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Why has India’s China policy been such a failure? Question New Delhi’s assumptions first

Given the enormous power differential, China is expanding its influence. But India’s behaviour is difficult to explain.

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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?

Also read: Jaishankar pitches for ‘territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes’ at Quad meet

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.

Also read: In –35°C, the Indian soldier at LAC is 50% less efficient but 100% ready to fight China

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.

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  1. A good article. The facts are that India is weak compounded by beliefs on behavioural norms- a falicy. The MEA needs now to exit from its shell and show leadership on this account. In fact Indian bureacrates, civil servants and politicians need to rekilter their mindset and approach. Remove pride and upmanship and become realistic anf forward thinking. Take some risks.

    Tear up any China strategy or assumptions. They are untrustworthy and answer to ‘what us in it for them’. Now lets focus on India Inc

  2. This is pragmatic counsel, echoing all strategists from Bhishma and Chanakya to Sun Tzu and Võ Nguyên Giáp. Indeed, in the last decade India – and particularly the foreign policy establishment – seems at last to have begun the long process of waking up from its asinine dream-state of mixing up emotion with real-politik. Two old-fashioned principles should always be kept in mind:
    1. The State Department’s definition of Diplomacy as the “art of saying ‘Good Dog’ till you can find a rock”.
    2. The adage that “Strong fences make good neighbours”.

  3. The trouble is that our foreign policy is driven by irrational personal beliefs of the political leadership, and the so-called professional officials are basically sycophantic yes-men who do not use their minds, in the rare cases of they possess thinking minds. So enamored were they of China, and so full of their obsession for photo ops that they forgot the lessons of 1962: that we must stay alert, stay militarily prepared and never forget that the Chinese act above all in their own interest, and use force and deception when it suits them.

  4. If we read India’s history we can see that amongst the Hindus there is no concept of nationality except for a brief period of ten years during Maratha king Shivaji’s rule. Even after independence the Indian politicians adopted a policy that the best way to deal with China is to shut our eyes and pretend ignorance of what is happening on the other side of the border. India’s foreign policy can be defined as the eight wonder of the world as it is abstract and philosophical.

    • Caste is the main concept – as you can see in UP.

      Indians will be always mired in casteism and communalism. That is why they could never unite against foreign invasion.

  5. Excellent analysis, summarizes the issue with Indian policy beautifully. Hope the babus and especially EAM Jaishankar reads this.

  6. The word embossed in your article is criticism rather than journalism but problem you are facing that India is taking its stance in a new dimension which is bit worrying because when you started your career you wanted that india should be a defensive in nature rather than premptive But you are now acclimatizing with new era

    • China showed pre-emptiveness in Galwan. Are you saying the chowkidar of the Hindus showed a lot of pre-emptiveness in facilitating China with all those tete-a-tetes with Xi ?

  7. A good article. Modi was taken for a ride by Shi Jinping just the way Nehru was by Mao Zedong. Incidentally, the External Affairs Minister S, Jaishankar appears to be e complete fart.

    • Jaishankar is over rated. The whole BJP team is full of incapable people when put in the outside world. Jaishankar appears good to them because he wears a suit and speaks English. But he is from the shakha, and has limited brains.

    • To be caught off guard by the enemy once (1962) is a negligent mistake. To be caught with your pants down a second time, that too by the same enemy is stupidity, incompetence and worse mistake. Xi got the better of India in a strategic as well as tactical sense, at the political, diplomatic and military levels. Worse, nothing much has changed in terms of military readiness: it still takes the netas and baboos years to take the most straight forward procurement decisions, and the generals are too busy chest thumping every time they whack the deadbeat Pakistanis. Now they have lost hundreds of more square kilometers of territory to the PLA. Why the border was not properly defended even though there was a Chinese “exercise” ongoing will never be accounted for.

  8. I see that you have censored my benign comment. Surely I should not accuse you of Chinese type censorship? One would think you would encourage readership enthusiasm for your articles. My point was only that Chinese policy is driven more by economics than show boasting military strength. Those economics in this instance is exploiting mining resources in or close to the LAC (60 Billion dollars alone of gold and metal reserves in the Huayu gold mine in Lunze (Lhuntse) in south Tibet, near the border of Arunachal Pradesh, a part of India that China claims. Belt and Road initiative is another. Any chinese military expenditure claiming these will be amply covered by the monetary value of from these resources. Win win. Good luck with future articles because I may not be reading anymore.

  9. Wonderfully presented . India needs to define what it is and what it wants to be. China is no easy adversary, YES in India we have Freedom, but as an outsider looking within India, we look weak, poor and selfish. The disparity between the rich and poor is shameful. On one hand we want the mighty army of great Indian people to die for us and on the other hand all the money is made and kept by a few families and companies and beyond TATA never shared..

    China has a 50 year vision, what is our vision to build more disharmony among the citizens or more infrastructure. Only when India can treat its beautiful woman with respect , improve its internal harmony and end its over zealous tax regime will we be able to stand up tall. Lastly its about time we start respecting Bangladesh, Nepal and build a better honest alliance.

    • What you say is correct, but nowadays shakha trained fellows run the country. They are not the sort of people who can compete with modern nations.

    • Suma. You sound like a Chinese Communist. It’s shameful that you can label a good magazine as a anti national. I don’t see you fighting like our great army in freezing temperatures. We are trying to prevent a war not provoke one.

  10. The author has very conveniently forgotten that China has occupied Akshai Chin because India did not do anything then. I believe the present government has done a good thing by moving our forces to the border to show China that we mean business this time and will not adopt the wait and watch policy as we have been doing all through Congress rule.

  11. Very thought provoking article at Print, after a long long time . Policy paralysis had become an Indian trait

  12. Do we need Einstein to answer this question or pages long articles.
    The successive governments had a policy to treat the defense spending as a source of enriching themselves.
    Legally we have had no defense scams it was just that huge amount of funds just disappeared in thin air falling into various pockets.
    The talk of policy is just hog wash to hide the organized plunder.

  13. Mr.Jaishankr’s wishing the CCP and the upcoming virtual BRICS Summit in November
    where Modi is expected to Talk to Xi and clarify the ‘misunderstandis’ and maybe plan another Wuhan show that we are going towards a dark path where India will find itself in a situation where it has been put to a corner either fight or surrender.


  15. I would question three assumptions that the author himself has made.

    1. The author believes India will grow more powerful relative to China in a short time. BJP has issued a roadmap for an economy of $10 trillion in 2030 from $2.9 trillion in 2019. Right wing Indian strategists believe this target will be reached but I do not see the basis. India’s economy fell short of doubling in the period of 2010-19. I predict India will take 40 years or more to reach China’s level of $14 trillion in 2019 (inflation adjusted to $30 trillion+ in 2060).

    2. Since China does not assess India will become a global power, there is no view of India as a natural adversary. Our sincere condescension means we do not have a plan to undermine India. We want to sell products and advance loans for Belt and Road. You can disagree with the condescending assessment but it is a sincere belief in Beijing that India’s economic trajectory will be slow. It can be disproved through performance exceeding expectations, but that has not happened.

    3. China’s absolute diplomatic support for Pakistan like blocking the designation of Azhar as a terrorist does not demonstrate a plan by Beijing to undermine India’s rise. The China-Pak alliance is long-standing and is durable beyond China-India ties. For example, one of the reasons for Belt and Road is a communication link to a second coast for China. That’s a consideration in the rising confrontation with the US. Crucially for India, China does not extend a guarantee to Pakistan. This will change if India seeks a guarantee from the US through a 4-power military alliance. As a result, India will face a 2.5 front pact of China, Pakistan, and the Kashmir Valley.

    • A reasonable, balanced but docile reply from the Chinese side! But consider this- 1. India need not equal China economically or militarily but can use Quad and other formal or informal mechanisms to effectively counter and neutralize China. India has large army and the latest modern equipment can come from USA, Japan, France, Israel etc. A neutralized China will be like a caged tiger and would lose its face badly in Asia. 2. If India prepares for China , it will take care of Pak without any additional measures. In fact, thanks to Chinese adventures in Ladakh, India is treating the threat as joint threat, with or without .a formal guarantee to Pak from China.

      A changed and determined political leadership can change tactical and strategic scenario for India in no time . It is now out of its stupid Panchsheel mentality.
      Xi has badly lost the gamble in Ladakh. Better luck in April 2021, if he survives till then!!!

      • You are putting on an embarassing and vain show of Hindu bravado. Try to answer the Chinese gentleman based on his points.

        China has superior economic and military power. Its drawback is lack of freedom and oppression of Tibetans and Uighurs, stemming from the racism of the Han Chinese.

        India has been a democracy, but us sliding down an authortitarian and fascist slope, persecuting minorities – so it becomes like the Chinese, but without their military and economic strength. It will be more like Mynamar.

        Kissinger had called India the largest non-important country.

  16. Galwan incident has changed the India’s response and now we can see India being assertive and ready to take on China. We have never seen such confidence before from its Armed Forces after a clear go ahead from the political bosses.

    In fact, we should hope for a sort conflict now so that our policy against China changes for ever and we rid ourselves of irrational assumptions we make in our foreign policy, as rightly pointed out by the author.

    • ‘we should hope for a sort conflict now so that our policy against China changes for ever…’

      You must be a brave RSS Hindu living safely in the US.

  17. Let’s have a follow up article focusing on solutions.? For instance why is India not following China’s lead on mining gold, lead, and zinc resources along its side of the LAC. This would help fund the LAC’s high cost of infrastructure and defense implementation. Our geologists should be leading our strategy too.

  18. Build up muscle. That starts with the economy. A 5 : 1 differential cannot be overcome through bluster or tying up with potential allies. The members of the Quad want India to be a net security provider and have very kindly renamed the area Indo – Pacific. Ladakh will raise questions whether India can in fact be a net security provider to others. Dokalam showed up the perils of trying to play that role. One of New Delhi’s assumptions that is not standing up to closer scrutiny is that there is an essential parity to the two countries. It is in India’s interest to accept contemporary reality and to secure its core interests by forging a more productive relationship with China. One on one.

  19. That’s a very incisive and hard hitting analysis which strikes direct at inherent Indian naïveté whether it is at state level or otherwise. We never learn and blame others. Let’s hope it does not repeat this time!

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