In the contemporary global geopolitical landscape, China has evoked more fear than hope. It has displayed an impressive capacity for political organisation to pursue its objectives. After nearly three decades of resting hopes on a China that will be a responsible power in the international system, there is now an increased consensus among most Western and Asian powers that a collective approach is necessary to tackle it.
China’s justification for its strategic behaviour rests on a historical argument of recapturing its rightful place in the world that was earlier displaced by Western imperialism. This is a historically revisionist argument that is factually correct but would also be the case for many nations of the world. This argument was earlier used for incorporating Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. As China has grown progressively stronger, it has been embarking on its other questionable historical territorial claims that particularly involve India, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. China has also created artificial islands in the South China Sea on at least seven reefs and islets and built military infrastructure on them, which includes three airfields.
China’s economic heft as the manufacturing hub of the world, coupled with its Belt and Road Initiative, has been mobilised to create a web of dependencies and influence. Thus, several nations are vulnerable to exploitation and eventual subordination. The success of this project entails progress towards a historically imagined Middle Kingdom. Combined with its growing military power, China is on a neo-colonial path and on the lookout for converting more and more nations into vassal states. Asian powers are facing the brunt of it and one of the major areas in contention is understandably the geographical space that is the lifeblood of China’s economic power – the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad pushback
The recent version of Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as a cooperative strategic visualisation, has an expanded concept of security to include several other areas. It signifies the pushback to China’s rise and the consequent aggressive behaviour. The Quad finally came to acquire political ballast in February 2021 after more than a decade in limbo. For long, both India and Australia were uncomfortable being viewed as part of any cooperative venture ostensibly aimed at China. But the concurrent turn of events in both the countries has combined with the change of administration in the US to conclude that the time for Quad had arrived. India’s hesitancy was cast aside by China’s Ladakh aggression. Australia faced the brunt of China’s economic antipathy.
China is certain, now, to attempt to rearrange its pieces on the global geopolitical chessboard. Xi Jinping ought to avoid major risky ventures in an ambience where the winds of anti-China sentiments are gathering steam and greater possibilities exists of the US catalysing opposition against it. This could herald the deepening of China’s strategic nightmare regarding a combined opposition to its rise, coming home to roost. China has already foreseen this possibility and pulled Russia into its fold, a realignment that was hastened by the worsening of US-Russia relations. The support for the Quad from other European powers like France, UK, Germany and some Asean nations like Vietnam should also give pause to China. However, China will continue to pressurise the Asean from taking sides. Its plans of governing military bases and increased access in the Indian Ocean Region will remain unaffected with strengthening of the Pakistan Navy. What then are the implications for India?
China after Ladakh
India should have to brace itself for China flexing its military and economic muscles, and could be the prime target to drive a wedge in Quad. China will show little restraint in keeping India contained within the subcontinent, a geo-strategy that it has followed for long. Earlier, it was mostly Pakistan that was useful to slow down India’s economic progress, create internal instability and channel its political and diplomatic energy in diverse directions. Now, Nepal and Sri Lanka have been added to that list with varying degrees of success.
Militarily, the Ladakh tensions have temporarily eased. But further progress of disengagement and de-escalation awaited. China would have hopefully learnt the lessons on limitations of military power against adversaries whose stakes are higher and may be willing to risk escalation. If China’s Ladakh objective was related to warning India against a US tilt, the main strategic outcome has certainly worked against it and instead energised the Quad. But it also means that Beijing will strengthen its military efforts to redirect India’s resources towards the defence of the northern border so as to slow us down from emerging as a powerful maritime entity. Small doses of military tensions coupled with actions aimed to debilitate the economy, should be expected.
The other prong of containment are India’s neighbours. Despite the ceasefire on the Line of Control, Pakistan’s support for terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir is likely to continue. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan hanging in the balance, Pakistan’s Afghanistan engagement may deepen. China’s recent political machinations in Nepal have not followed its script but its presence and ability to create trouble for India through Nepal will endure. China’s efforts with Bhutan and Bangladesh have not met with much success. But Sri Lanka is vulnerable and would require continued engagement. The coup in Myanmar requires deft handling and has the potential for slowing down the execution of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Overall, India has geographic proximity, historical and cultural affiliations on its side. But it has various unresolved issues with each of its neighbours, and capability for assistance is now impacted by a weakened economy. China is the outsider with economic clout but cultural affinity is low. Also, our neighbours can be expected to play both sides. It is not going to be easy for India, at all.
India needs domestic stability, resilient economy
India’s ability to deal with China’s multiple prongs in the subcontinent is intimately connected to the goings on in its domestic polity. With a neutered opposition, the ruling elite now enjoys unbridled power. However, the Hindu majoritarian impulse in the populace has deepened communal polarisation. Several key institutions that have to act as constitutional safeguards have been deliberately weakened by depriving them of power for independent functioning. Key constitutional pillars of democracy and federal structure of the nation are being undermined, with the latest being the attempts by the central government to render the Delhi UT government ineffectual. Coupled with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and large scale unemployment, the evolving cocktail for possible internal discord could seriously hinder India’s capacity to contest China’s influence on the neighbouring nations. This factor may act as a primary drag, even if other foreign policy measures succeed.
In many ways, the Quad may mark an important strategic milestone in contemporary global affairs. However, India would also require more economic and technological support from Quad partners. In this pursuit, strategic autonomy will be stressed. Also, the Quad’s effectiveness would be enhanced if other powers are incorporated, depending on the issue being tackled and interests involved. It might increase options of many other nations from being overwhelmed by China’s coercion. China’s reactions can be expected to increase probability of varying forms of conflicts at global and regional level. India, now having come to realise the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), must not waste time in determining its strategic trajectory.
The global geopolitical chess game is moving fast. For India, there is no better way than internal consolidation, accompanied by increased cooperation with nations across the globe and with its immediate neighbours being a top priority area. Strategic tide is turning and India’s domestic political motor will be on test.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey
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