It is time to proceed firmly, and pragmatically and ‘selfishly’ pursue our national interest in all fields.
The barbaric premeditated attacks perpetrated by Chinese troops on Indian Army personnel in the Galwan river valley area has nullified the painstakingly negotiated confidence building measures for peace along the LAC. Although there is a welcome consensus between the two countries for disengaging troops in Eastern Ladakh, withdrawal from seized territory (that was not under Chinese occupation earlier) to the April 2020 status quo ante is a long way off given the scant regard China has for protocols and agreements. Already, the Chinese side has begun to lay claims to new tracts of land. Clearly, relations between the two countries are now at an inflection point.
In response, first of all, India must exercise restraint and not react emotionally or impulsively. It must pause and rethink its policies on China at the bilateral, regional and global levels. It is not the time to fall prey to knee-jerk and jingoistic calls to “settle the score”.
The only feasible option is to radically change the domestic paradigm. It is time for Indian diplomacy, military, commerce and industry, telecommunications and IT to re-evaluate their strategies vis-à-vis China. It is the time to proceed firmly, and pragmatically and “selfishly” pursue our national interests in all fields. Following the examples of many Asian tigers, India needs to be pragmatic and adopt flexible policies.
Key to this is emancipating ourselves from the shackles of outdated foreign policy formulations that may have served us well in the past 70 years. To this end, there is a serious need to jettison the term “strategic autonomy” and “non alignment” from our diplomatic lexicon and evolve a new concept of “strategic alignment”, which embodies the spirit of both terms. India’s future should be premised on a coalition of like-minded democratic countries who need to counter a brazenly aggressive China.
As I argued in an earlier article (Deconstructing Chinese strategies along LAC, 7 June), Chinese aggressive action, well beyond being only assertive, is planned to achieve its oft stated objective: to regain every inch of Chinese territory and preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The plan coincides with the nation’s two upcoming hundred-year anniversaries (the first of which comes up next year). The repetitive aggressive posturing against Taiwan intruding into their Air Defence Identification Zone, ongoing maritime threats to Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, and the renewed threats to Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are indicative of a serious shift in Chinese behaviour. China has embarked on a dangerous venture to press its claims on all territories that it believes historically belong to it. It has clearly put to rest Deng’s 24-character strategy, “observe calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”. While the world is reeling from the Covid pandemic, for Xi Jinping, this is the time to launch an unprecedented all round offensive to achieve his China Dream.
To check China’s untrammelled belligerence and ruthless quest for global domination, India should, in alignment with powerful international strategic partners, redevelop the “Tibet Card,” be assertive in exposing and opposing Chinese repression in Xinjiang, support the preservation of democratic values and autonomy in Hong Kong, and work in concert with other maritime powers to ensure freedom of navigation in the open seas and skies in the Indo Pacific and East Asian regions. Joining the newly conceptualized Pacific Defence Initiative (PDI) is also critical. This itself will bring access to foreign funds, thus freeing our own resources for economic development. In the changed global circumstances when virtually the entire world’s sentiments are stoically against the Chinese, the benefit derived from a little “give” by the Indians can be negotiated to outweigh the exponentially high “take” for it. These windows of opportunity do not come often!
Meanwhile, at the bilateral level, those who raise concerns about Chinese prowess vis-à-vis India in terms of scale and economy, should remember how a much smaller Vietnam taught China a lesson in 1979. We should also be reminded that our armed forces are battle tested in high altitude warfare, and can thwart the Chinese from creating further trouble on the border. The time has come to occupy some tactically advantageous disputed pockets in the region and then negotiate withdrawals from a position of strength. If this can be realized, it must be followed by a time bound demarcation and delineation of the LAC: an unfinished task at the time of signing the peace and tranquility agreement. This can be one major step to pave the way towards an overall negotiated settlement of the boundary question, however intractable it is, and however long that may take.
On the economic front, bilateral commerce and trade relations are inextricably linked with the livelihoods of many. Calls for boycott of Chinese products, ban on import of all items having Chinese components, stopping direct investment, restricting inflow of finance and other jingoistic reactions are impractical and un-implementable in the short term. However, immediate restrictions can be put on investments in security sensitive and critical areas of our economy. Telecommunications is one such sector.
For the medium term, trade arrangements with South Asian countries under SAPTA, the ASEAN group, and bilateral pacts with Singapore, Japan, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Vietnam must be reviewed with a focus to plug gaps that aid imports from China. Violations of rules of origin must also be closely examined.
For India, becoming self-reliant and an alternative base for sustainable supply to a global value chain is a long-term strategy. This is due to the gestation period involved in developing infrastructure, specialized skills, reform of labour, land laws and the judicial system, financial reforms and work ethos and culture. Therefore, the imperative is to radically reform the economy and concomitant supporting structures and value chains. In the interim, it must significantly strengthen economic trade and technological cooperation with the advanced countries of the West, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Towards this end, India can benefit hugely with a reconfigured foreign, internal and security policy based on a new, pragmatic concept of “strategic alignment.”
Krishan Verma is a former Special Secretary to the Government of India, Cabinet Secretariat.