Foreign policy and military affairs cannot be hijacked by sporadic outbursts of national sentiments, rather they need to be goal oriented, long-term and sustainable.
In the aftermath of the murderous attack and changes in the Chinese coordinates of the LAC at Galwan, the “disengagement” and creation of “buffer zones” at the points of friction, and continuous build-up along the India-China border, it is time to re-evaluate India’s China policy, and undertake a comprehensive shake-up and calibration, keeping in mind present and future challenges.
Having inherited imperialist and imperial legacies, India and China were bound to be on a path of collision, irrespective of a nationalist or a communist regime in Beijing. Undercurrents of the coming storm were felt in 1947 when Luo Jialun, ambassador of the dwindling Chiang Kai-shek government, objected to the map that showed Tibet outside of China, during the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi. Even though India severed relations with the Republic of China on 30 December 1949 and recognised the communist government barely after three months of its inception, the clouds over India’s foreign policy challenges were about to darken, for the two countries were poles apart in terms of ideology, social system, approaches towards Tibet, border and leadership roles in the region and beyond. India’s “steadfast” neutrality in the East-West conflict, its policies of anti-colonialism and pan-Asianism, as well as ideals of world peace, in fact, put the need for understanding Mao’s China into oblivion. This might have enhanced India’s “international standing” at a particular point in time, but the same vanished when it failed to secure its borders, assist Tibet, and defend itself against China in 1962.
Even after its Himalayan blunder, India continued to support China’s permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council in place of the Republic of China, which was functioning from Taiwan. India adhered to the principle of “One China policy”, irrespective of the fact that China made an entente cordiale with Pakistan, took possession of Shaksgam Valley in India-claimed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and did not recognise Jammu and Kashmir as a part of India, rather cast an evil eye on Ladakh. The historic handshake between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping hinted at a consensus that China would not pose a threat to India’s security and that it would be sensitive to India’s core interests. In order to normalise and diversify relations in other areas, both agreed to maintain peace and tranquillity along the border by way of initiating various confidence building measures. However, China’s desire to expand its imperial legacies on the borders and seas has tattered the consensus it has reached with India and other countries. But is China behaving really differently? I would say not really!
One, India has to acknowledge the reality of China’s rise, the asymmetries in the relationship, the dynamics of global and regional balance of power and major power relations. India needs to undertake a comprehensive review of our China policy, and restructure and recalibrate it by leveraging all instruments of state policy. India must recognise what is workable, achievable and what is not, and accordingly reshape our engagement with China on the basis of pragmatic constructivism. Foreign policy and military affairs cannot be hijacked by sporadic outbursts of national sentiments, rather they need to be goal oriented, long-term and sustainable. There should be no room for cosmetic changes, knee-jerk reactions, lip service and lopsided approaches.
Two, India must recognise the fact that China has never treated India as an equal in its modern and contemporary history. Presently, when the regional balance is clearly tilted in China’s favour, can India expect China to relent on issues such as NSG, UNSC and, more importantly, the border? China knows that these will make little differences to its relations with India, as was demonstrated by China’s eleventh hour ban on global terrorist Masood Azhar. To China, India has been punching above its weight all the while. At a time when it is being said that the LAC must be identified, let’s be clear that it will be an absolutely futile exercise, for China is not interested in defining the same, at all. The imposition of “buffer zones” along the points of friction, is nothing but China’s long-term strategy to demilitarise the LAC on its own terms. Moreover, by way of challenging the established hegemon (the US), China is emitting signals to other countries in the region and beyond. By doing so, it has announced the arrival of G2 (US and China) and forced nations to choose between the two—which perhaps is a strategic miscalculation. Contrary to Deng’s notion, China of today is willing to lead the South, drive a wedge between the US and its allies in the North, and browbeat those who are perceived as threats to the Chinese order, albeit China says it doesn’t want to alter the liberal global order that has worked in its favour so far.
Three, since China’s pivot to Asia is here to stay, it will further undermine India’s place and role in the region. Although India has deciphered this for long, but it has failed to take counter measures. The foremost policy calibration would have been to shift our focus from Pakistan to China for a number of reasons. Pakistan’s asymmetries with India are far greater than India’s with China’s; India’s GDP alone is over ten times that of Pakistan. India’s LAC with China is almost five times longer than its LoC with Pakistan. So do we require to focus all our energies on Pakistan for a few myopic electoral gains of our politicians? Do we want to drag ourselves to the level of Pakistan, especially if we aspire to be a great power? Are we not playing by China’s playbook by getting bogged down in a conflict situation with Pakistan? At best, Pakistan should be treated as a minor nuisance and be dealt with without making any noises about it. Similar questions can be asked as regards our relations with our smaller neighbours, but not without some self-examination.
Four, total decoupling from China is impossible. Therefore, we must formulate a pragmatic trade and investment policy, which hereunto has been haphazard, directionless and extremely muddled. Of late, we have been talking about erecting a great wall against Chinese tech companies, cancelling Chinese contracts and banning their participation in our business activities. Chinese inroads into India’s telecom sector started right after India’s nuclear explosions in 1998, when China vehemently lobbied for a rollback. In 2009-10, India attempted to restrict Chinese telecom companies from selling telecom gears to India’s service providers because of security threats, but when their executives met the officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, home ministry, communications ministry and the National Security Council, things suddenly became normal. A few years down the line, most of Chinese FDI was directed towards the Digital India campaign. India’s back-office-of-the-world tag disappeared from public discourse all of a sudden. Rather than developing our own apps and related platforms, India was flooded with Chinese apps, smartly on Chinese smartphones and e-commerce portals. Therefore, India must identify sectors where pragmatic cooperation with China could be realised and red flag those where quid pro quo is denied.
Five, India’s security cooperation with the US, India’s participation in the Indo-Pacific strategy, and the Quad are being viewed by China as an attempt to contain it. I have been emphasising that security has to be accompanied by solid economic engagement, which at the bilateral level may be possible in certain areas, but could be a challenge at the multilateral level. The security budget allocated by the US to Indo-Pacific is abysmal, a mere 0.3% of its total military expenditure for the next one year. As for India, I don’t think we have lodged the Indo-Pacific strategy in our foreign policy and military consideration, for India’s economic, military and diplomatic engagement in the Indo-Pacific remains very low. India cannot be a lynchpin in this strategy as long as it doesn’t enhance its internal economic and military capacities on the one hand and build solid economic and security alliances externally on the other, both being mutually inclusive.
Finally, India’s economic growth and its capacities to handle domestic and external challenges will enable it to seek an understanding from China along India’s borders, as well as for its regional and global aspirations. As long as India’s growth trajectory remains weak, social cohesion and communal harmony remain in disarray, the kind of understanding India seeks from the global player will be impossible.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.