Illustration by ThePrint Team
Illustration by ThePrint Team
Text Size:

There’s really no lack of Hollywood-style drama these days. It was apparent recently when an anonymous policy paper on China called ‘The Longer Telegram’ emerged from within the US (retired) officialdom. That’s a calculated reference to an 8,000-word telegram by then American Charge d’ Affairs George Kennan in 1946, which became the basis for the policy of containment of the Soviet Union for more than four decades.  This one could last about that long, if it is followed in full. It might not. Some aspects will stick in the gullets of those who were suckled by the ‘Soviet threat’.

Kennan’s paper was published anonymously in Foreign Affairs in 1947 and created a sensation. This one has been published by the Atlantic Council, and is likely to be equally central in setting the stage for US policy on China for this decade at the very least. Take a copy of this and keep it safe. It’s going to be important.

It gets even more interesting. In his first week in the White House, President Joe Biden may already have followed some of its central precepts. Then there is what the paper says, or doesn’t say, on India, even as our own erudite Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar delivered his own limited ‘‘strategy’’ against China. One is a tome; the other a diplomatic wish list.


Also read: Budget again shows Navy is India’s forgotten Service. While China marches to 2049 mega plan


Jaishankar’s line in the sand

First, Jaishankar’s ‘propositions’ on how to stabilise a relationship gone bad are, in all fairness, not a strategy — though the Narendra Modi government badly needs one — but a message to Beijing.

It calls for (a) adhering to all previous agreements in their entirety, which is an invitation to walk back to agreements that China has completely abandoned; (b) recognising that unilateral change of status quo/LAC is ‘entirely unacceptable’, which seems to have happened in Depsang; (c) that a peaceful border is the basis for the relationship to proceed; (d) recognition of ‘multi-polar Asia’ where India is seen as a pole; (e) acknowledging that sensitivity to each other’s interests cannot be one-sided; (f) recognising that each will pursue their own aspirations and that it ‘cannot be ignored’; (g) managing ‘divergences and differences’; and (h) as ‘civilisational states’, both countries to take the long view.

It will depend on just how ‘long’ that is. Chinese President Xi Jinping is going to be there at the helm for a very long time indeed; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not quite so much. In sum, what the foreign minister spelt out is that while ties are ‘exceptionally strained’, there is room to bring it back on track. Now weigh all this against the precepts of the anonymous US strategy.


Also read: Chinese state capitalism — a threat to US and the world, and how Biden must respond


The long view of the ‘Longer Telegram’

First, the writer is not just someone who knows China. A former senior government official, the author is also not afraid to point out US deficiencies. Consider this; “The principal US interest has often been how a particular announcement might sound to the US domestic body politic, rather than the effectiveness…in changing Beijing’s political mindset and associated policy behavior”. Sounds familiar?

Then there is the unequivocal call for an operational strategy, so close to the hearts of those who have been calling for this in Delhi for years. Just labelling a document a National Security Strategy doesn’t make it so — as was the case with the landmark 2017 National Security Strategy, which called out China as a threat for the first time, but was then eroded steadily from within.

This US strategy is so designed to be followed in full and for the long term, or not at all. No halfsies here. Most importantly, the paper warns that there is no time to lose. The strategy has to be implemented, very quickly, within the next six months. Because the gap between the US and China is likely to reduce in the 2020 decade, and serious conflict will likely arise from that. This means Delhi has to get ready to decide whether it wants to take sides in what could be a war in the South China Sea or Taiwan.


Also read: India’s defence needs money. If Budget can’t provide it, we need to change how we fight


… and then what’s to be done

The core suggestion is to not even attempt to isolate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was the Donald Trump administration’s strategy of sorts. With nearly everyone, including their first cousins — 91 million members actually — being CCP members, any such thrust to isolate will unify, not divide. The core idea is to separate Xi from the party, rather than the party from the State. Much like Pakistan’s extended Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a Chinese ‘president for life’ too will face resentments, especially when he battles ‘corruption’ publicly while his family and inner circle amass untold wealth.

Xi Jinping’s detractors (apparently many) see him as going too fast, rash in taking on the US and large parts of the world, and have watched with dismay the thrust to change the world in China’s image. All is not well, with the worst-case scenario being a sagging economy and massive unemployment, or a humiliation of an unsuccessful war. That could lead to a political putsch. Whether or not India wants to be the one to administer that slap in the face is open to question, even if it forces a ‘return to status quo’.


Also read: Why India needs two maritime theatres of command, not one


India, the US and ‘pan-allied’ strategies

Then we enter the operational aspects. The paper calls for an unprecedented ‘pan-allied’ strategy marching goose step to defeat China. That grouping doesn’t include India, which is listed as a ‘significant other’ together with Nigeria, Singapore, and Indonesia. It won’t please Delhi much, but then we are not seen as having the military or economic weight to stall Beijing. That’s to be done with a revived Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) so as to be able to jinx China’s current status as ‘the world’s indispensable economy’.

But Delhi has a role. It is to be persuaded to give up reservations on a full-fledged Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) that includes Australia, Japan and the US. Before celebrating that status, understand that this is under the subheading of “strategic competition” defined as where “interests at stake are important (but) neither existential nor critical in nature”. In such cases, use of military force is not envisaged as it would where ‘ally interests’ are involved. In other words, Quad is to be used to spook China, but not much else.


Also read: Myanmar coup shows a new chapter in the Great Game of the East is unfolding. India watching


Don’t cross the red line

There’s worse. The strategy paper very correctly calls for clear ‘red lines’ to be enunciated, such as an attack against sovereign territories of Japan or Taiwan, which would be met with all available force including tools of deterrence. The paper argues that ambiguity in stating these has led to China slowly pushing the envelope.

“Chinese leaders respect strength and are contemptuous of weakness. They respect consistency and are contemptuous of vacillation. China does not believe in strategic vacuums.” Was Depsang and other parts of Ladakh seen as a vacuum? Because there is an expectation that China will continue to be hostile to Japan and India, but any ‘large scale economic or military belligerence’ against critical strategic partners like India would be met with strong diplomacy, etc., rather than military force. That’s not surprising since India is not a treaty partner. But then, unless it’s a definite error, the paper also has certain ‘treaty partners’ in the same category. The US has 47 treaty allies; presumably, Europe, Japan, and Australia are on the top of the heap. The rest can just hang in there.

Last, the paper is embedded in harsh reality. It suggests the US to make up with Russia “whether it likes it or not”. A China that happily ignores its western border is one that can concentrate forces in the east. Delhi has been trying to get US policymakers to understand this for years without success.

It seems Washington is now listening, though not to Delhi. President Biden’s call to his Russian counterpart was not all sweetness and light, but it did agree to extend arms control treaties and aim for ‘strategic stability’. A clearer signal of following the path of this anonymous strategy paper was Biden’s call to Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga where he not only reiterated ‘unwavering commitment’ to the defence of Japan (including Senkaku islands), but also reaffirmed the US’ ‘extended deterrence’. That’s a nice thick red line.

For Delhi, the US strategy underlines the background against which our own strategic ‘propositions’ have to be weighed.

First, this decade will see a China that, through Xi Jinping and his coterie, sees itself as almost equal to the US. That’s not the kind of power that will respect any boundaries, unresolved or otherwise. Nor is it likely to see India as a ‘pole’ in Asia. Second, that very rise presages certain conflicts. Whether that is good for India or not is a matter of pressing consideration. Third, this is as clear a statement as ever of the limits of US commitment to be a ‘balancer’ in this part of the world. This raises the question of some limited bandwagoning with China as it continues its onward march, now taking much of Europe along after a critical investment agreement.

For India, China still remains the ‘largest source of critical items’. That could actually be the ‘long view’ if current border tensions were amicably dealt with first. The problem is that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian flatly refused to link the border issue with development of bilateral relations, a statement that falls neatly into Jaishankar’s ‘unacceptable’ criteria, as it should. Alternative to bandwagoning, it may be time for India to deliver a light blow, leaving the actual punch to better-armed friends. That should be done in the full knowledge that there’s no one behind you other than a very valiant Indian Army. But then we always knew that, any number of US strategies notwithstanding.

The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

VIEW COMMENTS

35 COMMENTS

  1. Frankly china is a enemy state to india..grabbing territory and impeding india joining security council. Recognizing that communist china and pakistan are permanent enemies of india and india cant go it alone the choice really comes diwn to becoming a allied partner of the west. That means india blood to defend thd west as we dud in ww1 and 2. At least a joining britain and usa and quad in treaty. Since chinese respect strength snd strength means treaty alliance. But i suspect india will go it alone and meet very bad result eg all territory taken over by china and pak. Indians will happily live after another defeat and loss ie a 4th panipat.Nothing can be done against indians soldout to china.

  2. For all its “strength” even China has tucked its tail despite persistent US slights in the South China Sea. China knows the limits of its power even if its GDP takes it to the very top- rest assured the US and Europe (should I daresay White Europe and White USA) are not going to sit idly.

  3. In my opinion “The Longer Telegram” is a poor copy of the original “Long Telegram” written by legendary George Kennan which was written as a confidential telegram to his superior from the US Embassy in Moscow. The original confidential telegram is only 5,000 words long and is a clear, succinct and far-sighted guide on how to contain the Soviet Union. The 25,000 words article written by Mike Pompeo’s team is protracted and full of contradictions. It says that China today is economically strong, integrated with the world, a major trading partner to all its allies and not like the Soviet Union that will collapse under its own weight; at the same time, it says that to force a regime change is not realistic but at the same time it wants to force the CCP to appoint a more moderate leader that is acceptable to the US. It also assumes that China wants to replace the US as the Number 1 hegemon in the world and to export its system of government without providing any proof, as China is a 2,000-year-old civilization – it’s political and economic model are not exportable. You don’t have to guess too hard that Mike Pompeo’s team wrote the paper as an afterthought after losing their jobs. For Mike Pompeo to publish an Anonymous strategic paper that plagiarized many of the style and elements of the original classic shows that he has no confidence in his strategy and does not want history to remember him as the originator of that idea. For many of the US allies this paper basically outlined what the Trump & Pompeo team had in mind when they said that they will be “tough” with China. Like all 1-term administration their bark is worse than their bite as they lost out in the trade war, tried to win domestic votes via championing the causes of all the extreme and fringe groups, tried to rally its disheartened allies smarting from US tariffs by spreading misinformation about China, but God was unkind to them as they did not expect to be walloped by the coronavirus that sank the economy and could only stay in power via an attempted insurrection. For US allies, what is obvious is the income inequality, racial discrimination, an unfettered social media and identity politics is tearing the US apart. As an ally the US is 100% unreliable as in 2024 a Trump clone could emerge and become president again just by championing anti-globalization, anti-immigration, anti-NATO, domestically to play one race against another, champion the causes attractive to all extreme and fringe groups in the US! Basically, the US and China are now on par in terms of military technology and strengths especially if the theatre of operations is just in the Asia region. At the end of the day if there is a conflict between the US and China in Asia the US will be dependent on Japan, Australia and India to be part of the frontline troops. The US can only achieve this via deceit, misinformation or coercion. All these countries have their own strategic calculation of what their future will be if they are locked into a US-led anti-China alliance. The US could turn out to be a Titanic that looked unsinkable. Remember in the Global Health Security Index 2019 published by the renowned John Hopkins University it ranked the United States as Number 1 country in Pandemic Preparedness! Well like Warren Buffet said “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

  4. the article does not take into account that modi bhai is a one man super power. the world needs modi bhai.

  5. What kind of pessimists are commenting here? They had better stick to their bedrooms. India has not given up in any battle. India will fight with whatever it has, and that is not something to be trifled with. For China, “Face” is a bigger issue. It does not want to start a war with an experienced Indian military and lose, which is likely considering the inexperienced PLA soldiers stationed at the border. A loss in battle, not even a war, can tip the scale against Xi Jinping. The Brave will win, not the cowards who are afraid of even mosquitoe bites.

    • The writer has suggested that as well where they talk about delivering a light punch. The problem is that ensuring it stays light is a big issue.
      However, you are right in your assessment that China would not like to be embarrassed by India- and even a status quo/deadlock would mean a defeat for the bigger party, i.e. China.
      The way China has behaved recently clearly means that in case of any conflict in SCS/Taiwan, India would not sit idle. We have old scores- the 1963 parliament resolution about Aksai Chin is very much there. Through thousands of years, we have not shared a boundary with the Han Chinese and would like to revert to that position.
      It is futile to think that war will hold us back. War is inevitable. Best to prepare for it. Upon destruction only do new seeds of peace and development emerge.

    • What are you talking about ? PLA took Indian land, killed 20 Indian soldiers and chowkidar said nothing happened. Instead he is pouring concrete to build barricades in Delhi against Indians.

      • Why then did the Chinese PLA not advance further after killing 20 Indian soldiers, if they are so “formidable”? It is certainly not because Xitler wanted brownie points from Greta Thurnberg, Mia Khalifa and Rihanna… Clearly Xitler shat in his pants after that Galwan incident- didn’t he hence kick out his blue-eyed General managing the Easter Border by killing unarmed Tibetans and Turkmenistanis, because his war game strategy did not work out as planned. No one in the Indian Government or the Indian Army underestimates the Chinese strength. People like you may want to call Modi names, but there is no other leader in the opposition who comes close. . Your Pappu would have signed a deal with Xitler if he guaranteed him lifelong tickets and free “hotel stays” at Pattaya with someone to comfort him.

  6. Let’s not fall into the bandwagon and instead start fresh thinking. There is no point in seeing China as a foe. Instead think of ways in which we can offer them carrots in return for permanent peace. We should also think in terms of strategically alienating Pakistan from China.

    • Your thinking is better but is beyond the comprehension of bhakths. They are better at fighting within the country. The country is unravelling from inside with erosion of economy, democracy and rights, deep divisions between Indians with CAA-NRC, farmers protests, and communally loaded counter protests organised by the govt. ….Indians are engaged with that, no time for China.

    • This is a fallacy.

      India doesn’t have any carrots to offer to dragon except it’s market.

      Economically military its a stronger state and ahead in technology specifically it’s own social media platforms and ai startups.

      With past 70 years as testament, India has lost its territorial integrity repeatedly without any concrete action. Exception being the 62 war.

      Dragon sees India as a hindrance to its supremacy in Asia.

      The optimism in you is based on false premise of carrot and stick. But remember dragon has been carrying stick for the past 70 years and India ends up offering carrots.

    • We were doing plenty of bootlicking to China, inviting their leader for dinners, etc, but they still stabbed us in the back at Galwan. They did it because Xi wanted to create a foreign distraction from the COVID crisis his govt had blundered into creating. Likewise, Xi simultaneously cracked down on HongKong, calculating that the more HongKongers rebelled, the more the mainland population would rally around Xi’s govt. We also saw military intrusions against Taiwan, with the same goal.

      So you have no answer to China’s aggression except to bootlick ever harder, even though past lessons clearly show it doesn’t work. We cannot be a supplicant to China. However we cannot be a hostage to a US whose special interest lobbies only want to fight Moscow and give China a free pass. We therefore have to cultivate more cooperation with Japan & Australia, and encourage them to push back against America’s myopic policymaking.

  7. I heard President Biden’s eighteen minute address to the State Department, laying out his foreign policy priorities. The word India did not figure even once. One looks forward to several columns from Ms Jyoti Malhotra to tell us all that is going on.

    • Once I listened to the World Economic Forum news on NDTV. According to this, Modi was the centre stage, his photo opportunities were shown, and it was projected that New India was on the world stage. Then I watched it on BBC. They had coverage of speeches by US Pres., Theresa May, Macron, Merkel, Putin, Xi, even Erdogan – but no mention of Modi.

      Kissinger once said India is the largest unimportant nation. That has not changed. It is just that Modi says India is Vishwa Guru and claims the world is enthralled with Yoga, and his bhakths believe that. All it takes is Rihanna or Greta to make a tweet and the skin is punctured, and Indians fly into a rage.

  8. “The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. ” Profile of the Author. Good Good Extraordinarily good. Just as a matter of curiosity would like to know how many such tomes the Author during the aforementioned produced.
    This just a fox crying about grapes turning sour.
    I was considering to pay for the Journalism. If this were the quality of studies to be brought about it may be worth to wait for some other better press.

  9. The border issue will not be solved: consider the statements by the CCP mouthpieces; that Chinese forces can reach New Delhi in a matter of weeks. This intent of this savage CCP media threat is economic; investors will have to think twice before investing in a region at the mercy of the PLA. This is only one among the many issues as to why the CCP views a resolution of the border as inimical to its interests. The border needs to remain a hot spot and pressure points necessarily need be applied to its advantage. As long the massive numbers of troops are amassed at the border, which is a lot closer to New Delhi than it is to Beijing, the whole of the northern part of India will remain unstable. The CCP profits by the current status quo. As such it may not be in China’s interests to attack but conversely, if an attack is initiated by China then it should be viewed as an opportunity. Any and all incursions should be violently resisted. All measures must be taken to ensure that the world knows of what is happening at the border from the Indian side since no one trusts CCP propaganda outlets. If the Indian army can repel CCP’s aggression then Xi will be standing on a stool with just three legs.

  10. This article sums up India’s policy for the last 70 years towards China or no-policy at all. The more you read the more you are confused and shows how lazy India’s policy makers are. There is no choice to India other than losing territory in a big way as we keep begging west to fix all our problems

    • We are also too busy creating our own problems. They are spending a fortune to fortify Delhi – bringing in barricades, barbed wire, pouring concrete. Create one internal crisis after another just to be in power – demonetisation, CAA-NRC, Delhi riots, farmers law…..In those circumstances, China can take land and Indian govt. kept quiet. They do not have the competence to counter China diplomatically or militarily.

    • How right you are, but the present dispensation will blame, Nehru, INC and some other outfits instead of seeing the problem in the eye.

  11. Unless America has come up with a work from home (WFH) strategy for containing China …it cannot be done without India. Not paid like fat professor but after Trump dumbness it seems has not gone out of fashion so few cents for poor rich Americans. One thing that Xi has done is taken pole position in areas where China could be needled…. Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, whatever dashed line in South China Sea and India. I am not counting Tibet as West was too scared to raise it when China had begging bowl. Even for argument who would ever field troops against China – US or Europe. Which ever side India goes will win. Stalemate between US and China (and equi distant India policy) also will result in US losing. Wrong policies after 2001 (which included supporting China’s rise ) led to Trump and rise of right. Biden has just scraped through …and there is little breathing space but mess it this time. US and Western people wont take it easly no 2 position…if they cannot vent out as it is WFH strategy next time mobs will not be so tame in Western countries.

  12. Well done Tara Kartha, I understand your space constraints for a complete analysis of this 85 page document, a full critique and analysis of this forward think document will probably take thousands of A 4 size pages.

    I am confident that with your abilities and the resources at your disposal and the combined Brain Capital of the team at The Print, you folks will be able to tell us all the name of the anonymous of this brilliant “Approach Paper”. Frederick Kempe, would be a good lead.

    Our mandarins could be seen as intellectually challenged in their response to China.

  13. The Real enemies of HINDUS are jihadist and ultra left wing radicals who are intent on creating strife and hurdles in progression of INDIA and are taking instructions from pakistani and chinese handlers.

    We need to reduce population with strict population control measures and ensure MODERN SCIENCTIFIC EDUCATION for all instead of feeding fake history wherein rapist and MURDERERS and criminals are described as benign rulers.

    Unless opinion writers are BRAVE enough to accept only HINDUS have a stake in advancing INDIA scientifically and economically as this is their “JANMABHUMI AND PUNYABHUMI ” they will not be objective in their assessment.

    • Never mid opinion writers – Modi was BRAVE enough to accept only HINDUS have a stake in advancing INDIA scientifically and economically as this is their “JANMABHUMI AND PUNYABHUMI ”.

      He advanced India with demonetisation, and scientifically with gobar. He has taken care of Jihadis and and ultra left wing radicals. What is your insecurity about ?

  14. The only sentence one understands is the penultimate one. Think you are all by yourself. We need friends, and the United States is head and shoulders the most valuable one. But the ultimate stress test for our China policy is what we are capable of on our own. Pragmatism, realism, not recklessness, adventurism would be one’s humble suggestion.

  15. This is insane. Deliver a light blow? Worrying about the distribution of ground troops around China? Does anyone really think that a military attack on China is an option for India (or the US, for that matter)?
    India’s protectionism, persistent class system and rising nationalism over the past decades has consigned it to the also-rans. It can barely keep level with Pakistan, a country with a seven times smaller population and a ten times smaller economy. If it wants to improve its status, it shouldn’t look for war, but start building better relations with its neighbours and become a more productive player in global institutions. But most of all it needs to start fixing its economy, its social structure and its religious fanaticism. Doing so without improving its political system is going to be almost impossible.
    Those are heavy loads to carry, but they have the benefit of actually improving the situation, rather than simply distracting the people with external enemies.

    • Ha ha ha, the mouthpiece warriors have arrived. These types are lately seen in all India China related strategic articles and videos.

      This is the same economy which is forging ahead with COVID vaccines for our neighbours as well as friends. Again, where did the virus originate from?

      This is the same system of democracy, under which the army functions, which gave you a bloody nose so much so that CCP even shrudders to acknowledge the fallen. Again, for whom does PLA work for?

      Man, grow up and stop drinking CCP-aid. Come summer, any attempt by CCP will be met with appropriate response.

      That would be the soft blow which would crumble your superior system.

    • Time for Pokhran-3. We need to demonstrate thermonuclear weapons capability. That will make the Chinese understand how serious we are.

      • Try employing your entire nuclear arsenal against China and let’s see what follows. I can assuredly tell you that every Indian in India will be incinerated – surely no need for funeral pyres. India will be wiped off the map forever. Threatening China with MAD will not work. Why? Because India’s nuclear arsenal is miniscule compared to China’s. Boastful talk is self-deceiving and is a tool of fools. China today is at par with the US in military might, if not a notch or two higher. Russia is a few steps behind China. Financially it is stronger than the US. In fact the US is China’s biggest debtor. China’s economy is performing better the the US and it has clearly overtaken the US. At best the US can only dispense lip service to India as a show of support and solidarity. So what does China think of India. Well, not very flattering. It treats India as a pile of rubbish fit to consigned to the incinerator. So keep slumbering and having sweet fiery dreams, India. Cheers.

    • On the contrary, it is precisely what is needed to bring your communist middle kingdom to its knees. Another poster put it best that whichever side India is on will win. It is more than clear China doesn’t want India to remain in its side.
      Hubris has been the reason for the downfall of many a mighty empire and we may be near to another one.

    • ‘India’s protectionism, persistent class system and rising nationalism over the past decades has consigned it to the also-rans.’

      Well written. In India it is more than class system – it is caste system. It is a holy cow, it cannot be tackled. Nationalism in the days of the freedom struggle meant something noble. Today nationalism is just ethnic and religious supremacy which divides society, but provides the elite in the majority access to power and wealth.

  16. US is saat samandar paar.

    If Indian mindset is to use it as a leverage against dragon then whole Indian bureaucracy needs to fired right away.

    Even by stroke of good luck US provides material support to India, by the time it reaches India, somebody’s gonna get hurt real bad, not dragon, but somebody.

    To be blunt this is India’s fight. As the parity diminishes further and further, she has to decide whether to standup or surrender without a fight. No ones is going to fight her battle.

    Diplomacy is euphemism to stall facing the reality as has been evident in past 70 years and now becoming glaring.

Comments are closed.