Unless it feels the pain, China will be tempted to raise the tempo of transgressions in the coming years. New Delhi must deliver that pain in stronger doses until Beijing comes around.
This is an unedited draft of my op-ed in Sunday Times of India.
This month’s combat between Chinese and Indian troops at Tawang is yet another reminder that New Delhi must ratchet up military, diplomatic and geopolitical pressure on Beijing until it changes its strategic calculations.
At this time the Xi Jinping regime’s calculation runs something like this: the global balance of power is such that China can change the territorial status quo in its neighbourhood on its own terms through the use of military force. This approach succeeded in the South China Sea, and to some extent in Dolkam and Galwan. Beijing has learned that sustained application of military pressure under a certain threshold yields dividends. Unsurprisingly, it has opened a new pressure point along the frontier in Arunachal Pradesh. Not only does transgression and encroachment help China acquire its territorial objectives, it creates a nervousness within India’s political leadership that Beijing can exploit to secure other political and economic goals. From Xi Jinping’s perspective, China has a pretty good formula.
How do we change Beijing’s calculations? The long-term solution is to pursue sustained economic growth within a pluralistic, liberal democratic model that serves as a geopolitical counterpoint to China. Through periods of hostility, competition and bonhomie, we must not lose sight of this strategic, civilisational objective. The scorecard in this long-term competition is not merely the tally of troops, warships, aircraft and missiles, but per capita GDP and social capital.
What about the near-term? The first task in changing Beijing’s calculations is for New Delhi to act differently and become more unpredictable. The army must continue its front-footed approach in countering the PLA’s transgressions. However, the political and diplomatic establishment should not be as eager to achieve a mutual de-escalation as it has been. Instead, the army and the Indian Air Force should be deployed in a manner that signals that the nation is prepared for long-drawn military tensions along the Himalayan frontiers. This is costly and risky. That is why it is likely to work better. New Delhi must make Xi Jinping think if he really wishes a war on his southern front at a crucial time when he is taking on the United States over Taiwan.
The second task is to use diplomacy to demonstrate India’s ability to affect China’s geopolitical profile. The Modi government’s refusal to be part of Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Summit is a good example of how this works. Without India, the Belt & Road Initiative has become a trillion dollar boondoggle of unsustainable projects and bad debts. Instead of gaining influence, China is facing nationalist backlashes in several countries that owe it money. It dare not write off the loans, for doing so will cause all others to demand the same treatment.
India should stop supporting China’s grand geopolitical initiatives: be they the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICS, AIIB and so on. The foreign policy establishment should cool its enthusiasm for summits and high-level meetings between top political leaders. Over the coming decade, China has to contend with a vastly superior West in a global techno-economic competition. The focus of diplomacy ought to be make Beijing realise that China needs India on its side, and that this comes at a price.
The third task is to unapologetically be a part of countervailing coalitions against China. The Quad is a good starting point but must neither be taken for granted nor transformed into a broader entity looking at non-geostrategic issues. New Delhi has done well to commit itself to the maritime dimension of the Indo-Pacific, and it is good to see the Indian Navy participating in exercises in East Asian waters. I have long argued that this is the really big, consequential game: the more India demonstrates capability and willingness to project power in East Asian waters, the more we will be able to dissuade China along the LAC and in our immediate neighbourhood. By expanding the canvas on which the India-China relationship plays out, India can create pressure points in places where Beijing feels more vulnerable. Maritime power is flexible and can be readily ratcheted up or down. It is important to have sufficient inventory of the capabilities: submarines, surface combatant ships and missiles that can be employed as needed. The configuration of India’s planned theatre command system must incorporate such thinking.
Unless it feels the pain, China will be tempted to raise the tempo of transgressions in the coming years. New Delhi must deliver that pain in stronger doses until Beijing comes around. The good news that India is already on this path: what is required is greater resolve and investment. We can do without the chest thumping and sabre rattling in the media which does little to help, and vitiates the space for diplomacy.
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