Since President Joe Biden assumed office in the US, there has been a flurry of activity around China. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defence Secretary Austin recently concluded their tours of Asia holding talks with allies on issues ranging from the Indo-Pacific and Taiwan to a re-oriented Quad. It would seem that vital Asian countries are being wooed to shape the US’ ‘strategic competition’ with China.
In meetings with Indian counterparts, while the US officials have designated India as a close partner, there has rarely been a public acknowledgement of India’s main stress points with China. These include recent border skirmishes, weaponisation of water resources, the Sino-Pakistan ‘unholy alliance’ on India’s borders and the massive trade, dumping and economic issues. In fact, US-India divergences on key issues (Russia, Af-Pak region) are also quite pronounced and China knows this.
Thus, while globally Taiwan, maritime disputes, Japan and Korea are the West’s red lines for China — India is the line that China will try to keep crossing. The main reasons for this are:
The global commitment of the Western bloc to India’s actual issues concerning China has traditionally been weak though efforts are being made to address India’s concerns. India’s border area with China is of little geopolitical significance to the main actors. Pakistan, which is as of now China’s closest ally, is vital to the US’s Af-Pak strategy, too.
Foreign policy ethos
Despite attempts to take tough stands, dependence on Pakistan will continue, complicating India’s western border position. Indian foreign policy ethos governed by its unique geopolitical realities and years of non-partisanship remains largely led by independent decisions that resist coalescence to any ‘camp’.
The second aspect relates to the compulsions of the Indian political system that the Chinese seem to have understood. Democratic power in India is based mainly on winning elections requiring big, symbolic gestures/announcements not conducive to ‘clandestine’ foreign policy manoeuvres. Every policy is sold as a ‘vote getter’ with immediate tangible results, whether it is border conflicts, surgical strikes, or ban on countries. The result has been an ethos skewing long-term strategy in favour of short-term gains and moving on to the next big thing.
China holds India’s key pulse points and though there is recognition and work towards freeing some of these chains, India is a long way away in terms of a coherent strategy. From crucial raw materials (active pharmaceutical ingredients, solar panels, rare earth metals), capital for entrepreneurs, to hold over water resources, the Chinese are ahead of us at the moment. While Indian defence forces can hold their own against most adversaries in a conventional battle, today’s wars are about technology, 5G, cyber warfare and, of course, trade and economics battles — all spheres in which China has an edge.
So, what does India need to do to equip itself for these Chinese disruptions? Here, the immediate goals need to be upped:
Re-align our economics and politics: India’s economic sector is currently poised at a critical juncture. For example, with the Covid recovery in sight, India remains a market that offers strengths — an entrepreneurial spirit unleashed further by Covid disruptions in traditional job sectors and a considerable investor interest (international and local) in key value propositions.
Combine this with a sense of ‘Atmanirbharta’, where people show a willingness to make, buy and use Indian goods. Now is the time to exploit the opportunities to realign key areas of supply chains rather than impose short-term sanctions or embargoes on imports from China.
The political class needs to realise that it cannot sacrifice India’s perceived strengths — the democratic system, an open questioning of government policies and consensus-based decision making — at the altar of politics. Whether it is the farm laws steamrollered through Parliament, unfair rules on IT, efforts to crush dissent — these need to be calibrated.
The most important is that the government needs to strategise China’s weak points to make them bargaining chips. A fresh perspective on Pakistan is not a bad idea as a major disquiet develops in the rungs of its leadership at being reduced to China’s vassal state. India needs to re-align its foreign policy toward the Indian ocean neighbours which have faced the brunt of Chinese diplomacy — a two-way strategy of infrastructure development, defence ties, resource coordination and trade and investment needs to be fostered.
This requires an overarching institution that coordinates action with ministries, the PMO, the private sector and, most importantly, with critical technology experts. In the meantime, India needs to spell out clear leverage points with Western allies. India’s participation in the Quad or access to our defence market must come with concrete guarantees — for example, CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) exemptions for India’s purchase of weapons from Russia.
The writer is CEO and Co-Founder, Intelligentsia Risk Advisors