Prepare for a new, aggressive China
To deal with Xi Jinping, India must build stronger deterrence. Don’t expect support from others
The carefully built and nurtured framework of cooperation with competition with regard to the India-China relationship in the past two decades has been demolished in the wake of the clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and China’s attempt to coerce India through massive military deployment in Aksai Chin.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously said, in December 2006, that a fast-growing India and China can each pursue their respective ambitions despite inevitable competition. “My own view is that the world is large enough to accommodate the development ambitions of both countries,” Singh told Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
That was the Hu Jintao era in China. Fourteen years later, Hu’s successor, President Xi Jinping clearly doesn’t believe in either cooperation or competition. As China’s self-appointed supreme leader for life, Xi has ambitions to make China the unchallenged hegemon. He has long abandoned the widely-quoted 24-character dictum of Deng Xiaoping, who told the Chinese Communist Party, “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” Xi, instead, feels China’s time has to claim global leadership has come. And, to achieve this, he would not mind using a combination of coercion, inducement and brinkmanship.
No matter how the current border stand-off with India gets resolved, it is difficult to envisage the India-China relationship returning to the old normal that we saw in the first 19 years of this century. Admittedly, the power differential between China and India has grown over the years. Beijing has cleverly been using this period to make inroads both into the Indian market and India’s traditional geopolitical backyard even as New Delhi took its eyes off the ball. The bilateral trade deficit has grown alarmingly; India’s influence in South Asia now has to increasingly compete with China’s inducement-laden policies in smaller countries in the neighbourhood.
With a more assertive and reckless China determined to open new fronts across the globe, India will have to draw some lessons from countries with similar problems. It is noteworthy that China today has a dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, and is locked in territorial contestation with Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia in the South China Sea, besides the long-standing unresolved boundary issue with India. In each of these cases, China employs the same playbook: Make a claim, establish some kind of a presence, withdraw, and then cite that precedent in future negotiations in addition to invoking some vague historical reference and miraculously producing ancient maps to buttress its claims.
In this backdrop, India will have to devise a new strategy to deal with Xi’s China. This will have to be multi-pronged and calibrated. It should include ways to restrict the dominance of Chinese products and raw materials, prevent Chinese tech giants such as ZTE and Huawei from gaining entry into projects under the national security matrix, and limit Chinese investment in Indian unicorns and start-ups. Some steps in this regard are already visible and should start showing results down the line. However, India will have to make haste slowly, lest these measures hurt Indian entities in the short-term.
On the military-strategic front, New Delhi is still trying make sense of the immediate reason for China’s unprecedented show of strength in Aksai Chin. Various theories have been advanced. One is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is testing its own military deployment and mobilisation effectiveness; another is that it is a message to India, warning it against any alignment with the United States (US). It could be a combination of the two, but there is also a likelihood of PLA implementing a long-term strategy of two steps forward, one step backwards, wherein it tests the adversary’s response to a sudden crisis, restores status quo ante and attacks again with a larger force to deal the final blow. The Indian military in all its four dimensions — land, air, water and space/cyber — will have to be ready for a far bigger confrontation in the not-too-distant future.
New Delhi will have to assess the current episode carefully and then undertake a comprehensive review of its strategic approach to China in the defence and foreign policy domains. While there is no choice but to stand up to China, Indian policymakers will have to come up with a grand strategy that seeks to engage Beijing at the highest politico-military level, even as it builds capabilities that serve as a credible deterrence against a China determined to become the most dominant world power by 2049 which is one of its stated aims. In doing so, India will have to be pragmatic and practical, taking into account the reality that in dealing with China, it stands alone, no matter which alliances and groupings it becomes a part of. Quad (India, Australia, US and Japan), Quad plus three, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), and the Solar Alliance are good diplomatic platforms to work with. But the world’s longest and most-contested border between India and China will have to be settled bilaterally. In this effort, India should not expect anyone’s support.