Saturday, 3 December, 2022
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Jaishankar wants equilibrium with China. But Beijing is playing a whole different game

Xi Jinping wants obedient clients, not independent partners. Galwan had to be the place where it finally dawned on India that ties with China are only possible with military strength.

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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 Despite prolonged and frustrating negotiations, Beijing has not withdrawn its troops from the Depsang Plains, Gogra and the Pangong Tso region in Ladakh.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.

Also read: World has lot riding on India, China and problems are well-laid out, says Jaishankar

Misplaced priorities

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.

Also read: India is losing the battle — 5 things Modi must do to rescue his image and China policy

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.

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  1. India has done reasonably well despite covid19 situation which controlled better than western countries, if this is the case with case manmohn or sonia leadership in India would have been disastrous and India gone back to 50 years back on developmental activity
    On reform front Modi govt did much better than Congress govt.

  2. We have to think of out of the box solutions to this standoff. Maybe a asymmetrical or proxy war that harms chinese interests elsewhere such as the Baluchistan or Arming militants in Xinjiang. Indian army has shown aggression in reaching close to the Neck of Cpec (10 kms away from Karakoram pass). With this kind of threat to cpec, china is unlikely to move out. Weakening pakistan economically, sectarian or by use of proxies will put pressure on the chinese. We should maintain our troop levels in Ladakh until an alternative plan is found. Strengthening or choking or atleast threatening to block malacca straits can be another way to put pressure on the chinese. The new Tajikistan Pamir threat seems to have taken the Russians by surprise. India needs to use Russians and Tajik intel to destabilise Xinjiang. Hongkong, Tibet and SCS are other areas where China can be pressurised esp by arming Vietnam. Economic pressure too needs to be exerted. India has 92B trade and 60B is in china’s favour. That too can act as catalyst in a small way.

  3. India is coming to be the third largest economy soon. And India is going to be another bloc. Sounds strange that India is suffering to choose between USA and China. Dragon and Elephant can dance together in the world if it is allowed by the USA.

    • ‘India is coming to be the third largest economy soon.’

      It is a meaningless statement. India’s per capita income is very low, among the lowest.

      India will have the largest population also soon. It will have the largest number of Covids soon.

  4. The author is largely right. But blaming Modi government alone for the chinese mess is not a honest analysis. Congress and left were part of a coalition that ran this country for substantial period of time post independence. In fact Indian Left parties were perceived as Chinese supporters and sympathizers to the extent some even felt they cheered the chinese victory in 1962 against India. Many of them still work on weakening and breaking India into different pieces by playing religion, casteism and other divisions and amplifying them by playing constant politics with these tools. However if there is a general consensus around the points what this author has raised then it is well and good. We should not appeasing china and should be ready to collaborate with like minded democracies across the world to resist chinese designs. If Congress and left are elected would they do this or become a subservient client state of China signing up party to party contracts with CCP. Questions to think given our experiences with INC-CCP contract signed in 2008. Can we shed some light on what is there in that contract? How can we believe congress and left forces to do what this author is suggesting? The data proves otherwise in the last 70 years. This may be just a empty rhetoric in the Indian establishment just to cover up for the current and past incursions from China as a result of which India lost 1000 of Square kilometeres of her legitmate territory.

    • ‘But blaming Modi government alone for the chinese mess is not a honest analysis. ‘

      Your chai wallah said he is the chowkidar, he had 55 inch chest, he is the saviour of the Hindus.

      Modi was touching Xi’s feet, there is a video of him simpering with delight about his Plus One relationship with Xi, he coined the acronym STREANH (meaning STRENGTH) for India-China relationship.

      So who else should we blame ? Why are making excuses for him and blaming Congress ?

  5. Foreign minister Jay shankar is another Krishna Menon in the making! And Modi runs the risk of becoming another (defeated) Nehru! His foreign policy is as flawed as his understanding of China Pakistan. His world view about India , China and pakistan lacks pragmatism, reality and objectivity. India must unequivocally align with USA and his multilateral partners like Japan, Australia etc. BUt anything that keeps USA at equidistance (compared to Russia and others) will have catastrophic consequenses for India. He is either sold out or compromised but he is certainly bad for Indi.a

    • ‘India must unequivocally align with USA…’

      That is flawed thinking. If India did that, then when the US goes to war somewhere, it will ask for Indian troops. When the US invaded Iraq, it asked Vajpayee for troops. They wanted Indians to die on their behalf. Vajpayee’s BJP Hindus also wanted badly to align with the US, but when they thought of it, they realised Indians will be returning in body bags, and it might create another terrorism problem for India. Britain went with the US and has paid for it ever since.

      The US is not going to come to LAC and die for Indians.

  6. Before galwan episode, it was generally believed india-china operated on equal terms. Though there were skirmishes, they were all sorted without much ado. Most of the population doesn’t remember 1962 nor was there any threat perception for decades. Suddenly we have a huge security situation. Hmm who in india is responsible ??

    • ‘Before galwan episode, it was generally believed india-china operated on equal terms. ‘

      Only delusional Hindus thought this. India was never equal to China. Its economy is 1/5 of China.

  7. When you have a bigger fish to fry then you don’t need to waste your energy and resource on smaller one, I mean when a raising and powerful neighbor communist country with them we share about 4000KM boundary and most part of this are unsettled, that put us in a very strategic challenging situation. SO we should focus if at all possible to resolve our issue with Pakistan we know its not easy but we can’t simply carry issue and problem for forever, that always allow a country like to China to leverage this is upon us. We have many leverage over Pakistan to use and settle the dispute but if we leave this to just merely for a political gain and use a punching bag it not easy in future if we are really planning to go ahead with China on equilibrium path.

  8. India is led by Hindu delusions, not by objectivity.

    Objectively, India is not in the same league as China and never will be. It is 1/5 the GDP, it is 60% literate at best, population keeps growing, it is now fun by Hindu fundamentalists who have wrecked the economy and are promoting primitiveness. Jaishankar is part of this primitive Hindu culture. So what equilibrium does Jaishankar think is possible with China.

    As for the suggestion that India can only equilibrate if it strengthens its military, that requires money. Even when the economy was growing, India’s economy was 1/5 of China’s. The economy has been shattered by Modi, so it will become even smaller.

    Hindus also seem incapable of realising what they do that makes enemies. The author writes ‘In other words, the current course of action will be hard to reverse because China’s belligerence has completely unsettled India’s politics.’

    It was India that was belligerent when it scrapped 370 and made statements about capturing Aksai Chin and PoK by force. A Hindu general was boasting about India’s ability to wage a two front war. Then China called the Hindu bluff and gave India a beating. And still inflated Hindus like Modi and Jaishankar do not understand their mistake. China will from now on take land incrementally.

    • For abrogating 370 ,should India discuss with Pakistan …or China…what do you mean by belligerence? Indian govt needs to administer j&k and put it on path of prosperity…your wording of Hindus etc…for pm modi ,is a clear indication of your mindset…corrupt boot licking Congress supporters can’t digest

  9. The challenge for Indian diplomacy is to find an equilibrium with China that acknowledges the asymmetry and still allows us to protect our core interests. President Xi is different from his predecessors, which makes it more difficult to find and sustain such an equilibrium; he also intends to stay for a long time, so we cannot hope that like President Trump he will soon be gone. India ganging up as a member of the Quad is more tricky than it appears. Nor can we afford an arms race with China. The cost of stationing 35,000 troops all through winter in Ladakh itself will make us sweat. 3. EAM was inaugurated with very high expectations. He should find the golden key to charm and disarm the dragon.

    • Having chosen wickedness, and believed in delusions of Hindu grandeur, Modi supporters have to keep defending his infallibility. The general tone is to absolve Modi of responsibility for failure. The chowkidar should not be questioned. Some of them say that Modi is preparing an answer to the Chinese, which he will reveal only at a time and place of his choosing.

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