2021 strategic outlook: India must not yield any ground to China
As the New Year dawns after what seems a long 12 months wracked by death, devastated economies and uncertainty, the global landscape remains in flux. Rivalries between global players will, however, get enhanced. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused anti-China sentiment to soar worldwide, highlighted the need for diversified sources of vital supplies such as pharmaceuticals and rare earths. This has prompted countries to accelerate geo-political realignments and develop new supply chains.
For India especially, the coming year heralds a phase of new uncertainties, necessitating deft diplomacy accompanied by a firm resolve not to yield ground on issues of sovereignty and national interest. An aggressive China, a malevolent China-Pakistan relationship and the growing strategic cooperation between Russia and China, with its attendant implications, will all be central to India’s strategic policy.
Globally, the China-United States (US) relationship is perhaps the most crucial today. How it evolves during Joe Biden’s term will be minutely watched. Any easing of policies followed by the earlier two US administrations will be oxygen to Chinese President Xi Jinping and make him more aggressive. Despite considerable US pressure, Xi has not wavered in his quest to make China a global power rivalling — if not surpassing — the US.
Though the incoming Biden Administration is yet to formally articulate its policies, the President-elect has made clear that restoring the relationship with Europe will be a priority. This sentiment has been quickly reciprocated by European capitals. Biden and his nominees for the posts of secretary of state and national security advisor, Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan respectively, have also indicated that with China they would prefer talks to confrontation. Beijing has responded cautiously, but positively.
Several Chinese officials and academics, including China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, have in past weeks reiterated the need to repair Sino-US ties, treat each other with “respect” and address common issues like the pandemic and climate change. They, and other Chinese interlocuters, have nevertheless held firm to Beijing’s position on issues where differences exist. Whether this portends a shift in the Biden Administration’s focus away from the Indo-Pacific should soon be visible. Capitals in Asia, and some in Europe, will closely monitor if America reduces its security presence in the Indo-Pacific, decreases engagement with the Quad, and whether it dilutes support to Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines on security issues. Many Chinese experts hold a thinly concealed view that Beijing wields considerable influence among the US power elite, which will again be revived. Recent US media reports mention that China is establishing contacts with persons close to the Biden camp and point to Beijing’s longstanding financial links with the Democrats, including with Biden’s son. Thus far, China’s aggressive foreign policy, its efforts to establish dominance over the South China Sea and the degree of military pressure it exerts to achieve its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, is limited by US policy. Beijing is upgrading relations with Moscow to form a strong pro-China power bloc in Asia.
For India, China is the biggest military, diplomatic, economic and environmental challenge. It is also encroaching on India’s strategic space to establish itself as the pre-eminent power in Asia. China’s leadership, which since 2014 has viewed India as aspiring for a place at the international high table, will increasingly harden its position. Pressures, like the ongoing military confrontation, will continue until Beijing perceives India is willing to acquiesce to its diktat. Beijing will also try to persuade Biden to soften US policy towards Pakistan.
As India strives to ensure good relations with the US and Russia, revive its economy and build indigenous capabilities, it is vital that it does not yield ground to China and assertively raises issues that impact its core national interests.
Jayadeva Ranade is former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
The views expressed are personal