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India’s gamble on China failed in Ladakh. But there’s a new risk worth taking

Modi government has taken several gambles in internal affairs — Article 370 to Kumbh. Now it's time for our foreign policy.

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The deadlock on military de-escalation in Ladakh continues. It might turn out to be another example of China’s perfidy. India has had sufficient historical experience with China’s use of agreements for buying time and deceiving us. The 2018 agreement for defusing the crisis in Doklam and its subsequent military occupation of the rest of the Doklam plateau is fresh in memory. It should have warned us about the dangers of China getting India to withdraw from a tactically advantageous position at the Kailash Range in Ladakh and then using delay tactics to keep India under pressure.

China’s strategic behaviour can only be interpreted if one views the military moves in Ladakh in the broader perspective of China-US geopolitical rivalry. China’s ambitions that generate its geopolitical compulsions are no longer being concealed. Xi Jinping is claiming that the US and China are now virtually equal powers and it is only a matter of time before China surpasses America economically and, if some Chinese claims are to be believed, even technologically. At the same time, China believes India can be an impediment to its ambitions. But only if India’s partnership with the US exploits a geographic reality steeped in the maritime domain and threatens China’s dreams of predominance at the global and regional geopolitical table.

For China, India’s geographic endowments and its deepening partnership with other maritime powers like the US have to be weakened in order to fulfil its political ambitions. Beijing has for long pursued a strategy of keeping India contained within the subcontinent and used Pakistan as a cat’s paw. This perceived geopolitical compulsion of China must form the framework for India for dealing with China. But it seems that our policymakers often miss this big picture.

Also read: A defence minister with military background — a risk India needs to take

China gamble failed, rescue mission matters

India’s shift in strategy was finally heralded when the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement was signed in 2005. Prior to this, India had already signed an agreement for the US-India Defence Relationship, which set priorities for defence cooperation in maritime security, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and counter-terrorism. This shift was fuelled by China’s strategic assertion that manifested in increasing its military, especially maritime, capabilities and the US’s efforts to counter it by incorporating India in their plans.

By the time these agreements were signed, it was evident to India that dealing with the growth of China’s national power, specifically its economic heft, would require cooperative efforts with nations having common interests.

India pursued a dual policy of attempting to simultaneously expand its cooperation with the US and with China. Our efforts at cooperation with China held up several decisions regarding cooperation with the US. The challenge was to be part of the US-driven effort yet maintaining a public posture of an independent player in the larger game. The pretence died at Galwan in June 2020 with trust between China and India becoming the major casualty. Yet, even after that, at the politico-military table, India sacrificed an important tactical military advantage and trusted China in Ladakh to follow up on its promises that were only part of a discussion but not an agreement. It would seem to have been a high-risk gamble by the political leadership that appears to have failed.

In any political landscape that is in a state of flux, nations have to take gambles. The overarching framework of India’s political arithmetic must be the quest for a multipolar world order. India can no longer delay the gambles it must go on to take. The US gambled on China during the Cold War and thereafter. In hindsight, it was seen that the gamble failed as China managed to deceive the US and become a power that now seeks to overthrow its hegemony. This is not an unusual tale in international politics and strategic affairs. Gambles often fail, but it is the rescue act that finally matters. India has gambled on China and failed. The rescue act that has to follow must primarily gamble on its relations with the US and China. Depending on this foundational decision, India must shape its relations with others. For instance, it will also mean a gamble on India-Russia relations that rest on the future contours of US-Russia relations. That may be a risk worth taking considering the strategic underpinnings of the current China-Russia and India-Russia relations.

Also read: Indian Army has new strategies for Pakistan, China: Punitive deterrence, credible deterrence

A gamble India must risk

We need to remind ourselves that strategic autonomy means that India should retain and maximise the ability to decide for itself the path it wishes to follow based on its own assessment of the geopolitical landscape. Cooperation with others to defend common interests is not a loss of strategic autonomy, though it certainly is not a one-way street. It is the nature of cooperation that makes all the difference. In most cooperation agreements that India has signed, mutual consent for joint action is a common and essential principle.

In the strategic space, the signing of three foundational agreements of LEMOA (2016), COMCASA (2018) and BECA (2020) with the US signifies the downstream operationalisation of earlier political agreements and joint statements. The Ladakh issue would certainly have had some impact on India’s decision on BECA and Quad. Similar agreements have also been signed with Japan, Australia, France and the UK. What is obvious is that deterioration in India-China relations is integral to the signing of these agreements. The Joe Biden administration lost no time to resurrect the Quad and broaden the scope of cooperation. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan should taper the Pakistan factor in India-US relations.

What requires firming up is the political calculations in the context of India-China relations. One of the narratives that should influence our moves with China is the political self-confidence gained through the Ladakh military confrontation. India cannot let its guard down on the northern border, though the economic impact of Covid-19 on military preparedness would be felt in the mid to long term.

So far, Pakistan has publicly adhered to its strategy of inflicting a ‘thousand cuts’ on India, to keep the country off balance. Now India must cater for a deepened China-Pakistan nexus that will adopt the same strategy to keep India in check. Bilaterally, in this game, China holds more cards than India. But what also matters in the real world is that China has more adversaries than friends. India, however, has more friends and fewer adversaries, and the conversion of goodwill to cooperation across multiple domains is the gamble India must take. While cooperation must be pursued, for planning and preparations, India must be ready for a tenuous coexistence that can spill into confrontation and even conflict.

Also read: Year after first big India-China clash in Ladakh, tensions linger. This is how it all began

National interest first

China-Pakistan hostile acts in multi-domain spaces can take varied forms due to possibilities of scientific and technological advances and its exploitation by human agency for mischief. India should evolve its graded actions and reactions to deter this nexus across multiple domains. Apart from military threats, weaponisation of economy, cyber, technology, space, information, among others, must be expected. Their operating techniques, both covert and overt, could be debilitating over a period of time, in contrast to destruction or damage in a short period. The preparations and counteractions must be shaped to check China’s aim, which is to contain India to the subcontinent.

India’s confrontation with China and Pakistan in the continental space of Euro-Asia is where Russia also plays a significant role. India will have to deal with this mostly on its own. The cooperative dynamic can be reasonably expected to be different in the security domain, especially in the maritime, cyber and intelligence space, due to the interplay of common interests with strategic partners.

Several gambles in internal affairs have been taken by the Narendra Modi government. Demonetisation, Article 370 and Kumbh Mela being some examples. India’s rescue efforts, if required to address failures would be challenged by the devastating political, economic and social impact of the ongoing Covid pandemic. But India’s fundamental potential to deal with its developmental and security challenges is amenable to exploitation through calculated political risks as long as it is done by putting the nation’s interests above narrow partisan political interests. In statecraft, gambles must be taken, but their real intentions must be to achieve people’s welfare.

Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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