April 6, 2018

An unedited draft of my Business Standard column. The phrase China reset in New Delhi doesn’t mean an India reset in Beijing” comes from my colleague Pranay Kotasthane. In fact, my colleagues at Takshashila were generally far more critical of the reset” than I am here. Our Distance from Delhi is perhaps in full display on this issue.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

The rather intriguing phrase China reset” came up a few times in conversations with colleagues over the past couple of weeks.

The basic idea is that after appearing to be tilted towards the United States over the past few years, and after a rough year confronting Xi Jinping’s China at Doklam, the Belt and Road summit, Masood Azhar and so on, New Delhi will now take a more unilaterally conciliatory stand with regard to its northern neighbour. Although the well-connected and well-regarded C Raja Mohan made the case for it in his newspaper column last month, this reset” business has not been officially articulated. So we do not know whether there is indeed such a policy change in New Deli, and if so what it means in practice.

What we do know is that the Modi government has been indifferent to the increasingly provocative developments in the Maldives, where an autocratic China-backed regime not only brazenly defied New Delhi’s expectations’, hosted a visit by the Pakistani army chief, returned an ALH helicopter that India gifted but also put out word that the Pakistani navy might patrol its exclusive economic zone. We also know that New Delhi is disinclined to take up the new Chinese constructions in Doklam, taking the position that our red lines have not been crossed. There was also the controversy over the government’s instructions to discourage official attendance at a Tibetan anniversary.

It is uncertain whether these positions are connected with the purported China reset”, but since Doklam-2 and the Tibetan matters are changes in position of the Modi government, and Maldives approach is consistent with them, we must give credence to the suggestion that the thinking in New Delhi has changed.

Raja Mohan presents the realist case for the reset in the following terms.

The overarching reality is that China’s absolute and relative power vis a vis India (and all other powers in the world) has dramatically risen, thanks to decades of economic reform and sustained high growth rates….This huge power differential in favour of China, Beijing’s growing global reach and expanding international influence mean Beijing has fewer reasons than before to accommodate India’s concerns. That leaves India with a complex set of policy imperatives that are at odds with each other. Delhi must strive to retain its strategic space amid the expansion of the Chinese footprint and at the same time avoid the escalation of differences into disputes. Any reset would necessarily include an effort to widen the areas of cooperation that will provide some balance against the many negative factors that are unsettling bilateral relations. [Indian Express]”

So let’s consider the pros and cons. On the positive side, a reset is likely to lower the risk of conflict to the extent that India doesn’t escalate it, regardless of the provocation. Since such a conflict is not in India’s interests, avoiding it is a positive. Furthermore, a reset could allow the stalled boundary negotiations to move forward, to the extent that India softens its stand. This too could be a positive, not least because it allows us to reprioritise our defence resource allocations.

As one analyst put it to me recently, joining the United States, Japan and Australia in a Quad makes us the frontline state in a conflict with China,” so not getting entangled in others’ quarrels is not at all a bad thing.

Bridging the affection deficit with our largest trading partner is surely a good thing. A reset opens up possibilities for India and China to cooperate on international issues, not least in shaping the world order for the twenty-first century.

Finally, there is the political angle. The BJP wouldn’t want some conflict with China to disrupt its plans for the next election. A reset might help achieve that.

On the other side of the ledger are the following negatives. A China reset in New Delhi does not mean an India reset in Beijing. The Xi government is likely to see the reset as India smelling the coffee and learning the right lessons. Unilateral concessions might merely raise demands for more.

Beijing is unlikely to pass the opportunity to strengthen its military positions in Doklam and elsewhere along the mountain frontiers. Pakistani or Chinese troops and ships arrive in the Maldives and stay put. These are direct threats to India’s national security. As more countries from East Africa to South East Asia notice that New Delhi is unlikely to stand up to Beijing’s power projection, India will find its geopolitical imprint shrinking fast.

We will reverse an almost two-decade long process of growing closer to the United States that has delivered substantial strategic gains, even if many in New Delhi are loathe to admit.

Economic benefits from a reset — to the extent that they are distinct from economic benefits without a reset — might only take the Indian economy towards being China’s satellite.

In other words, a reset is highly unlikely to create incentives for China to deliver on any of the purported gains for India, precisely for the realist reasons that Raja Mohan outlines. I’m not even sure it will work from a purely electoral standpoint. The national interest should not be subordinated to domestic political gains.

Therefore, more than a reset, the Modi government must exploit India’s potential to be a swing power in the intensifying struggle between the United States and China. We should have better relations with either of them than they have with each other, subject to there being reciprocity. If there isn’t, good tit-for-tat with Indian characteristics recommends itself.

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