In his excellent book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, external affairs minister S Jaishankar suggests that this is the time for India “to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand traditional constituencies of support”.
The succinct, but insightful, formulation, in a way, summarises the current Indian approach to the world. Each of the relationships Jaishankar alludes to are interlinked, but the most important dynamic at the moment — given the situation in eastern Ladakh — is the one with China. So, what does managing China mean?
In a subsequent chapter devoted to China, Jaishankar brings a more sweeping view of the relationship — from the cultural connections of the past, the memory of which has faded away, to the romance of the 1950s, which was based on a clear misreading of China’s strategic intent; from the consistent Chinese partnership with Pakistan since 1963 to lock India into the South Asian box to the systemic pulls and pressures of global politics, which continue to affect bilateral ties; and from the nature of enhanced India-China economic engagement, which has caused deep discomfort in India to the border question left by history. On this hotly-contested issue, Jaishankar makes a simple case which is now clear Indian policy, “Today, the bottomline for the relationship is clear: peace and tranquillity must prevail on the border if progress made in the last three decades is not to be jeopardised. The border and future of ties cannot be separated.”
This, then, is the core of the Indian foreign policy paradigm today. The establishment in Delhi has no doubts that China is a competitor and a possible adversary. At the same time, there is a clear recognition, as articulated by Jaishankar himself, of “gaps in our comprehensive national power”, capabilities, human development indices or growth conditions with China. Given the complex nature of inter-State ties that define the international system, and the need for peace to ensure India can focus on its own domestic development goals, this means that India’s best-case scenario is “managing” China instead of entertaining anything more ambitious.
For the last three decades, ever since Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to Beijing, this management has taken a cooperative form — deepening economic cooperation, convergence on a set of global issues, high-level visits, agreements on border tranquillity. It has also taken a competitive form — with both countries jostling to expand their space in the neighbourhood and extended neighbourhood, China consistently blocking India’s global ambitions, India closely collaborating with the United States with an eye on China and pushing the idea of the Indo-Pacific, and a continued contest over both sovereignty and security.
It is this old framework of management of ties that now lies in tatters, for if the border is unstable, the entire relationship can fare no better. This is the core message Jaishankar delivered to his counterpart, Wang Yi, on Thursday in Moscow. It leaves open two distinct possibilities for the immediate context.
The first scenario is that China understands the message, calculates that limited acquisition of territory in eastern Ladakh is not worth alienating India entirely, pulls back, and postpones the dispute for another day — India, in turn, also subsequently de-escalates, and while the relationship will never go back to a pre-Ladakh 2020 normal, there is renewed dialogue over other issues to indicate the restoration of normalcy. The second possibility is that China decides that this is a matter of prestige and national security, it is the moment to “show India its place” and exercise dominance, digs its heels in, continues to attempt intrusions into Indian territory, and the stalemate continues through the long winter, with the possibility of an escalation.
India has to wait and watch what China does on the ground now, while remaining alert and pre-empting any aggressive moves. But irrespective of what happens in eastern Ladakh, it is clear that managing China will now require a different toolkit. What will this entail?
The first is building internal economic — and subsequently military — capabilities. India just cannot compete with China in any meaningful way if its economy continues to contract or if it has a minimal positive growth rate. In such a scenario, the government will have more limited resources; crucial military modernisation plans will get halted or slow down; the power of Indian businesses to compete globally will shrink; the Indian market will suddenly not appear as attractive; the government will have to shift focus to address domestic economic distress and possible social unrest; Delhi won’t be able to take autonomous economic decisions to reduce dependence on China; and India’s ability to buy goodwill in the neighbourhood will become more limited. There is no substitute for internal economic capability as a national security tool to manage China. On this, the government’s record has been weak.
The second is cementing international partnerships. Washington, obviously, has its own interests, and it is not going to come and fight India’s battles. But the United States remains, despite all its current challenges, the world’s pre-eminent power and indispensable in ensuring that the international order does not tilt towards China. It has also, on strategic questions, been a steadier partner than many in Delhi had assumed. India needs a frank discussion on whether it is time to partner with the US more substantially and openly. This has to be supplemented with a range of other partnerships, from sustaining ties with Russia to acting in concert with other middle powers. On this metric, the government has done a competent job.
Three, India needs to invest more in the neighbourhood — not just in terms of connectivity but by actively ensuring that political regimes in the periphery are aligned with India. This will mean criticism of being interventionist at times; it will result in setbacks at other times. But playing quiet even as China is actively propping up governments and creating a hostile environment against India is not a solution. On this, India’s record is mixed.
And finally, it is time to play on China’s internal weaknesses. India hosts the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans. But India continues to insist that this is not a political act and, too often, reiterates its recognition of Tibet as a part of China. With this mixed approach, India earns China’s wrath, but it doesn’t earn Tibetan goodwill either, and its own ability to embarrass Beijing shrinks. Instead, a consistent policy with the following elements — a formal announcement that India will respect the Dalai Lama’s wishes on his succession, outreach to all Tibetan sects and political streams, and advocacy of their political and cultural rights — is important. China has made it clear that it does not respect India’s sensitivities on Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh; Tibet must be the riposte. On this metric, the government’s policy is an enigma.
India neither wants a war, nor can it afford one. India needs to live in peace, and focus on its massive developmental challenges. But often geopolitics throws up challenges which a State has to confront. India will have to learn to manage China better, and it won’t always be a smooth ride.