India’s gamble on China policy looking like a bad bet
India’s China strategy has looked shaky over the last 10 months. It looks as though India has been facing severe anguish after it tried to tilt toward “the West” to counter China. The indefinitely protracted Sino-Indian military standoff in Ladakh has made New Delhi’s jitteriness more palpable recently.
There is no publicly available information on India’s recent China strategy per se. But the Twenty-Second Report submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Sixteenth Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and a public speech by Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, outline India’s new China strategy.
Jaishankar has been a strong advocate of a “pro-West” strategy to counterbalance China for a long time; he got the chance to implement his ideas as official foreign policy after becoming EAM in May 2019.
India’s China strategy has undergone four distinct phases in the last 10 months.
The first is the policy-departure phase. Jaishankar has been an ardent believer of the notion that India’s strategic interests can be best fulfilled if it goes for an alliance with “the West” since he was a joint secretary in the Indian Foreign Service. He introduced his thinking on India’s China policy as the strategic doctrine that India’s national interest is best served by going for an alliance with the US.
Jaishankar outlined his doctrine in a speech at the Atlantic Council on October 1, 2019.
The Council is an elite foreign-relations club created to promote trans-Atlantic understanding and galvanize the US supremacy. Jaishankar tried to link India to “the West” in his remarks titled “India’s relationship with the West” at the Council.
He sketched how India and the US could move forward by upholding “democracy,” “rule of law” and “human rights” as core values, which in his view, were superior “moral virtues” than any other political system of governance.
He intended to depict subtly that India’s relationship with the US would be superior to one with communist China.
In this phase, Jaishankar persuaded his boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to go for the “pro-West” policy.
The second phase is preparedness for the risk-taking stage. Jaishankar adopted a risk-taking China strategy after the second informal summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the historic Indian town of Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, on October 11-12, 2019.
Jaishankar delivered a speech on the topic “Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian Foreign Policy in a Changing World” at the fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture, a gathering of diplomats, strategists, foreign-policy experts, academia, and foreign-policy journalists on November 14, 2019, in New Delhi.
The crux of his remarks was that India’s foreign policy until 2014 was futile because it didn’t look toward “the West” entirely. All previous Indian governments, in his view, were risk-averse in nature.
He claimed that India had been suffering from a risk-averse strategy. As a result, India had been getting minimal rewards from its foreign policy. He strongly advocated that India must be ready to take significant strategic risks to earn handsome rewards.
The third is the implementation of India’s strategic position and standing firm on it. Thus India abandoned the long-cherished non-alignment policy and took the colossal risk of tilting toward “the West” completely.
The second 2+2 talks led by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh for India and the US represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper was held on December 19, 2019, in Washington DC.
During this talk, the two sides signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) to the India-US General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The agreement was supposed to ease the transfer of high-level technology from the US to India and safeguard classified military information.
During US President Donald Trump’s India visit on February 24-25 this year, the two parties agreed to expedite the talks on the conclusion of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the BECA negotiation was suspended, but it was agreed to recently. The BECA will be signed during the third round of the 2+2 meetings to be held virtually in September.
India and the US inked two other foundational agreements, namely the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, India abandoned the agreements and consensus made with China during the first and second China-India informal summits. India supported the US in many issues such as the Taiwan row, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and demand for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and how it spread from China.
Chinese strategists reckon that India has exploited China’s vulnerability, particularly when it grappled with the Covid-19 crisis and the trade and technology war with the US. Beijing considers that India wants to take advantage of China’s brief and temporary susceptibility due to the pandemic to take revenge for the 1962 war, take back Aksai Chin and gain additional territory.
China also considers that India’s road construction near disputed territory in Ladakh was an attempt to stab it in the back when it was busy trying to improve the severely deteriorating bilateral ties with the US triggered by the trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Consequently, China started to mount the pressure against India along the border, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian troops have been facing off in Ladakh since May 8 this year. In a savage clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley, 20 Indian soldiers, including a commanding officer and an unknown number of Chinese troops, lost their lives on June 15.
India banned 49 Chinese apps in India and canceled several Chinese companies’ contracts as retaliatory measures. A substantial nationwide campaign to boycott Chinese products was launched.
In an exclusive interview with The Times of India on August 2, Jaishankar said, “Over the last three decades, we had steadily normalized our relationship on the assumption of peace and tranquility prevailing on the border. The state of the border and the future of our ties, therefore, cannot be separated. That is the reality…. Reaching an equilibrium with China is not going to be easy. We will be tested, and we must stand our ground.”
Although Beijing issued a statement on India’s ban of Chinese apps and campaign for a boycott of Chinese goods, it took no retaliatory economic actions against India.
India’s punitive measures look to Beijing like the Chinese proverb “hàn shù pí fú.” The literal translation alludes to an “ant trying to shake a tree.”
The last phase is India’s quest for “equilibrium.” It seems Indian strategists considered the Chinese PLA would withdraw from the Ladakh conflict eventually. But the Chinese side conveyed the message that it does not compromise with its core interests. The Chinese are in no hurry to resolve the border issue.
Besides, after the positive development in the US-China trade talks on a Phase 1 agreement and China successfully testing its so-called carrier-killers, DF-21D and DF-26 missiles, India became more nervous.
Speaking at an event organized by the US-based US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on Monday, Jaishankar said, “Two countries with the size and populations of India and China need to find an equilibrium or reach an understanding to establish a steady relationship.”
Now, India wants to reach an optimal equilibrium but cannot. India has already provided China an upper hand, so China is not interested in optimal equilibrium with India. The prolonged military standoff at the border created a suitable condition for China to build pressure on India to accept a sub-optimal equilibrium. India missed the train looking at “the West,” and China is far ahead of India.
In Asia’s economic, political, and military hierarchy, China wants to see itself at the top, followed by others.
Although Indian strategists muse that India is a king in South Asia and the Indian Ocean rimland, Chinese strategists consider India a pawn. The king is someone else who moves India as a pawn for the sake of its strategic objectives.
According to mechanics theory, a branch of physics, to attain equilibrium by using a lever, the person near the fulcrum must apply greater force than the person far from the fulcrum. This theory is also applicable in foreign policy, and India needs to put extra energy to attain equilibrium.
In this strategic game, India has two strategic options, wage war against China or accept the Chinese demand to implement the agreements and consensus reached in the first and second informal summits.
India is facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1947. Gross domestic product nosedived by 23.9% in the first quarter of the current fiscal year (April-June). The central government failed to provide goods and service tax (GST) compensation to the state governments, and as a result, Indian federalism is at risk. How India would pay for a war is a crucial question.
China also has two strategic options, wage war against India or wear it down by prolonging the border standoff. The payoff of the current Sino-Indian strategic game favors China either way.
When China made offers to India at the informal summits for a bilateral partnership to make the Asian century, India held the upper hand. It could bargain for more favorable terms in any Chinese proposal. That scenario has changed dramatically because of Jaishankar’s strategic blunder.
“Some kind of understanding or equilibrium” is sub-optimal for India, but optimal for China. If India wants to reach equilibrium, it has to “give” more and “take” less than China, and the latter sets the terms and conditions, not India.
By putting all his eggs in the American basket, Jaishankar was not taking a strategic risk. He was gambling.