India needs to keep its head down and focus on building its own internal military and economic strengths for the next decade.
After that, China can’t do much. We have to talk softly, and grow the size of our stick in the next decade.
The bully of Asia no longer follows the dictum “Speak softly, but carry a big stick”. Having convinced itself of the inevitability of its great power status, China no longer feels the need to speak softly, and likes to brandish the stick whenever it wants to cow down others. Barring the US or EU, China no longer talks to others like an equal. It is the beginning of the arrogance of power for the world’s No 2 superpower.
Nothing illustrates this better than China’s recent efforts to test India’s responses in the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and southern Tibet, where it is building a road from where it can threaten the Chicken’s Neck region of India, which connects India to the rest of the North-East. It destroyed some bunkers on the Indian side, and has trespassed into areas claimed by Bhutan. In the resultant standoff, it arrogantly reminded us of our 1962 defeat.
To which, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley mildly retorted that the India of 2017 is not the India of 1962. China has – not unexpectedly – responded that even China is not what it was in 1962, and will take “all necessary measures” to safeguard its territory.
The China of 2017 is acting like that T-Rex in Jurassic Park, which tests a different part of the electrified fence each time to check for weaknesses. It tests India repeatedly in areas of weakness, whether it is in Ladakh, or the North-East. In 2013, a platoon-sized Chinese army contingent pitched tents 30 km south of Daulet Beg Oldi and demanded that India demolish bunkers some 250 km south in Chumar as these were reportedly a threat to the Chinese. After a standoff, India appears to have obliged.
Something similar is happening in Doko La, an area held by Indian troops near which the Chinese are trying to build a road through Bhutanese territory. Indian and Chinese troops are in a faceoff because India is intervening on behalf of Bhutan, with which India has a 50-year treaty.
The Chinese are trying to test the status quo here for a simple reason: technically, they are not encroaching on Indian territory or territory claimed by India, but doing it with Bhutan, which has no power to resist. If Bhutan and India cave in to this bullying, China will have moved its borders forward a wee bit. It will start believing that in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, India will, often, blink first.
To be sure, China is operating from its own sense of weakness, despite apparent strength. It knows that with every passing year, its hopes of becoming hegemon of Asia will diminish. Seen from the Chinese side, the window of opportunity for it to act is narrow.
First, China knows that it enjoys relative impunity right now thanks to the space opened up by Donald Trump’s confused policies. The US policy on Asia is no longer coherent, and India cannot count on the Trump administration to come to its aid if attacked by China. The EU is mired in its own economic woes, and Russia has been bought off with Chinese business deals. Japan is not a military power, but will start developing its own defence over the next decade. If China wants to force any issue with India, it must do so in the next five years.
Second, China knows that India’s own internal weaknesses will take a while to sort out. It could take nearly a decade for our economy and military preparedness to rise to a level where it becomes invulnerable to Chinese threats.
This can happen during the 2022-2025 period, depending on our rates of growth. Currently, China’s GDP is about five times India’s in nominal dollar terms ($11.8 trillion versus India’s $2.5 trillion, according to the IMF), but only 2.5 times in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP, with China at $23 trillion and India at $9.4 trillion). By 2022 or 2025, India’s PPP-based GDP will be half of China’s.
This is why China is trying to flex its muscles now, when India is in a position of relative weakness. Five or 10 years later, both the Indian economy and the military will be too big for China to confront through force of arms. And the US and Europe may also be in better shape than now to rein in China.
Third, China also faces internal vulnerabilities, and again the time horizon for offensive external action is narrow. Its population growth is decelerating, and now rises at the annual rate of about 0.5 per cent, against India’s 1.2 per cent.
China’s working age population has been declining since 2012, and will fall 25 per cent by 2050. This means both a steady rise in wages, which will worsen its competitiveness, and a fall in the growth rate in future.
In contrast, India’s demography is in a sweet spot, and the working age population continues to rise. These are positive indicators for future growth.
Another concern is China’s excessive internal debt, which is now reckoned at 260 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). This forced rating agency Moody’s to downgrade Chinese debt in May, and is indicative of the possibility that as growth slows, the debt problems could get worse.
China’s belt-and-road initiative is intended to create growth outside China by offering its Asian and African neighbours soft loans, which, in turn, will create construction opportunities for Chinese firms.
China believes that it must act while India is still not big enough. To strengthen its bargaining power with India, it is also buying out potential allies in the neighbourhood (Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc). The intrusion in Bhutan is intended to convey the same message. The bully is telling that tiny kingdom that partnering with India can be injurious to your health.
So, what should India’s response be?
One, we must bide our time. This is not the time for belligerence. We must talk softly, and keep beefing up your military power so that China knows it will get a bloody nose even if it has more firepower right now. This means avoiding unnecessary rhetoric in the public sphere, including in the media, or through statements like Jaitley’s on 1962.
Two, we must engage China diplomatically to convey the sense that its belligerence can only be counter-productive. China, in fact, does not need to be told that if it attacks India, the rest of Asia will gang up against it despite its blandishments. So, targeting India will not help it anywhere.
Three, we must attempt to drive a wedge between Pakistan and China, by repeatedly emphasising the former’s jihadi proclivities. Right now, China is turning a blind eye to this, because it is using Pakistan to get at India instead of acting on its own – except by offering pinpricks in Ladakh and now Bhutan. But as Chinese investments in Pakistan, including the port of Gwadar, increase, Chinese workers will be under threat from Pakistan’s various insurgencies on the western borders, including the restive Baloch freedom fight.
India needs to keep its head down and focus on building its own internal military and economic strengths for the next decade. After that, China can’t do much. We have to talk softly, and grow the size of our stick in the next decade.
Bullies need standing up to, but there is no need to talk loudly or lose eye-contact in the process.