There is a growing chorus on the need to get tough on China. And India’s policy, too, appears to be shifting towards building more meaningful partnerships through platforms such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. The latest meeting in Tokyo is indicative of the rising concerns around China. This was overdue and should be welcomed. However, there are still questions to be asked.
India can change its foreign policy, but if its fundamental assumptions don’t change, we will keep committing the same mistakes. These assumptions include that dialogue can resolve all differences, and that war is too irrational for anyone to deploy. This is why the Indian decision-makers should ask themselves the following questions: Why has India’s China policy been such a failure? Why did the informal summits not resolve anything after the Doklam confrontation?
It’s not a misunderstanding
There have been plenty of warnings about the consistent Chinese opposition to India: the 2017 Doklam confrontation, China’s continuing insistence on opposing India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the neighbour’s stand on Masood Azhar are the prominent ones but not the only examples. However, India’s response to all these friction points was based on the assumption that they were all misunderstandings, something that could be corrected through dialogues and ‘informal summits’. So deeply ingrained in Indian officialdom is the idea that this is all a misunderstanding that no one should be surprised if the current confrontation is followed by another effort at resetting relations through more dialogue that is also bound to fail, eventually.
If these assumptions are not dropped, India risks returning to the same flawed policies as before. Put differently, assessing the failure on China requires examining more than the policies themselves. It necessitates interrogating the basic assumptions behind these policies.
Although there are many questionable assumptions underlying the Indian strategic policy that must be probed, two are particularly important. The first is the assumption that all disagreements are the result of misunderstandings and misperceptions that can be resolved through dialogue. In other words, there are no fundamental, unresolvable conflicts of interests between States. The informal summits in Wuhan (April 2018) and Mamallapuram (October 2019) between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were the result of this assumption.
The problem with this assumption is that between two competing nations, some fundamental interests are always incompatible, and they are not amenable to negotiations. For example, a growing and stronger India is not in China’s interest. There is no way that India will be able to convince China that it is otherwise. Thus, China will continue to undermine India and seek to balance it in South Asia, as well as in international forums. This is not the result of any misunderstanding, and there is no way to negotiate this difference.
By the same token, China will expect India to counter-balance, and will not believe if India says it is not doing so. Thus, any effort by New Delhi to convince Beijing that it is not balancing against China is bound to fail. This is precisely why the informal summits and other Indian efforts to go slow on balancing efforts, such as resisting an expansion of the Malabar naval exercises to include Australia, or the constant reiteration that the Quad is not directed at China, will not convince Beijing. But the Indian assumption that it can explain away these contradictions prevents it from accepting the fact that China will not be convinced.
Consider an alternative: China’s behavior is normal and should have been expected, both in Ladakh today, and even back in 1962. States compete and worry about each other. And culture, ideology and history rarely ameliorate such tendencies. These worries are not always amenable to resolution because these interests are sometimes fundamentally incompatible. As two powerful neighbouring states, India and China were natural adversaries. From China’s perspective, bringing India down a peg or two in 1962 was worth the cost of a break in what was anyway going to be a conflictual relationship. Moreover, Beijing would have assumed that this was how New Delhi would have seen China too. It was clearly unconvinced about Jawaharlal Nehru’s reassurances, much as they have been with Indian governments since then, including the Modi government.
What we have today is a replay, despite 1962. Given the enormous power differential, China should be expected to exercise its might and expand its influence, and that’s exactly what it is doing, even if somewhat badly. The Indian behaviour is more difficult to explain.
Passive approach to military action
The second mistaken underlying assumption in India’s policy is that deliberate use of military force is somehow distasteful, not something that decent, ‘responsible’ countries do. With the exception of Goa and Siachen, India has not initiated the use of military force. Even Siachen, perhaps, does not belong in this category because it was a defensive and preemptive action, driven by fear that Pakistan would take control of the glacier.
But because Indian policy is driven by this assumption, New Delhi assumes that others, too, will follow the same. Thus, India is repeatedly surprised when others resort to force, whether it is Pakistan or China, or even the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the 1962 war, then government, encouraged by prime minister Nehru himself, assumed that Indian and Chinese military moves were some form of elaborate chess, and that China would not go to war with India.
We were witness to that again in Ladakh this year, when reports about China amassing troops for a military exercise in Tibet did not lead to a counter-deployment by India. The seriousness of initial reports of Chinese incursions across the LAC were dismissed too. Though India took some bold military initiatives in August by capturing strategic peaks on the south bank of Pangong Tso, it is doubtful that New Delhi will initiate hostilities, despite being the aggrieved party. We can only hope that this, too, does not translate into an expectation that China will not initiate hostilities either — that would be a dangerous mistake.
The refusal to assess its mistakes, seriously, is an unfortunate tradition in Indian strategic policy. Even after the denouement of India’s China policy in 1962, there was no questioning of why India made such a gross mistake. The 1962 war was seen as the result of either Indian mistakes – India’s Forward Policy – or the consequence of Chinese aggressiveness and ‘betrayal’. The advantage of both these explanations is that it did not require any questioning of the fundamental assumptions behind Indian policy. India simply built more forces to defend the Himalayan border, while continuing with the same basic policy assumptions. Unfortunately, not much has changed in over half-a-century’s time.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.