Refusing a handshake — start of a more hard-headed China policy?

[At SCO meeting of Defence Ministers — Rajnath Sigh and General Li Shangfu]

In a separate bilateral April 27 on the occasion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting of defence ministers, Rajnath Singh and People’s Liberation Army General Li Shangfu began and ended their session with the Indian leader refusing to shake hands with his Chinese counterpart to show host country India’s disquiet about China’s continued unwillingness to disengage from forward positions in the Demchok area and in the Depsang Plains where PLA is in commanding position. The Narendra Modi government’s expectation was that the first step involving the pullback especially by the Indian Special Frontier Force unit entrenched on the Kailash Range heights and, therefore, directly threatening the sub-sectior-wise important PLA garrison in Moldo, would be quickly followed up by the Chinese withdrawing from the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains and the Demchok area. The perennial sap that it is, India found its expectation belied as the Chinese failed to deliver on the promise. Instead was witnessed the predictable spectacle of Shangfu acting as if nothing whatever is amiss in Ladakh and pleading for New Delhi to end the military standoff and normalise relations, entirely ignoring Rajnath’s assertion that the Chinese need to restore the status quo ante as existed in Spring 2019 before the PLA got into blocking positions, annexed that belt of Indian territory and, by way of reminder of who is boss, precipitated the bloody encounter on the Galwan River.

Not that Rajnath’s snub is going to resonate with Shangfu in the manner, say, US President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ pointedly ignoring Chinese Premier Zhouenlai’s proffered hand did in Geneva at the 1953 Indo-China peace conference. It was so resounding a public insult and hurt Beijing’s amour propre so deeply US President Richard Nixon, to salve the Chinese ego, made amends 20 years later when seeking an “opening to China”. He approached Chairman Maozedong with a big ingratiating smile and hands outsretched well before he got to anywhere near the aging supremo. America was forgiven but the incident has never been forgotton by Beijing which insists that Chinese diplomats still affect a certain hauteur when interacting with US officials at all levels and in every instance.

A weak-willed India and its government historically lacking strategic vision and thinking, tactial military nous and, despite six decades of experience of Chinese behaviour, has willfully suspended its disbelief and, by way of a default policy, accepted new sets of promises and commitments to maintain peace and harmony on the border. The result of the Indian government and its negotiators being so easily suckered is that Chinese leaders, PLA generals and government officials alike in meetings with their Indian counterparts can barely conceal their contempt (reflected in the above pic: a tense Rajnath facing an amused Shangfu!)

Beijing plays for time and tests India’s patience, straight facedly repeating the stock phrases about India, in effect, needing to move on and, by the by, to help the Chinese economy get back on its feet by accepting increased Chinese exports even if it means exacerbating the current trade deficit of some $70 billion!

But if Rajnath’s disdainful gesture is not a one-off thing but, rather, a calculated turn in the country’s strategy — a harbinger of a hard-nosed attitude and more stringent China policy, then the following logical follow-up steps are necessary:

For starters, instead of tippy-toeing around the option, New Delhi has to begin actually applying the tourniquet on bilateral trade, gradually closing off market access, firstly, to Chinese light manufactures and capital consumer goods (mobile telephones of every description, MG cars, Haier household goods — airconditioners, washing machines, etc.) and, secondly, shutting the door on the Chinese teleecom giants — Huawei, ZTE, etc,

The trouble is the government does not seem to be very resolute about a more confrontationist policy. The Indian government ruled that no telecom company, public sector or private sector, can go in for any 5G Chinese telecom gear for system modernization or conversion. Does this ban not uniformly apply? If it does then why has Vodafone Idea, for example, not got the message? Because recently Vodafone chose the Chinese company ZTE’s 5-G transmission gear worth Rs 220 crore to upgrade its network. Vodafone did so, it confessed, because of the competitive price on offer. But low priced bids, everybody knows by now, is made possible solely because of institutionalised subsidies provided such firms by the Chinese government. Except, such subsidies can be the reason, under World Trade Organization rules, to kick Chinese companies out of the Indian market for good by imposing punitive tariffs on them to make their products uncompetitive price-wise. It is a legal remedy the Indian government has so far not availed of regarding any commodity or goods when, in fact, no Chinese manufacture is not state subsidised in some manner or the other.

More worryingly, how did the ZTE-Vodafone transaction manage to escape the attention of various agencies of government tasked with putting an end to such deals? Surely, the National Security Council Secretariat has not approved of this contract as is required to be done. But if this deal is proceeding regardless, is it an indication — and it is the best spin on this development — that the Modi regime is leaving a little negotiating slack for itself, trying to see if the abeyance of a ban on residual deals involving Chinese telecom tech can be used to lever more give on Beijing’s part in border negotiations? This reading seems right considering the Coordinator for National Cybersecurity, retired army Major General Rajesh Pant, did not respond to a press query regarding the ZTE hardware sale in question.

If such deals are perceived as genuine leverage against China, then the Indian government is wrong on two counts. Firstly, the Xi Jinping dispensation has showed time and again it would rather the export revenues of Huawei/ZTE plummet than cede contested territory. Secondly, even if any concessions are made by the Xi Jinping government it will be to a United States it considers its peer rival and whose market it cannot do without, not to India. For instance, Huawei tried to offset Washington’s security concerns by offering American telecom companies source codes and operating algorithms for its 5G gear. No such offer has been made to India.

That is why vis a vis China, India, policy-wise, is in a zero sum context and has to blunt with the severest measures Beijing’s attitude that it can extract territorial, economic, trade, and political benefits by pressuring New Delhi and running diplomatic circles around the Indian government.

It is best to know that any Chinese 5G gear integrated into private sector telecom networks will instantly compromise the national tcommunications grid, by providing Chinese official hackers the pathways to penetrate only minimally protected central and state government communications networks. In fact, a Chinese telecom customer in Europe such as Germany, for instance, which has otherwise been reluctant to follow Washington’s lead, has become mindful of potential security breaches that could undermine its domestic and NATO communications systems. It has ordered its entire communications grid to be purged of all Chinese-origin components. German agencies have concluded — and this is of particular relevanve to India — that even if such gear is inspected and checked, and Chinese source codes are made available, not all embedded bugs can be detected or neutralised, and hence it is best to keep Chinese telecom equipment out.

(2) Treat all active negotiation channels with China, standoffishly including the apex Joint Working Group involving NSA level talks to resolve border issues, in the same pro forma way with designated Indian reps attending the meetings, marking their presence, and repeating the Indian position of no normalcy without restoration of the status quo ante on the LAC (as of Spring 2019), and showing no impatience whatsoever. It will signal to China that two can play at this game and that India is there for the long haul, that bilateral ties will continue to be in a political limbo for as long as it takes Beijing to restore the old LAC and, in line with the new, hopefully, strictly reciprocal policy, that this stance will now be backed by a slow but definite closing of the trade window and of market access.

Let’s see how Beijing reacts if such a course were followed..

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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17 Responses to Refusing a handshake — start of a more hard-headed China policy?

  1. quickboy says:

    “It is best to know that any Chinese 5G gear integrated into private sector telecom networks will instantly compromise the national communications grid”

    well I would like to know how?. yankees and brits and other other “GREAT WHITES” say that is not an answer. Do you really use a firewall or gateway?. Are they controlled by China?. If so you should stop internet completely.

    As for strategic thinking…
    Dont you think stopping simple telegrams in post office was a good idea?. It is simple Physics that your digital communications will be toast with a small EM attack or god forbid a nuke?.

    You have enemies on both the land neighborhood. Both seem to at least on paper have more nukes than you do. So where was the strategic thinking.?

    You chose to buy american engines and british equipment for your own fighter jet?. Strategic?.

    Because of that the Chinese gets the order for Argentina, because those guys dont want to do anything with, yankee or pommy stuff. Strategic.

    Now you have a deal with “Rollce Royce” of all companies, yeah the same company which resulted in death of your first jet fighter, Remember the “Marut” A deadly plane with no engine….?. Strategic?.

    Recently you went to “Seimens” for railway engines, The same guys who would sanction the Russians, just when the americans scratch their nose?. Imagine your trains stopping when there is a war. Strategic?.
    Why are we not seeing any of these discussed?.

    • Most of your tilts on the “strategic” issues are what I lean towards as well and have so analysed them in extenso in my books, other writings, and on this blog (look up posts on individual subjects). The pvt and public sector telecom networks are not standalone and the connectivity between them offers channels for penetration. (As to how exactly and technically this is so is beyond my expertise. But my readings on the subject warn of frame-embedded bugs and other kinds of malware.

    • Amit says:

      @quickboy, don’t be a Chinese fanboy. While many of the points you raise are true about India, it has started to fix many of them. And please don’t Wax eloquent about how smart Chinese strategists are, or about American foreign policy experts. Both have blundered big time! India is currently handling the global situation much better than these two countries.


    Another wonderful article by Dr Karnad. Do you believe that China can bring a thaw in the tense relations between Pakistan and Taliban over the Durand Line issue (as well as Pakistan and Iran) like it did between Saudi and Iran ? I am optimistic that they can. I would love to know your views on this one

    • China as mediator between Pakistan and Taliban? Unlikely, because in Balochistan the TTP offshoot of Afghan Taliban

    • China as mediator? Unlikely because the TTP offshoot of Afghan Taliban are cooperating with the many Baloch nationalist groups fighting for independence, who have attacked Chinese presence in that province.

  3. whatsinitanyway says:

    I think foreign manufactured Telecom equipment are a threat, whether they originate in China or not. The NSA Cisco factory to plant routers with spyware is just one example. US sabotaged Irans nuclear program, by pressuring Siemens to release bugs in their PCB which Iran used in its reactors. There are a handful of network equipment makers in India, Sankhya and Tejas etc, but I am not sure if the government even cares. They could provide incentives to network operators who use desi tech For example low pricing on spectrum.

    • Agree. Reason why I have been ceaselessly advocating buying indigenous 5G systems that are now available were GOI more receptive to tested and proven home-made tech.

  4. Amit says:


    While India may have let the Chinese off the hook easily in the Kailash range, I don’t think India has been easy on China since Doklam. At Galwan, 43 Chinese soldiers lost their lives and the thrashing they got has prevented future Galwans from happening. India is cooperating with the U.S. on border intelligence and outflanked them in the Yangtze region in Arunachal. While Indian soldiers cannot patrol the Depsang Plains, neither can the Chinese. India is aggressively building border infrastructure, has repositioned an army corp from the western front to the northern, deployed two squadrons of Rafale jets to handle the air threat from China, is deploying a rocket force against China, has deployed two S400 squadrons on the Chinese border, is improving the border fiber network, is investing heavily on the Indian Navy, apart from many other things.

    To anyone who is following these events, it is clear India is not letting the Chinese off the hook. Maybe you are finally coming around to this view, but India has been eyeballing China for longer than you think.

    Just because India may not have gotten 100% of its actions right does not mean it’s stance has not changed – it’s been a while since it has.

  5. By Email from retired Lt General Kamal Davar:

    Tue, 2 May at 9:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing your well articulated piece — simple, doable and apt suggestions. Warmly, Kamal

  6. Ayush says:

    Dr karnad, As far as I am aware there have been numerous “minor incidents” at LAC involving multiple fatalities on both sides including those involving the most elite special forces of each side.The news of these events have been deliberately suppressed by both sides due to fear of “escalation”.We are already in a state of war with the Chinese for all practical purposes.

    To think that the Chinese are going to sit by and watch India become a peer military great power by 2030-ish is childish naivety.The great Chinese offensive will come either this winter or next spring-summer. What is most astounding is the mind-blowing complacency of the cesspool of a bureaucracy the MoD has.It’s only in the last few months have they started purchasing massive volumes of relevant indigenous arms directed at enhancing immediate combat readiness.Despite that, Induction of desperately needed munitions like the state-of-the-art 1 ton gaurav glide bomb,QRSAM(critically needed to protect army armoires strike columns) is lying in limbo.Moreover, testing of MIRVed K5 SLBM has been delayed not just due to US pressure but also due to apparent bureaucratic sabotage.India’s biggest enemy is not china but the deeply-penetrated western intel parasites sitting in bureaucracy and upper-echelons of our officer corps.These traitors have to searched and ruthlessly eliminated.

  7. raj says:

    Karnad ji, the answer to your last question about beijing’s reaction to india closing trade and market access is already known. They have been expecting it for atleast 10 years and dont care. This is from a talk in chinese by Ye HaiLin relevant portion 1:04:45 onwards for about a minute.

  8. Gram Massla says:

    The current Indian trade with China deficit is USD100 billion. The CCP platitudes about the current border situation are meaningless. It is happy with the status quo. It costs India money to militarize the border. A tense eastern border eases up on the western LOC vis s vis Pakistan. India’s stand off at the border is close to its heartland; it is thousands of kilometers away from the Han habitat. And so on. The first order of business is to address the deficit and shrink it to nothingness. This is a matter of national imperative. In a few years the Indian market will be the largest in the world; the CCP wants a piece of it. It will then settle the border. Unfortunately the way the game is played currently the Joker is in the CCP’s hands.

    • Amit says:

      @Gram Massla, if you read military history, you will note warring nations in most cases continue to trade with each other. You might be surprised that Ukraine and Russia continue to trade even though they are fighting (it’s only the Lallu panjus across the border who have stopped trade with India to their own detriment).

      So in the case of China, what India must do is to cut any dual use trade, I.e., that which has a security implication. Everything else should be fair game. Of course, do not become dependent on China for anything, but continue to trade. No harm, no foul.



    Ashley Telis says that the US now does not believe India will side with her against China when it comes to Taiwan. This means that the US will most likely be neutral towards any significant China-India potential conflict in future. This is significant since we were believing that the Americans would come to our help over Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh. Considering that without Russian help we are very much dependent upon the Western help to confront China. To conclude we are alone and on our own to face China.

    What are your thoughts on this analysis of mine.

    • Amit says:

      @Debanjan, many foreign policy scholars and even the U.S. military believe that the world is multipolar (some argue it is partially unipolar). My view is that US actions will be dictated by the structure and distribution of economic and military power (primarily).

      Currently, the U.S. believes it cannot contain China alone due to its rapid military expansion and modernisation. Till such time this is true, the US will woo India, whatever Ashley Tellis says to the U.S. government.

      Things will change if the great power differential changes and the US significantly enhances its national power lead over China. Of course also if India manages to close the gap with China (then China could change its attitude towards India).

    • Deepak says:

      Anyone with a ‘pea-sized’ brain will know FOR SURE that “YOU SIMPLY CANNOT EXPECT HELP from Uncle Sam”. Besides, West is Dying. Trust me, 10 years here and I know the world is entering a dangerous stage unfortunately and Western Societies are Collapsing and losing Identities everyday! It’s on a clock here.

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