A Chinese unipolar moment in Asia is a disaster waiting to happen. For India, there is only one option: standing up to China resolutely to protect its core interests
Just when we thought India is getting its China policy on track, we have returned to the good old days of doing business with China. Discouraging government officials from attending a planned public event titled “Thank You India” being organised in New Delhi on 1 April 2018, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale reportedly wrote to the cabinet secretary that “the proposed period will be a very sensitive time in the context of India’s relations with China. Participation by senior leaders or government functionaries, either from the central government or state governments, is not desirable, and should be discouraged”. In Maldives, New Delhi decided that asserting its interests would be tantamount to provoking the Chinese, so we have taken a step back, letting China roll all over us. And a think tank in New Delhi has been asked to postpone an annual conference just because its deliberations may annoy the Chinese.
China’s response has been predictable. Its Foreign Minister Wang Yi has resorted to usual clichés by suggesting that it was time for the Chinese dragon and Indian elephant to dance together rather than fight with each other. “The Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other. If China and India are united, one plus one will not equal two but 11,” was his mantra.
Gokhale was in Beijing in March, apparently to “reset” the ties, which resulted in a calendar of government-level interactions, potentially leading to a high-level visit from China. The idea is that last year’s Doklam crisis has put New Delhi in a precarious position, and something significant needs to be done to assuage Chinese anger. So India has decided to go an extra mile and the Tibet issue of course has become the casualty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to go to Qingdao in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting and New Delhi might be hoping to make this visit a success by acquiescing to Chinese sensitivities. It is also likely that India is trying to acknowledge China lifting its objections to grey-listing of Pakistan with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over terror financing by becoming conciliatory on Tibet.
This is also not new. In November 2007, India’s then cabinet secretary too had sent a note to all the ministers, advising them against attending an event organised by the Gandhi Peace Foundation on behalf of the Dalai Lama. Then too, it was speculated that perhaps the then prime minister Manmohan Singh wished to assuage the concerns of the Indian communist parties, then part of the ruling coalition, that Indian foreign policy was tilting towards Washington, in order to send the message that India desired to preserve the upward trajectory in Sino-Indian ties. It was also suggested that the government wanted to thank China for the successful visit to that country by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, during which some media reports suggested that China seemed to be taking a more favourable view of the US-India nuclear deal, then still being negotiated.
Whatever may have been the motivation, New Delhi’s behaviour then and even now contravened India’s long-held position that the Dalai Lama is not a mere political dissident but a spiritual leader widely revered in India. Indeed, India’s genuflection to Chinese concerns about the Dalai Lama are probably not even in India’s national interest. The Indian government’s position neither lived up to the ideals that India often claims it stands for nor clearly enhanced India’s strategic interests vis-a-vis China.
Such a supine foreign policy posture by a state that wants to be recognised as a major global power is not only foolhardy but increasingly dangerous.
Doklam and its aftermath
Last year’s Doklam crisis between China and India was different from other such episodes in the past and what made it unique in recent memory was New Delhi’s determination not to concede the standoff on China’s terms. Beijing tried everything. It used its media to bully India; it threatened India officially; it used colonial-era records selectively; it tried to rally world opinion. But India did not budge.
The Doklam crisis foreshadowed the future of the global order. Underlying all the petulance about boundaries and territories, behind all the façade of sovereignty, the Sino-Indian standoff in Doklam was about whether the future of Asia would be one with China the dominant actor, dictating the terms of acceptable behaviour to other nations or whether the future of Asia will be a multipolar one in the real sense of the term. India decided to stand its ground because there was far too much at stake in responding to the Chinese bullying.
China talks of a multipolar world order but in reality it has always desired a unipolar Asia. Its assertiveness in staking its maritime territorial claims in recent years might have convinced it that there is no real opposition to it in the region and beyond. The West is too preoccupied with its own internal challenges to pose any serious problems in China’s way. And the regional states are too weak to do anything about Chinese belligerence. The ASEAN has turned out to be a paper tiger when it comes to the crunch. China’s divide-and-rule policy has fractured any sense of unity in Southeast Asia. A rather weak and ineffective negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea has been adopted by the ASEAN under Chinese pressure, reflecting the challenges being faced by the larger Indo-Pacific region at a time when the US remains distracted and lacks a clear Asia policy under Donald Trump.
And so India remains the last nation standing, a stumbling block in China’s drive for domination of the Indo-Pacific. Already, the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has made China central to the evolving global economic order. Even when nations realise the folly of their joining this mega connectivity initiative, they see no real alternative. New Delhi is the sole major power that has decided to publicly oppose Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vanity project. The other major power centres remain constrained in their policy responses to China. Japan has domestic political and legal constraints despite Shinzo Abe’s pro-active foreign policy. Australia’s economic future is so deeply intertwined with China’s that its elites are having to debate the choice between the US and China.
The Modi government, in contrast, has been robust in its response to China’s rise. It quickly realised that China remains determined to pursue a unilateral foreign policy and Indian interests will suffer if New Delhi does not make a change in its foreign policy behaviour. While a section of the Indian elites still continues to believe that India can shape Chinese behaviour by its policies, policymakers have been confronting the consequences of Chinese growing capabilities in multiple ways. Though a tad late, New Delhi has been focusing on building its border infrastructure and has been active in trying to reach out to other like-minded powers in the region such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam to shape a favourable balance of power in the region. The idea of the Quad has made a comeback.
China is everywhere these days, challenging the global order at times and yet at times trying to be the guarantor of the global economic order in the age of Trump. In his address to the World Economic Forum last year, Xi delivered a strong defence of globalisation, underlining Beijing’s credentials in an attempt to usurp America’s traditional role as the champion of free trade and open markets. But it should have been clear to anyone who has observed China closely that its credentials as an exemplar of market economy remain very weak for a nation that has benefitted enormously from the America-led global economic order. China’s history of using currency manipulation, closed capital markets and subtle non-tariff barriers leading to trade imbalances hardly makes it a global economic leader.
Yet the world is willing to buy this with a certain degree of credulity because of the attractiveness of a rising power. We want to believe in China’s rhetoric because that is very reassuring, leaving all the difficult questions for another day. So long as China is rising, it needs the rest of the world, and so it would like to preserve the extant order, we want to think.
Indian policymakers too have been part of this vacuous thinking for the past two decades. They got carried away by the propaganda which often managed to put China and India in the same league, assuming that being peers would somehow preclude any overt hostility. They also got carried away when their Chinese interlocutors assured them of their benign intentions and how there was enough space for both China and India to rise. Then came the biggest charade of all — the BRICS. From an investment banker’s catchy phrase for her clients, it was converted into a geopolitical grouping. New Delhi entered into it with its eyes closed only to be bamboozled by the Chinese attempt to convert it into an extension of its own economic superiority.
Chinese power has continued to grow over the last two decades. Concomitantly, their interests continued to expand. As they ventured into South Asia and the larger Indian Ocean region, India looked on without any sense of purpose. Reassured by our Sinologists that Chinese have no expansionist designs, we continued to neglect our military and logistical preparedness, not even bothering about our border infrastructure. After all, if the Chinese don’t want to have a conflict with us, what was the point in building up our defences?
As China continued to move to Indian doorsteps, Indian policymakers were only left assuaging Chinese sensitivities. We would not meet the Dalai Lama publicly for offending Beijing. We would not have joint exercises with like-minded countries in the region lest China think ill of us. We would not sign foundational agreements with the US as this would make us America’s camp followers. It won’t matter if that would restrict our ability to track Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. And of course, we will keep talking of non-alignment because that’s the best way to guarantee our interests in a world shaped by Chinese power.
Even today Indian policymakers are being advised that a reset with China will stabilise the relationship. But China’s growing assertiveness is a function of its own rising power and its own assessment of its interests. It has very little to do with India’s behaviour. We have misunderstood China in the past and there is a danger that we will continue to misunderstand China in the future if we don’t comprehend the underpinnings of Chinese behaviour today.
Power by its very nature is expansionist. China’s growing economic and diplomatic footprint around the world is now being followed by its military footprint and that’s the reality of great power politics. To understand that is not be belligerent but to prepare oneself adequately. For India, there is only one option: standing up to China resolutely to protect its core interests. Otherwise, it will have to acquiesce in shaping a China-centric Indo-Pacific. And for most Indians that clearly is not an option worth even thinking about.