In any tense situation, finding equilibrium is not easy. And when the situation involves revisionist China, it is even more difficult. India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, has expressed New Delhi’s long-cherished desire to achieve “some kind of equilibrium” with China after overcoming differences. But the biggest question is: how to find equilibrium with a state whose lopsided, consistently hostile policies have seriously undermined India’s fundamental interests on territorial sovereignty and counter-terrorism efforts? Despite prolonged and frustrating negotiations, Beijing has not withdrawn its troops from the Depsang Plains, Gogra and the Pangong Tso region in Ladakh.
Fortunately, the Narendra Modi government has taken a slew of measures in response to China’s aggression at the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. The aim is to rebalance the country away from Chinese imports, and closer coordination among other democratic nations — such as Japan, South Korea and Australia — sharing similar perceptions about China.
On critical decisions relating to China, India’s policy has usually been balanced between its political and security concerns and the economic opportunities. But the frustrating truth of the matter is that security is not and can never be divorced from economics. If the defence establishment and intelligence agencies seemed to tilt in a more cautious direction, many others would demand closer economic embrace.
The synthesis was characteristically a position that was well in tune with the mainstream global approach to China. This approach translated into a few consequential decisions including the go-ahead for Chinese involvement in almost all economic sectors. However, luckily, India did not sign into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is conceptualised as a Chinese stratagem to integrate client and subservient states into a Chinese bloc, in preparation for future conflict with the West.
Although the Doklam stand-off in 2017 did infuse a more sceptical view of China into India’s decision-making processes, the so-called ‘Wuhan consensus’ made sure that any attempt to think more seriously and strategically about China was rendered difficult. But the benefits looked rather skeletal: cheaper goods, and the dubious advantage of a better relationship with a China, which made India see it as weak, amenable to pressure. The Modi government nonetheless remained resistant to reaching the inevitable conclusion that business as usual with China has become unsustainable.
Despite China’s criminal unwillingness to engage in serious diplomacy to demarcate the disputed boundary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to believe that his ‘informal summits’ with Chinese President Xi Jinping would give India more breathing space. Although he probably thought that strategic competition would continue between India and China, Modi saw no reason why such competition should rule out diplomatic expediencies designed to serve the interests of both neighbours. But Xi wants more obedient and subservient clients, not independent partners. No foreign policy realist would have sanctioned China’s unjustifiable refusal to engage in meaningful and substantive negotiations with India.
For many years, India’s ruling elite has been entirely absorbed with a single, all-consuming problem: Pakistan. Indeed, almost nothing about India’s global position on any major strategic issue was going to be lucid until India’s Pakistan problem was solved, so the excuse went. It was conveniently forgotten that India’s Pakistan problem is nothing but an extension of its China problem. When India’s ruling politicians finally emerged from the dark tunnel of domestic politics rooted in majoritarian impulses to contemplate the world around them in the middle of June 2020, it had become a starkly different place.
India’s choices are now set against a backdrop of intensifying confrontation with China, fracturing of global trade networks, the securitisation of trade, and a rising dictatorship in Beijing. The level of diplomatic, economic and military belligerence exhibited by China has considerably deepened concerns across the Indian political spectrum.
No doubt, some of India’s counter-measures seem to have a certain boldness about them. Inventive energies in the Indian government seem to be applied towards everything from supply chain to sanctions to indigenous manufacturing. However, any serious plans to rebalance supply chains should happen in close coordination with partners. Since it is not possible to pursue an isolated approach, the salience of the Quadrilateral alliance between India, the US, Japan and Australia has also increased.
What Galwan made clear
There are question marks over how resilient New Delhi will prove under Chinese pressure — the wavering in India’s approach to China in recent years hardly implies a coherent policy. Perennial sceptics and the champions of ‘strategic autonomy’ might still argue that an extremely tight embrace with the US and its allies would prove counterproductive in the long run; Washington could undertake policy changes that leave India surprised and in a bind. Well, this is not beyond the realm of impossibility. But what other viable options does India have?
In other words, the current course of action will be hard to reverse because China’s belligerence has completely unsettled India’s politics. After all, politics is the engine generating the energy that drives policy and, therefore, strategy.
While the political leadership needs to remain alert to the possibility of surprising events that would require a comprehensive national response, one should remember that the complex interplay of geopolitics and human behaviour often provide powerful tools for strategic anticipation.
Eventually, Galwan had to be the place where it finally dawned on India that any mutually agreeable accommodation with China is only possible with sufficient military strength. If we see heightened Indian restrictions on Chinese investment and technology, a larger Indian military presence in both the Himalayas and the Indo-Pacific, and incentives to reduce reliance on the Chinese in strategic economic sectors, then the need for closer integration with partners will only grow. Before the Galwan tragedy, one could still buy the argument that having to choose between the US and China was India’s strategic nightmare. Is there still any doubt about the path India should undertake?
Important global players seem to be realising that a successful approach to China can only be pursued in concert with others, as reflected in the proposed ‘Group of 10 Democracies’. What that means is not a constricted set of diplomatic positions but a whole gamut of economic, technological, intelligence, and military alignments. Clearly, the nature of China’s strategic culture and Xi’s leadership has already complicated all efforts at finding equilibrium in China-India relations. There does not seem to be any possibility that Xi would accept Modi’s recipe for an Asia where dragon and elephant could dance together. India should, therefore, rebalance its priorities to ensure its own interests are always taken care of first and foremost.
The author is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.