Finally, after a round of high-level talks — which included India’s National Security Adviser — following a three-week standoff at the LAC, there are signs of disengagement at Galwan Patrol Point 14, Gogra and the Hot Springs area. There is no movement yet at the Pangong Tso finger area. But the talks are continuing and it is now possible that further blows will not be exchanged.
Yet, India’s broader strategic challenge remains. How India responds to China’s “expansionistic tendencies in 21st century”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it in Nimu, will have significant ramifications not only for us but the world.
In 2017, I had sent out a warming through these pages that Doklam was symbolic of a new Chinese policy: President Xi Jinping is aiming to create for himself “the greatest legacy’’ — greater than the great Mao’s — based on nationalistic fervour. Xi had started speaking about the “Chinese global dream and national glory” as early as 2012, even before he took over as president in 2013.
The other reason for Beijing’s expansionism is its economic model. The Chinese growth model needed to find subservient emerging markets where it can park huge debts and make investments to keep feeding the Dragon’s high growth rates. Friendly foreign debt-investment markets were needed to compensate for over-investment at home. The Belt and Road Initiative was rolled out as a meeting point for China’s geo-strategic and geo-economic interests.
Since Doklam, China has expanded its global footprint by signing on about 100 countries to the BRI. It has made aggressive moves on most of its non-submissive neighbours — from Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines in the South China Sea to India in the Himalayas; from its traditional rivals like Japan and Taiwan to independent-minded nations like South Korea and Australia. Include recent Chinese actions in Hong Kong, and the message is clear: China sees itself as a global power whose time has come. It will assert itself — comply or deal with it.
The US and western powers have been very vocal in calling out Beijing in recent times. US-China relations have hit rock bottom, especially since Donald Trump took office. The US-China trade war is now taking a toll on the world system. For example, it is creating fissures among ASEAN members.
As the destabilising rise of China is shaking up global alignments and shaping a new world order, the Trump administration is increasingly being criticised for not providing global leadership. India could afford to be largely non-aligned during the 20th century Cold War, but our size and economic momentum necessitate that we play a clearer role in the Cold War’s 21st-century sequel.
Our foreign policy has lacked a clear vision about China. Delhi so far has been “hedging” its interests globally — we have been deepening our strategic relationship with the US but without wanting to alarm China. Ahmedabad has witnessed both the “jhula diplomacy” with Xi and “Namaste Trump”. Recent events show that Beijing is unconvinced by this nuanced balancing act.
Meanwhile, relations with other neighbouring nations have also become a cause of concern. Pakistan has practically become a minion state for the Chinese – the $62-billion CPEC is a case in the point. Nepal is no longer on our list of all-weather friends, Chinese influence is growing in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — both signatories to the BRI. And just last week, Beijing, to put more pressure on Delhi, sent another appallingly stern message to our loyal friend, Bhutan, by making ridiculous territorial claims on its eastern border containing the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, next to Arunachal Pradesh.
A nation’s self-respect is as non-negotiable as its territorial integrity. As with the latter, one cannot cede even a notional inch of national pride for while keeping the pretence of preserving sovereign power. The time has come for us to stand-up to Chinese expansionism. This path will require conviction and exercising a range of military, diplomatic and economic options based not just on emotions but on the cold calculus of relative strengths. Breaking Chinese TVs and mobile phones will achieve little. Calling out China’s expansionism and banning Chinese apps are welcome but can only be considered the first baby steps. What is required is determined leadership that secures strategic and tactical deterrence.
One forum we need to build on and provide leadership to is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was started with India, Japan, Australia and the US as members in 2007. Not much has happened since except a few joint military exercises. India should now propose the expansion of the Quad’s scope with a possible exploration of a collective defence architecture clause like Clause 5 of NATO, where an attack on one of the members is considered an attack on all. Not just the scope, the membership of the Quad should be expanded. Vietnam is already keen to join. South Korea, New Zealand, and Malaysia may also be interested.
On the economic front, India must welcome the US proposal to expand G7 to include India, Russia, Australia and South Korea without China as a member. Apart from strengthening ties in our neighbourhood, effort must be made to regain the relationship with Russia. Vladimir Putin is seen as one global leader who is happy to do business with Xi, but with Russia pursuing an independent geo-strategic path.
I am not advocating for joining a US-lead platform as a devoted member. To push back against Chinese adventurism by deepening dependence on another power also runs counter to the very logic of protecting our national sovereignty. India today is strong enough to stand for her interest and yet must be adroit enough to find common ground with those with whom her interests align, whether to its West or East.
China must be made to choose: Is it willing to push the equally proud, equally numerous, equally historical and glorious civilisation to the south in this long-term direction for a few square kilometres of territory and a round of chest-thumping?
The Dragon must know that the Elephant may take its time to turn but if it does, it is for good.