency in Kashmir testing India’s capacity even further.

Less familiar, except perhaps for those who study China, is the idea that Beijing might also face its own two-front challenge: Facing some combination of the United States, Japan and Australia in the east (perhaps in connection with a Taiwan crisis), and India on its western border.

This is an idea that has particularly been put forward by American military strategists, with a former Pentagon official saying in June 2022 that “what the United States and Japan need India to do is to be as strong as possible in South Asia and effectively draw Chinese attention so that they have a major second-front problem.

And it’s one that cannot be ignored when considering the India-China calculus, certainly not within Beijing.

Antara Ghosal Singh’s Stimson Centre paper from earlier this year, ‘‘China’s evolving strategic discourse on India,’’ looks at debates within China over how to tackle India, in the aftermath of the Galwan conflict and subsequent standoff. Singh, a Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, argues that Indian analysts often buy into Chinese propaganda about Beijing not seeing Delhi as a major player – ignoring the leverage India might have in threatening a two-front situation for China, or preventing it from fulfilling its geopolitical aims in the region.

Instead, Singh insists, “New Delhi should recognise its prominence in Chinese strategic debates and better leverage its position to shape Beijing’s behaviour and extract benefits from it.”

In an e-mail conversation, Singh spoke about the challenges of studying China in India, whether domestic debates in China reflect official policy discussions, and what New Delhi ought to do.

Antara Ghosal Singh.

Tell us a little about your interest in studying China? How did you end up focusing on this subject? Was it something you ended up doing, or something you actively pursued?
While working as a journalist in a newspaper, in the corporate bureau, I was somewhat captivated by the China rise story and wanted to know more about it. I enrolled myself in a China study course at an Indian university. However, I got a scholarship midway through my course to continue my studies at the Tsinghua University, China. There I got further encouraged to carry on with my study and research on China.

How hard is it for Indians to get proficiency in Chinese language skills to the extent that they can do the sort of work that you do? What are the available avenues?

I think being an Indian academic / strategist, specialising on China, comes with its own challenges.

Firstly, in most Indian universities 1) Chinese language and culture, and 2) strategic studies / international relations are taught as two separate disciplines. So, you can either be a translator / interpreter with little understanding of or appreciation for strategic studies, or you can be a China scholar / strategist without adequate knowledge of the language or culture.

A direct consequence of this is the Indian strategic community’s over-reliance on secondary literature, including China’s English language propaganda handouts to understand China and its policies, often at the risk of misinterpreting the Chinese agenda. There are only a handful of universities in India which provide integrated courses in China studies, which include both language and strategic study and give equal importance to both. Even these universities suffer from lack of quality staff members from time to time.

Secondly, there is a clear disconnect between Indian academia and the policy world. Other than a few exceptions, they mostly work in silos. Chances of interning with government departments, assisting Indian foreign service officers and others rarely comes your way, like it happens in other countries. While studying in universities you are also somewhat discouraged to actively engage with the policy world, like taking up parallel internships, working on certain think-tank projects and the like (at least, such has been my experience).

On the other hand, when you are working as a professional, it is equally difficult to parallelly upskill yourself. For example, while working as a China analyst, if I want to simultaneously work on / upgrade my language skill, my choices in India are very limited. Only a handful of colleges / universities have provision for short-term, flexible, certificate courses on Chinese language for working professionals which are pocket-friendly as well. Strangely, the Indira Gandhi National Open University has absolutely nothing on Chinese.

The Chinese embassy or Taiwanese Taipei Economic and Cultural Center too have little to offer to Indian professionals in this regard. Of course, they provide scholarships to study in China or Taiwan for a few months or years. But they are not really meant for working professionals, who would need to leave their jobs / go for unpaid sabbaticals (if lucky) to pursue these courses.

Equally difficult it is for Indian students / professionals to sit for internationally recognised Chinese language proficiency tests. We all know about the sensitivity in India regarding China’s Confucius Institutes, but in absence of those, little has been done to cater to the needs of Indian students / professionals who want to develop skills in Chinese language. I know of people who would go to Nepal or other Southeast Asian countries only to sit for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi and other internationally recognised Chinese language proficiency tests.

Overall, I would say that learning Chinese is tough in itself, but for Indian academics / scholars, it is even tougher, because the system does not quite support them. As a consequence, we see that India’s China watching community is actually a very small close-knit group, largely dominated by practitioners (who have experience of interacting with their Chinese counterparts as a part of their official assignments) with only a handful of academics who truly specialise on China.

Coming to ‘‘China’s Evolving Strategic Discourse on India’’, could you give readers a quick summary of your main points?
My paper titled ‘‘China’s Evolving Strategic Discourse on India’’, published by the Stimson Centre, seeks to answer some of the key questions that have been doing round in India since the last two years, that is:

  • Why did the 2020 Line of Actual Control crisis happen in the first place?
  • Why did China choose to violate the existing agreements, disturb the peace and stability at the border and reverse all the progress that has been made so far in China-India relations, in the last 45 years?
  • What China’s thoughts have been on this relationship and where does it want to take it in the future?

In the last two years or so there have been lots of discussions on these issues within India and beyond. Different scholars, practitioners have tried to explain the situation at the Line of Actual Control through different arguments. Some have argued that this was the Chinese reaction to India revoking the special semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Some have pointed out infrastructure arms-race at the Line of Actual Control as the immediate trigger for the border crisis. Others believe that the intensifying great power competition between China and the US is the real reason behind deteriorating China-India ties.

All these arguments are insightful and help us understand various aspects of the ongoing crisis. However, one drawback in the present discourse is that it focuses on isolated facets of China-India relations, ie, either the endogenous China-India bilateral differences or the exogenous China-US great power competition. Thus, much of the existing discourse cannot provide a complete picture of or explanation to the present crisis.

But a closer look at China’s domestic debates and discussions on India in the last few years provides a comparatively clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that might have led to the border crisis.

So, this particular paper analyses China’s internal debates and deliberations on India in the years preceding the Galwan clash and thereafter, to make two key arguments: First, the 2020 border standoff is likely the outcome of an intensifying conflict between China’s major power diplomacy and its neighbourhood diplomacy towards India.

Now let me explain what I mean by China’s major power diplomacy and neighbourhood diplomacy. Going back a little into history, after the launch of the reform and opening up strategy, Chinese foreign policy strove to move away from its ideological foundations and by the beginning of the 21st century, it formed a relatively stable diplomatic outlay of, what can be loosely translated to mean, “Major Power is the key, neighbours are the first, developing countries are the foundation, and multilateral diplomacy is an important stage.”

After President Xi Jinping came to power, a new strategic concept of “Major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” was introduced. In the new strategic layout, multilateral diplomacy was given top priority, closely followed by major countries, neighbouring countries, and developing countries, which together constitute China’s overall diplomatic layout or the foundational framework of Chinese diplomacy.

Now we need to understand that India is one country that features concurrently in all four areas of China’s strategic outlay ie, major power diplomacy, neighbourhood diplomacy, developing country diplomacy, and multilateral diplomacy. In China, relationship with India, is therefore analysed through multiple lenses at the same time, namely China-India dynamics, South Asian geopolitics, China-US strategic competition, and ultimately through the paradigm of China’s rise.

So, I believe that while analysing China-India relations, focusing on one aspect and letting go of the other will always produce a lopsided/skewed understanding of reality. Only when all these aspects are taken together can we accurately grasp the Chinese thinking about India.

Now, back to the key argument of the paper. I have argued that as a part of its major power diplomacy, China seeks India’s cooperation to hedge against US’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. In Chinese assessment, India, being a non-ally to the US, is the “key variable” determining the success or failure of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, and hence, important to Chinese interests.

At the same time, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative – which is China’s own version of the Indo-Pacific, aimed at connecting the Pacific and the Indian Ocean economies under Chinese leadership and opening up a stable, secure and economically-viable Indian Ocean exit, overcoming the Malacca dilemma – rests heavily on India.

Chinese scholars often highlight how India’s endorsement, cooperation, and access to the super-sized Indian market are all crucial for the successful and cost-effective implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia. Furthermore, China values India’s critical role in maintaining the stability of China’s overall security environment, enabling Beijing to concentrate on the Pacific and deal with the pressure of the US alliance system.

But, in sharp contrast to its major power strategy, which mandates closer China-India cooperation, China’s neighbourhood strategy is all about attaining an “overwhelming power advantage” in Asia, which necessitates checking and balancing India. This is because China believes India is the only country in the region with the military and geographical advantage to intercept China’s energy lifelines in the Indian Ocean, pose a direct threat to China’s restive western frontier, replace it in global supply chains, and compete in various international bodies. So, be it resolving the border dispute, the Pakistan problem or the issue of India’s accession to important global platforms, China opposes it all, as it remains wary that any accommodation will mean further strengthening India’s power and prestige, while China losing its valuable local advantages.

In other words, while seeking cooperation from India, China is also trying to reduce the cost of such cooperation. It wants to hold on to its various local advantages, be it the disputed border, Pakistan, India’s aspiration for entry into global bodies etc, as key bargaining chips against India. This explains why, in the past few years, we saw Beijing, on one hand, actively courting New Delhi in matters related to US-China competition and Belt and Road Initiative, but on the other hand, being particularly upset about what it called New Delhi’s “issue-based diplomacy/problem diplomacy” towards China.

India’s unwillingness to shelve the border dispute, its public opposition to Belt and Road Initiative, its hardening stance against Pakistan, its strong response during the 2017 Doklam stand-off and collaboration with Washington in South Asia and beyond riled the Chinese side, as these were seen as efforts meant to chip away Beijing’s local leverages.

And therefore, it chose power-projection as its preferred strategy to deal with India. This is intended to exert pressure on India to adjust its China policy, to convince it that standing up against China would cause it to lose development opportunities and also face isolation in South Asia, and thereby coercing it to give in to the Chinese demands, unconditionally.

But then, there is an underlying concern in China – how far can it stretch the high-handedness towards India, before its South Asia / Indian Ocean strategy starts to backfire. It is well understood within Chinese strategic circles that India’s cooperation can secure Chinese gains of vital geopolitical and economic consequences, and its non-cooperation can pose the biggest hurdle to China’s South Asia strategy and advancement of its Indian Ocean footprints. Therefore, it is argued that an out-and-out combative, expansionary stance towards India is unlikely to deliver any realistic and practicable benefit for China, in terms of its long-term strategic objectives in the region, particularly its interest in opening up an economically viable Indian Ocean exit.

On the contrary, Chinese show of strength is highly likely to reinforce the vicious circle of security dilemma in South Asia, that is India competing for relative power with China or collaborating with external powers to collectively guard against China, thus making its objectives in South Asia even more costly and uncertain.

Instead, many in China prefer maintaining at least a non-hostile China–India working relationship which could not only guarantee the security, stability of China’s restive western frontier but also provide ample space for gradually advancing its economic and geo-strategic interests and influence in South Asia.

And hence my second argument that China faces a policy dilemma over India – that is on the one hand, Beijing wants to restore its strength and psychological advantage against India by normalising border conflicts like the Galwan Valley clash. But on the other hand, sections within the Chinese strategic community remain anxious about the impact of a destabilised Line of Actual Control on the realisation of its various regional and global objectives in the Indian Ocean region.

Indian and American soldiers taking part in the Yudh Abhyas exercise in Uttarakhand in 2014. Credit: Staff sergeant Mylinda DuRousseau, 1/25 SBCT Public Affairs

A lot of your work rests on analysing Chinese sources discussing international relations – think tank analysis and the like. Do you believe these are grounded and connected enough to official thinking that they can be taken as something approximating (some of the) official views of the Chinese government?
Actually, there are various methodologies to conduct research on China. For example, many scholars would prefer to draw from archives and other official sources, others prefer field work, developing personal rapport with key figures in Chinese politics, and building strong connections/network within Chinese society to get access to required information. However, being an Indian scholar specialising on China, especially given the complexity of China-India ties, such methodologies might not be entirely feasible for us at the moment.

Under such circumstances, scanning and studying Chinese media, social media, academic discussions, think-tank deliberations etc. can be important sources to grasp what the Chinese are thinking, and the overall public sentiment in China. In fact, with China’s relations deteriorating with many other countries in the recent past, many international scholars are also adopting this methodology.

The Chinese official views are anyway made accessible through ministry websites, press-releases etc. But the domestic discussion in media, social media, think tanks, public forums etc can provide an important backdrop to certain policy decisions or political developments. They actually help you to read between the lines, when it comes to Chinese policy-making.

Also, the Chinese system is such, that more often than not there is a seamless synchronisation in thoughts and actions between various govt departments, party officials, and think tank / academia, media, between policy debates / discussions and practical developments on ground…somewhat like a whole-of-government / whole-of-society approach to policy planning and execution, particularly in the field of international relations. From that perspective too, the methodology of tracking domestic debates and discussion can prove very effective.

What is India’s strategic value to China? What do the sources that you’re engaging with say about this? Is that reflected in the way the government acts and apportions resources?
My paper ‘‘China’s Evolving Strategic Discourse on India’’ is actually all about India’s increasing strategic value to China, whether in the realm of China’s foreign policy or its future development strategies (the Belt and Road Initiative / the Western Development Strategy / the Two Oceans Strategy etc). The Chinese side has expectations that India will not only welcome China’s rise in Asia, but actively facilitate the rise of a China-led economic and political regional order in Asia, while eliminating the US interference from the region. Possibly they are too used to their 1950s experience, where they made India relinquish all its rights in Tibet in China’s favour, without giving anything in return.

Similarly, China now wants to accrue benefits from India but is unwilling to pay a strategic cost for it or make any real trade-off, such as accommodating India’s concerns or aspirations on the disputed border or South Asia or concerning its membership of international organisations etc. Thus, from Beijing’s perspective, destabilising the disputed border, creating new flashpoints at Line of Actual Control (while carefully averting a full-scale conflict) are seen as the most cost-effective way to get India to the table, to make it consider Chinese interests, without China having to pay any real cost.

This approach of the Chinese side is deeply rooted in the Maoist strategy – “以斗争求团结,则团结者存。以妥协求团结,则团结者亡”, meaning unity/cooperation / peace achieved through struggle will survive; but through concession, will perish. Looking back at China’s own historical experience, they argue that concession has not helped any country win peace, it is only active offence that can have a deterring effect and a profound impact on the opponent’s decision-making.

What makes you say there has been a “concerted effort at all levels, from Chinese diplomats to think-tank scholars to the Chinese media, to deliberately play down the Galwan incident and divorce the ongoing border stalemate from the overall functioning of the China-India relationship”? Can we compare this to internal Chinese discourse in say, Japan or the US?

Others may point to repeated efforts to lionise the soldiers involved in the Galwan conflict as a sign that, at least as far as the People’s Liberation Army is concerned, it has little interest in downplaying its positions and actions in Ladakh?
You can look at all the official communications between China and India since the Galwan clash, and you can see the Chinese side’s constant reference to the need of delinking the border issue from the rest of the relationship, putting it at a proper place in the overall bilateral ties and insisting that China and India proceed towards developing “enabling conditions for a better relationship and greater practical cooperation between the two”.

However, this proposal has been opposed by the Indian side which says “the state of the border will decide the state of the relationship”. Therefore, it is only after failing to convince India on this issue, only last year, the Chinese side made certain information about the Galwan clash public. Since I have been tracking the Chinese discourse on the Galwan clash since the beginning, I remember, right after the 2020 border crisis, some Chinese strategists have been unhappy about China’s somewhat muted response to the conflict.

They complained that the efforts to play down the incident from the Chinese side were backfiring. It was only helping India to portray itself as a “victim of Chinese aggression” and gain global sympathy, while depriving China of its moral high-ground and its claim of being a peaceful nation. And hence the Chinese reaction!

In the following months as China-India relations made limited progress despite the Chinese outreach , China intensified its propaganda on the Galwan clash. It found mention in the 2022 Winter Olympics, and now it has come up in the 20th Party Congress as well.

How has the discourse over a potential two-front war for China evolved, particularly given the recent Taiwan crisis?
Be it in India or other relevant countries, there has been a tendency to see the India-China border dispute and the Taiwan issue or South China Sea issue as isolated matters. But when seen from the Chinese perspective, these issues are very much inter-connected and correspond to each other. When China says that it does not regard India as a threat or a rival, that India is a secondary issue for China, it does not necessarily say so because of its superiority complex or out of sheer goodwill towards India. It says so because it does not want to show China in an inconvenient two/multi-front situation for both its domestic and international audience.

Unlike the southeast coast, where China has operated a military deployment system for decades and enjoys superiority in almost all aspects of sea and air defence, the northwest is understood to be China’s soft underbelly where it has traditionally depended on Pakistan to check and balance India. During the Galwan clash of 2020, many Chinese strategists expressed concern if the conflict will mark an end to China’s existing policy at the Line of Actual Control of being “reasonable, profitable and economical” and force it to brace up for a Kashmir-like militarisation of the China-India border. This, they worry, will not only make China vulnerable in various directions but even jeopardise China’s plans regarding the reunification of Taiwan.

The recent visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and almost simultaneous announcement of the news of US-India planning to conduct “Yudh Abhyas” less than 100 kilometres away from the Line of Actual Control, once again triggered discussions in China about a two-front crisis. Today there is growing concern in China about a gradual approach between its primary and secondary strategic directions.

People wait to attend a flag rising ceremony to celebrate China's national day at the base of the Taiwan People's Communist Party in Tainan, Taiwan, on October 1. Credit: Reuters.

As you mention in the conclusion, there is a general assumption that “Beijing has little to gain from cooperation with India and thus it has little obligation to be sensitive to India’s concerns or concede anything to India.” Could you explain why this assumption persists – and why you think it’s inaccurate?
There is a discourse in India, that China doesn’t see India as an equal partner, a power not at par with itself. That there was a time when China and India were at the same level of development, now India lags so far behind, that China, guided by its Confucian thinking of hierarchy in international relations, doesn’t take it seriously, looks down upon it etc etc. It is true that such views about British India did exist in China in the early-20th century, however, that time is long past.

The fact that this unfortunate narrative persists in Indian strategic thinking even today is partly due to our own insecurity about ourselves, and partly due to China’s highly successful propaganda machinery that has deeply influenced scholars/practitioners from both India and beyond on the issue. For China, propagating such a view is in line with their psy-ops against India, where many still swear by the Maoist idea of “Strategically despising the enemy, tactically attaching importance to it”.

However, I don’t think such views are based on facts, or accurately represent the domestic public opinion in China. As noted by Chinese scholars themselves, in the last few years the overall Chinese public sentiment vis-a-vis India has remained somewhat polarised between “印黑”(denigration of Indian potential) and “印吹 (exaggeration of Indian potential) camps. On the one hand, there are views that echo the official propaganda projecting India as a lesser power, rather a weak country on whom China can afford to force its will.

On the other hand, there has been widespread insecurity within Chinese society over questions like “Will India surpass China in the future?”, “Can the Indian economy overtake the Chinese economy in the future? Can it supplant China in the global supply chain?”, “Will India lobby with the world powers to displace China from the United Nations Security Council and other global bodies?” among others.

Since 2020, as the pandemic put China under unprecedented international pressure, the latter view has been gaining traction. As many in China worry over China’s “period of strategic opportunity” ending prematurely, and India taking advantage of intensified US-China rivalry to fuel its own rise. Just the last few weeks, there have been so much discussion among Chinese commentators about India’s recent economic feats, of surpassing the UK, registering double digit growth rate for the first quarter, its diplomatic manoeuvres between US, Russia, China, military exercises with China and Russia, hosting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit etc.

Chinese observers argue that under the current tense international situation, India has actually emerged as a fairly influential force, its profile has risen and it has greater diplomatic space to function. Although India has its own set of problems, however many in China see India, with its younger population and a favourable international climate, as one of the most promising countries among the great powers to watch out for in the next 20 years.

What would it take for India to “shape Beijing’s behaviour and extract adequate benefits from it”?
One of my recommendations has been to not approach China-India relations solely through the lens of the power differential between the two countries. That it is important for India to realise and leverage its increasing strategic value to China – both the economic, strategic dividends that it can deliver to China through its cooperation, as well as the spoiler role that it can play for Chinese plans and programmes in South Asia and beyond.

Secondly, India must not see the China-India border dispute in isolation from the Taiwan issue, or South and East China Sea dispute. It must continue with the trend of actively engaging with and synchronising its actions with other like-minded nations and further bolster its position and capability at the Line of Actual Control, building up greater pressure on the Chinese side and further intensifying its two-front dilemma.

Thirdly, I see a lot of concern among the Chinese strategic community about the realignment of supply chains, innovation chains between the US, India and other countries under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and other formats. They are very concerned that a new “US + West + India” model will emerge under which critical supply chains would bypass China, thereby delivering a blow to China’s power and position in the future digital economy. Thus, they are very keen to pull India into the existing China-centred economic circuit (US + West + China), tightly embrace India economically and forge a close China-India supply chain system, so that China does not get left behind in the upcoming fourth wave of industrialisation. Such an evolving situation opens up new leverage points for India.

Last but not the least, my recommendation would be to invest in China study / research in India, to develop a deep understanding, essentially an India-focused understanding of China and its way of thinking and interests. As the Chinese would often say “if you know the adversary and know ourselves, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

And now, the three questions I like to put to all on this series:

What misconceptions about the Chinese view of India do you find yourself encountering constantly?
As mentioned above, of China looking down upon India.

What advice would you give to young Indian scholars hoping to work on China?
To focus more on primary research.

What books (or papers, podcasts etc) would you recommend for those interested in understanding China’s view of India and International Relations?
I would recommend what my Chinese professor at the Tsinghua University recommended me:

  • China International Studies Journal by China Institute of International Studies
  • Contemporary International Relations journal by China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

This article first appeared on India Inside Out.