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India can’t free-ride others to limit China. It needs to lead the containment strategy

China’s behavior towards India and many others is a clear indication that the country will employ its enormous power entirely to dominate the region.

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India’s appeasement policy towards China has met its inevitable, tragic denouement. But as inevitable and tragic as this was, it will be compounded if India hesitates, yet again, to respond with clarity and purpose. Until now, every Chinese signal that the northern neighbor was engaged in a containment strategy against India, has been ignored by New Delhi. It no longer should be the case.

Moreover, until now, India has been insistent that it will not join any effort that reeks of containment of China. However, China’s behaviour, not just towards India, but also towards many others, is a clear indication that Beijing will employ its enormous power entirely to dominate the region. China is not a power that the rest of the Indo-Pacific can live in peace with. It has demonstrated that it does not respect anyone’s desire to stay above the fray. The choice China presents to India and everyone else is admirably clear: acquiesce or fight. Sooner or later, all will have to choose.

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Why the dragon must be tamed

China must be contained not just because it has killed Indian soldiers, or prevented India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or of the countless ways in which it has attempted to contain India. It must be contained because China won’t stop doing any of this. It will not stop escalating on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), or containing India, or attacking its neighbours. Containing China is not a choice, but simply the lack of it.

It will not be easy, though. China is already wealthier than all the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific combined. It accumulates more wealth each year than all of them put together. Its military dwarfs all others in the region; only India even comes close, at least along the Tibet border.

Containing this behemoth is impossible without the United States as part of the equation. The US is the only power in the world today that has more wealth, greater military power and global influence than China. The balance is definitely shifting against the US but it will take much longer, even if current trends continue, before China becomes the dominant power in an Indo-Pacific that includes the US. America’s unsteadiness is a problem but India has no other choice. Moreover, expect America to steady itself because China’s imprudence will leave it no choice.

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The containment strategy

China’s power must also be set against its disadvantages. It has antagonised most of its neighbours. Its coercive use of trade against countries, near and far, has not only raised concerns but started an embryonic movement in many countries to limit their vulnerability. While Japan is paying its companies to relocate out of China, the US is considering an Economic Prosperity Network of trusted trade partners.

Its aggression against India follows its forcible takeover of the South China Sea, brushing aside the claims of others. China demonstrates neither moderation nor self-interested pragmatism. This is a critical disadvantage that glues the coalition.

China’s geography is another disadvantage for Beijing. True, a large country with internal lines of communication has some advantages and creates difficulties for coordinating action between countries as far away as Japan, Australia and India. However, China is also hemmed in by chokepoints controlled by others, a particularly critical disadvantage for a country that depends on trade as much as China does. Coordination between different regional players can help control these chokepoints and cut them off, should such a need ever arises.

Also read: China has an Achilles’ heel. India must take the battle there from LAC

India’s reluctance won’t help its cause

But such coordinated action cannot happen if, in addition to the US, India does not participate. India is one of the most powerful countries in the Indo-Pacific, both in economic and military terms. Any reluctance by India will reduce not only the willingness of smaller powers to join a containment effort, but also affect American calculations of cost and benefits. New Delhi has until now assumed that it can largely free-ride on the balancing efforts of others and get the best of both worlds. Such buck-passing strategies work if others are motivated enough to bear these burdens by themselves. But this approach becomes risky, because everyone could suffer if all stakeholders pass the buck. Containment is an even more difficult sell if a country as strong as India continues to free-ride.

India can demonstrate its commitment by example. It must begin limiting its economic relations with China, even if it cannot completely decouple. There are not just good strategic reasons for immediately banning Huawei from India’s 5G systems, but it will also send a clear message of India’s commitment.

New Delhi also must reiterate its objection to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), and plan to militarily retake PoK, if only to cut this corridor that links India’s two adversaries.

India should become the regional anchor to build an Indo-Pacific containment of China. Although at a snail’s pace, New Delhi has moved towards the Quad mechanism. But now, it is time to put some effort in pushing this to forge a regional alliance, and possibly, even expand the grouping. Such a containment coalition should also work towards helping countries that are targeted by China with economic coercion. None of this will be easy or cheap, except when compared to the alternative.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. Entirely correct.

    I would go further. ‘India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together.’ Now with a defunct economy and human rights abuses, even that perception of a rising power has evaporated. With that combination, India will be written off. Hindus simply do not have what it takes to run a country due to their caste system and communalism.

  2. India is a hostile neighbour and its current border disputes with China and Nepal have exposed her hegemonic designs. India has a historical and consistent record of bad behaviour and creating border disputes with all its neighbours. India absorbed Hyderabad Deccan, Sikkim, Goa and Junagarh. It illegally occupies part of Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland. It has fought wars with Pakistan and China and militarily intervened in Sri Lanka and Maldives. India has also stationed permanent forces in Bhutan and has water disputes with Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.

    • None of the border disputes were started by India. India laid out conditions for acceding to Indian Union after independence. Get your facts straight! It was impossible for Hyderabad or Junagarh to be independent with the populations wanting to be part of India.

  3. India’s lack of a strategic culture hobbles its ambition to be a force in the world. NOBODY doubts that China has joined the ranks of the great powers: the idea of a G2 with America is mooted, albeit prematurely. India is often spoken of in the same breath as China because of its billion-plus population, economic promise, value as a trading partner and growing military capabilities. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council support—however grudgingly—India’s claim to join them. But whereas China’s rise is a given, India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together.

    • Entirely correct.

      I would go further. ‘India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together.’ Now with a defunct economy and human rights abuses, even that perception of a rising power has evaporated. With that combination, India will be written off. Hindus simply do not have what it takes to run a country due to their caste system and communalism.

  4. India is big enough to deal with China.It will have to make determined effort to do this on a long term basis.Only when it is capable to tackle China on its own,others may cooperate.If it joins USA,it will be as a junior partner and will have to tow its senior’s line.This will not be in its interest in the long run.Up till now India is hesitant to tackle China on its own and the result is for every body to see.

  5. India is already a part of the containment strategy in which Australia is the pivot on the Pacific side and India the other pivot on the Indian Ocean side. Common sense requires that India be seen as a friendly power by the people of this region for this strategy to succeed. Vajpayee took steps in this direction by opening up the Kashmir border and visiting Lahore but this attempt was thwarted by Musharraf (China?) in Kargil (1999).
    Musharraf after becoming President fell in line with the U.S, visited Agra and almost reached an accord with Vajpayee but this time it was thwarted by L.K.Advani and perhaps Nagpur. In December of same year there was an attack on the Indian Parliament in which curiously the name of Afzal Guru figured along with the name of an Indian intelligence officer D.S.P. Davinder Singh .This made further improvement of relations impossible. Davinder Singh remained in service as a police officer.
    The U.S. in 2005 appointed a single Assistant Secretary for both South and Central Asia. Again Musharraf and Manmohan were on the verge of signing an accord but this time after removal of Musharraf, the possibility of rapprochement was thwarted by (China ?) Mumbai attacks of Nov 2008. The present Modi government has decided to shed all pretense of friendliness towards Pakistan or Kashmir and pursue a more muscular policy of containment depending on the use of military power alone. This has led it to abolish Article 370, fragment the state of Jammu and Kashmir into union territories and declare in parliament that it was ready to shed blood to regain Aksai Chin. It also started building roads towards Aksai Chin. It is this aggressive pursuit of its policy of containment that has led to the present conflict in Ladakh.

  6. Provide more loan or investment than China in Asia-Pacific Region and India’s neighbouring countries instead of talking and talking. Brush off India’s so-called Sphere of influence. Open India’s market to ASEAN,Japan.US and others. Then you talk of taming the dragon.

  7. Completely in support of this idea of containment of China. All I want is this idea becomes the mainstream idea of India and then becomes a policy. There is no alternative. India should resist its fear that an alliance with the US would render it a second grade power. India is too big and too powerful for that to be a reality. There has to be a policy change in New Delhi and it is high time now

    • India is right to be suspicious of the US. Any alliance with the US would be one out of necessity, not out of choice. The US has a history of exploiting and blackmailing its allies, even large European countries. But that is the price we have to pay to defend ourselves against China.

  8. Weakening China by economic ways by way of infusing patriotic drive within India to manufacture and use goods imported from China and rest. Modernizing our military to counter the escalating threat from China and Pakistan. Putting more effords by strengthening economic and military ties with other powerful as well as other neighboring countries. Be vigil at border and every front .

  9. Retake POK militarily? Are you totally dumb? Do you think Pakistan is pushover? Don’t you REMEMBER what Pakistan did to India on 27th February, 2019. Don’t you REMEMBER AbiNONEDONE? Don’t you REMEMBER the sentence of the century, “The tea is FANTASTIC”!!! LOL

    • It is nothing if we really want to take it back..but then we will have to kill nearly half a million people..which we wont..pakistan is not even a pushover..what r u talking about? Abhinandan? Who shot a f16 with an old mig bison…If u caught a soldier of india and that too u had to return or else war was inevitable whats pride in it? We took ur 90000 soldiers in71…we fucked u up in kargil u stand no where in economy or military aspect against us..dont be overjoyed..pakistan is just a pawn in this great game of powers

      • Let’s stick to facts. India had the chance to retake POK during the 1971 war. The government of the time refused to take that chance. In the decades since, the Pakistani military has been beefed up by American military aid, and the strategic balance between the two countries is vastly different today. India will not be able to retake POK without massive losses on both sides. Not only are the people of POK against India (look at how they responded to Abhinandan) but the government has managed to convert Indian Kashmir’s mostly pro-Indian people into anti-Indians. The insurgency that would result from retaking POK risks spilling into the rest of India, which is just not worth it for some wasteland. Also, the IAF did not shoot down an F-16 with an MiG-21 Bison. Abhinandan got a lock on the F-16, but despite the government’s claims, no evidence exists that the plane was hit and taken down. The only fragments found were of the missiles fired by the F-16.

  10. Totally agree with all the points made here. With power one ideally hopes, great responsibilities would come but China has time and again shown that it will do the opposite. From economic terrorism to now using force to threaten its neighbors , its time China is brought down the high horse. Economic sanctions are the best way to tame it.

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