June 18, 2020The Intersectiongeopolitics

Indian unpredictability could make China rethink its game

New Delhi must also expand the canvas on which the relationship with China plays out.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

The South China Sea is thousands of miles away from the Indian heartland. Very few people in our country pay attention to developments in that part of the world, and although it has a bearing on India’s national interest, it barely figures in our self-centred public discourse. There, over the past decade, China has incrementally occupied islands disputed by several South East Asian countries, built military infrastructure on several of them, imposed its political administration, and is on the verge of declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire region, threatening military force against any aircraft that overflies without its permission.

As Prashanth Parameshwaran points out in The Diplomat, Amid the focus on China’s alleged pandemic opportunism, it’s worth keeping the sober bigger picture in perspective in the South China Sea: that China remains focused on creating a new normal where it has the ability to enforce what it sees as its legitimate claims, and that the response to Beijing’s quest has thus far not been sufficient to blunt it.” China rightly calculated that other countries—individually or in concert—would refrain from escalating a conflict with an important economic partner that also happens to be militarily more powerful. Taking advantage of its relatively early recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it has sought to push its geopolitical agenda while other countries struggle with containing the pandemic and reviving their economies.

We must see China’s transgressions—and not just the latest ones—along the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas in this backdrop. From leaving cigarette packets to attacks using barbed-wire wrapped metal rods, things have come a long way over the past 10 years. While transgressions, violent clashes and this week’s dozens of casualties attract attention, what is more revealing is the deployment of military assets and permanent infrastructure close to the de facto frontier. Unlike the South China Sea, Beijing’s actions in the Himalayas do not go unchallenged by the Indian Army. However, as my colleague Lieutenant General Prakash Menon argues, given the diplomatic and political defusing of tensions that follows, China takes two steps forward and agrees to takes one step backwards and, therefore, gains one step eventually.” Like in South East Asia, Beijing reckons that political and economic compulsions will cause New Delhi to accept China’s incremental territorial expansion. In other words, it may think it has figured Indian leaders and governments out.

That is why transgressions have also become an all-purpose foreign policy tool for Beijing to put pressure on India’s political leaders. Every time tensions flare up in the Himalayas, New Delhi wonders if their timing is signal of Chinese displeasure of something it did or did not do, and begins to think of where it can yield. Should we relent on the 5G telecom issue? Was this in response to restrictions on Chinese investments? Should we go easy on the Quadrilateral partnership with the US, Japan and Australia?

The sacrifice of our soldiers in Galwan River Valley will not go in vain if the Narendra Modi government changes India’s long-standing and unsatisfactory approach. Beijing counts on New Delhi’s predictability and rationality to get away with its slow-motion territorial expansion. To dissuade China from pursuing what it sees as a successful strategy, New Delhi should become more unpredictable and differently rational. Instead of the predictable and rational response of de-escalation, diplomacy and secret compromise, New Delhi should signal that it is prepared for long-drawn military tensions along the 3488km border, until Beijing concludes that these are not in China’s interests either.

New Delhi must also expand the canvas on which the relationship with China plays out. An Act East policy and membership of the Quad are building blocks to India shaping the balance of power in East Asia, where China faces Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and the US. India has the capability to tilt the balance in ways that are painful to China, and demonstrating it is necessary. This involves the deployment of the Indian Navy east of the Malacca straits in cooperation with countries that share our interests. It is heartening that Vijay Gokhale, former foreign secretary, writes that the South China Sea is our business”. Further, We have historical rights established by practice and tradition to traverse the South China Sea without impediment.”

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Finally, for the most part, the reason why China manages to bully its way through disputes is not because of its military power, but because of economic interdependencies. India will do itself and the world a service if it were to weaken economic dependence on China. The interests of the US, the European Union, Japan, South East Asia and even Russia converge on this point. That calls for structural economic reforms at home and a new push for free trade abroad, seeing self-reliance in growth and prosperity. As I have long argued, India’s most effective China policy remains 8% economic growth year after year.

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