Even while seeking to improve ties with China, New Delhi should be careful not to limit its own strategic choices.
Sino-Indian relations have nosedived over the last two years. It is not in India’s interest, possibly not in China’s either. The root cause for this lies neither in Indian behaviour nor in misperceptions or accidents that were beyond the control of either side. They lie in deliberate choices made in Beijing, the choices that China made in order to undermine India. Maybe Modi can make Xi understand why China’s strategy towards India is self-defeating, but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, even while seeking to improve ties with China, New Delhi should be careful not to limit its own strategic choices.
It’s not that there are no reasons to talk to China or to attempt to tamp down the tensions between the two sides. For one, there are clearly some short-term imperatives. All problems with India’s current levels of military preparedness might suggest seeking a way to put off any potential for military escalation for a period of time until India is better prepared for any such eventuality. Buying time through diplomacy is a fairly sensible strategy, assuming it works, and assuming that the time bought is used efficiently. There is also the possibility of domestic political calculations. With general elections looming, there is some logic to avoid conflicts both because of its inherent uncertainty and because it will force top political leaders to waste time on external issues instead of on working the electorate.
There could even be some longer term logic at work. Considering the wide gap in the strategic balance between the two countries — and considering that it is still widening — it makes sense for India to find ways to avoid any confrontation with China until this balance shifts sufficiently such that it is less onerous than at present. This would be something akin to China’s own successful strategy that Deng Xiaoping proposed of hiding your capabilities and biding your time. The downside, of course, is that India will have to kowtow to China for a period of time that could extend to several decades. It is more than doubtful that a chaotic and competitive democracy such as India’s can follow such a strategy for decades. Finally, it cannot be anyone’s case that New Delhi should not seek to resolve whatever differences it can through discussions with all countries, including China, considering both the cost and uncertainties that result from a test of arms.
If the above are sensible reasons for a dialogue with China, there are other reasons that have been trotted out that are less so.
The first is that there is a misconception or misunderstanding that leads to conflicts between the two sides, something that senior Indian officials speaking on background have suggested. But it is somewhat difficult to see what misunderstanding or misconception led to either China’s decisions on NSG or on Masood Azhar. Though it is possible, and even likely, that the confrontation in Doklam started as a local misunderstanding, it does not explain the kind of pressure and abusive language and rhetoric that were displayed daily by both official spokespersons and the Chinese state media. The simple truth is that China’s favourable power disparity lets it engage in behaviour that is uncaring and threatening to its weaker neighbours. This is not peculiar to China, but by the same token, neither can dialogue, informal or otherwise, do much about it. This is a reality that New Delhi needs to face, instead of chasing will-o’-the-wisps of ‘better mutual understanding’.
A second apparent reason for reaching out to Beijing, but even less sensible and much more dangerous than the first, is the assumption that Indian strategic policy has become unbalanced and China’s behaviour is a response to this imbalance. Using the Tibet card (and reportedly informing Beijing about it), refusing to let Australia join the Malabar naval exercise, and making common cause with Beijing about the international trading system, all appear to be part of this exercise. This will be music to Chinese ears because New Delhi will be voluntarily limiting its own choices. Trying to calm tensions with China is sensible, but to undermine India’s strategic options as a means to do it is just plain foolish. If this is the price of the reset, it is just too high.
Moreover, this is a particularly bad time for India to have second thoughts about its other strategic partners, just as the other Asian powers and the US are coming around to recognise the challenge posed by China, and increasingly reflecting India’s voice on issues such as the BRI. There has long been concern within the Indian strategic community about the reliability of potential partners such as the US or Australia, possibly for good reasons. But India’s credibility itself is none too good. Playing footsie with Beijing and letting China entice India away from an emerging Indo-Pacific partnership will ultimately hurt India. China would like nothing better than to keep relations with India on a purely bilateral level, where it can better bring its overwhelming disparity of power to bear on India. China has repeatedly used such divide and rule strategies in East Asia and is attempting to do the same in the European Union. So far, Beijing has attempted to separate the weak and the vulnerable from the herd: A Cambodia or a Greece. But India would be a big prize, because it would be difficult to build a balanced international order in Asia without India cooperating with the US and the smaller Asian powers.
There is another reason why India should be careful about China’s divide and rule strategy. Building any balance in the region is going to be both time-consuming, risky and difficult. India rightly worries about the dependability of its partners in any such venture. India should not, through its own actions, give its partners reasons to doubt its own commitment. If India wants others to be dependable, India should be too.
There is no harm in trying to calm tensions with China. But New Delhi should not deceive itself about the real reasons for the tensions in the first place, nor about the probability or cost of resolving it.
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Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. His publications include three books: Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts ...Read More +