There are glaring dissimilarities in India’s foreign policy stances towards China post the military disengagement in Doklam 2017 and the ongoing one in Ladakh. The former was followed by a reset that resembled closeness and acquiescence through informal summits in Wuhan and Mamallapuram while the latter seems to have prompted a distancing from China that was exemplified in the elevation of the Quad meeting to the level of political leadership on 12 March 2021 wherein Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that “members of the Quad will be closer than ever before”. Remarkably, for the first time, a joint statement was issued which was followed up by a joint article by the Quad leaders was also published in The Washington Post and China’s reaction is awaited. Meanwhile, it was not surprising that China was stalling the disengagement process in Ladakh.
While one can endlessly speculate on China’s motives in Doklam and Ladakh, what matters ultimately is the strategic effect of Chinese military aggression on India. Loss of trust cannot be cranked up impetuously. In any case, the Wuhan and Mamallapuram facade has perished and the reality of China’s perennial perfidy should forewarn and prepare us to exercise greater circumspection and watchfulness.
Political will and military might
India’s military reaction in August 2020, through pre-emptive actions on the Kailash range in eastern Ladakh, probably provided the impetus for the ongoing disengagement process that has somewhat reduced tensions on the ground. But with China’s capability for speedy mobilisation, India will have to remain prepared for future rounds of confrontation at any place. Hopefully, China has noted that territorial military aggression is a red line that will evoke responses despite escalation risks under the shadow of nuclear weapons.
The foremost military lesson for India in Ladakh is that our military is capable of holding its own in the Himalayas as long as New Delhi does not hesitate to exercise its counter-options. Political will coupled with innovative tactics backed by the readiness to optimise military capabilities is what is needed.
The main lesson India’s political leaders can learn from Ladakh is not to get misled about the true nature and outlook of the Communist Party of China and its contemporary pronouncements. But that can happen only if India no longer prevaricates about how it perceives China geopolitically. The political acceptance of the critical strategic considerations must underpin New Delhi’s approach to India-China relations because that would be crucial in shaping India’s national security strategy.
In the long term, China’s strategy is apparently to contain India within the sub-continent because it harbours the fear of an Indian tilt towards the US in the context of its deepening rivalry at the regional and global levels. Beijing will, therefore, use the northern border, Pakistan, and other countries in the sub-continent and the Indian Ocean littoral as instrumentalities to draw India’s political, diplomatic, military and economic resources away from developing its economic and in particular its maritime power. In essence, it is a containment strategy.
China may choose not to resolve the China-India border dispute even if it professes to move in that direction. It may use the northern border and or Pakistan accompanied by economic and technological coercion to signal its provocation, if it perceives India as ‘ganging up’ with the US and other powers in the Indo-Pacific. China could also increase its support to the Northeast insurgents’ groups operating against India.
Economically, technologically and ecologically, China may continue to hold the upper hand. And yet, by itself, the weaponisation of the economic and technology supremacy can be managed by India’s political leadership, even though it could certainly impose certain socio-economic costs on us. On the positive side, and in the longer run, such negative measures will motivate India to minimise its dependence through broad-basing and strengthening our supply chain resilience. These efforts, though time-consuming, must be dovetailed to an emerging broader global consensus on the issue of reducing dependence on China. Ecologically, China could in the long term weaponise its control of Tibetan river waters. This is a multilateral issue that India should lead to catalyse collective action by downstream nations that are likely to be impacted.
One-on-one, the military power gap between China and India will continue to widen. But bilateral comparisons could be misleading because it ignores the fact that what matters militarily is relative power. China cannot possibly bring to bear its entire military power against India due to other major anxieties involving the US, Taiwan, Japan and the European powers. The nuclear weapons shadow too cannot be ignored. Technology is a crucial determinant of military outcomes but it’s not the only one. For instance, in the Himalayas, human ingenuity reflected in innovative doctrine and tactics that leverage the defensive power of the terrain is of decisive significance. Increasingly, new forms of capabilities based on novel technologies will find usage as military instruments that India must harness. The recent increased emphasis on drones is an example.
Outlining goals, not just responding
The roots of contemporary tensions in India-China relations are not civilisational but appear to emanate from the political ambitions of the Communist Party of China. Its vision of eventual global dominance is a threat to India’s interests and jeopardises the international liberal order. If India succumbs to accommodating China as the Asian hegemon, it may also seal the fate of a very large population belonging to the Indian subcontinent, Africa, ASEAN and East Asia. India is among the top six countries in the world in military and economic size, its role in global geopolitics is crucial and therefore an enlarged web of partnerships is a political and strategic imperative. The stakes are high.
India’s contemporary complex web of cross-cutting relationships in bilateral and multilateral formats is a reflection of its pursuit of improving ties on the basis of mutual interest. Even if China continues to push the notion that nothing has changed, for India, quite a lot has changed.
For India, major challenges notwithstanding, cooperation based on mutual interests should be the strategic mantra. The political leadership must be prepared for the pushbacks and tensions cross-cutting alignments will generate. Therefore, as warranted by specific political and strategic contexts, India’s strategic partnerships must be structured by identifying with whom, how and for what purpose collaborative efforts are undertaken. Specifically, in the India China context, outlining the guidance value of the strategic considerations could to a great extent help us firm up some crucial aspects of India’s national security strategy, which unfortunately has continued to remain in the delivery mode for nearly three years now.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.