India needs a reality check vis-à-vis China
If the West had the power and the means, it would have done everything to prevent the corona pandemic. It is not the infection rate, the death count or the economic slowdown which matter to the West now. What matters is the decline in its global power. The West’s supremacy is in serious question. It is not worth gloating over China’s initial distress over the pandemic as the pandemic has now become a feature in several regions, especially the West.
A Trans-Asian zone
Not only has the pandemic forced the US to rein its presence in many spaces but China seems more determined than ever to press home it’s advantages in the emerging situation. For the moment it’s focus is on its own region, Asia. It’s efforts are clearly meant to send a message to the rival powers. But the West hasn’t been able to respond to the message yet. China’s ambitions are clearly directed towards establishing a large trans-Asian zone outside US-Europe influence.
The pandemic has shown that conventional notions of power are unpredictable and complex. China has now emerged as the local Asian behemoth scaring the earlier gatekeeper, the US, away. This was triggered not by war but an epidemic.
Meanwhile, in South Asia, there are noises again on the Indo-China border. It has created a lot of disconcert in India. In China it is part of a larger policy of an aggressive assertion of its will. But what is happening in South Asia is also part of a global scenario change that puts the US on the back foot.
The US dilemma
Writing in a blog of the influential foreign policy think tank of the US, Brookings Institution, authors Ryan Hass and Kevin Dong (April 1, 2020) capture the essence of the conflict between the two global powers though. “This downward spiral shows few signs of abating. Top US officials believe they have a moral imperative to shine a spotlight on the link between China’s negligent initial response in Wuhan and the global spread of the virus. The more global the destruction COVID-19 unleashes, the stronger the conviction will become for these officials that China’s authoritarian governance system must be challenged. Such moral convictions may merge with domestic political imperatives. The United States will hold its presidential election this November. Deprived of a strong economy, facing rising unemployment and no longer in a position to vow to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington after four years of incumbency, President Trump may face pressure to focus America’s ire on the ‘Chinese virus.”
However, China is hardly under pressure diplomatically or otherwise. Most countries will certainly start to look at the new equation. It means new terms of foreign relations largely driven by China. It may be an unpleasant reality for most but the reality will have to be handled.
South Asia and China
China is riding a crest of opportunities. So, the chances of backing down are poor. China has skirmished with the Philippines, Indonesia Taiwan etc. The latest is with India where it looks like another border shoving and pushing is on.
Commentators in India have said that this is a reflection of Chinese ire with India’s pro-Western policy and the anti-China Quad. However, China has not been different in its treatment of others. Philippines was ready to scrap a treaty with the US. So its muscle flexing is a general policy towards all.
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No country in the region can really match China’s power and so peace is not an option but the only choice. China too must learn this. However, different countries have different approaches. For India, the problem is bigger.
Pakistan is China’s best friend. Nepal is using China to draw border maps which it sees as more Nepal-friendly. Bangladesh has little negotiating space as it sleeps next to the Indian giant. But it resents many of India’s policies whether it is water sharing or the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Bangladesh has welcomed China’s larger presence in the region which helps to counter-balance Indian pressure.
Big winds of change
Big kid India’s issue is that the South Asian block now has a bigger kid. India would like to be China’s contender in military and other areas but that notion is far-fetched. Unless India can find a set of foreign policies which are more realistic about China’s overwhelming clout in the region, it will not find peace even by its own terms.
In its recent history, India has not dealt with a hostile power that is more powerful -- with the exception of China. It’s 1962 border war disaster continues to haunt Indian policy makers. And since 1962, the gap between the two countries has grown. Hence India needs a strategic and diplomatic reality check. It needs to accept that China is not the rest of South Asia. Therefore, a genuine rapprochement is needed. Such a reassessment would serve the South Asian region best.