Originally Published 2020-06-19 11:00:16 Published on Jun 19, 2020
Neighborly discord in the Galwan Valley

Alt-Right strategic opinion is convinced that the assertion of incremental claims over the upper reaches of the Galwan river valley in Ladakh reflects the habitual greediness of China which “nibbles away” at borders in a near continuous expansion of territory.

In doing so they also constantly test the limits to which they can push the adversary and give no reprieve to those inadequately resolved to fight back. China cares not a whit about legalities or diplomatic niceties. China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea clearly evidence such opinions as being well founded (Vijay Gokhale Speech Pune).

Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -a South Asian Strategic affairs analyst of repute says India – like all other countries – which share a border with China have only three choices. First, retaliate against expansionism by copy-cat capture of poorly defined territory held by China. Second, resist expansionary claims actively – on the ground and diplomatically. Third lie back and accept the rape Ashley Tellis on China’s Galwan adventurism

India’s hyperactive media and its hotly contested politics does not permit our leadership to even consider the third option. Leadership must appear competent and strong if it is not to suffer in one or the other of the many elections which are always happening at the center, in the states or at the local level.

The first option of copy-cat incursions into the neutral, ill-defined territory has some salience. The only problem is that this “active” strategy will require a constant stream of additional resources to continually outwit the adversary in a low intensity conflict along a 3500 km long border at high altitudes. A daunting and resource intensive option.

In effect, the default option is what we have done thus far- remain watchful, anticipate adversary intentions, take counter measures and in the event of an unstoppable ingress seek to contain it and double up on diplomatic channels to flag it for eventual resolution.

This is a “long game” in which consistency of strategy and theatre command tactics is key. India lacks the persistence for either. Resource allocation is always a problem. Playing a war game, in which, the best outcome is just to maintain the status quo, does not galvanize citizen support either. Peaceniks will always want to convert the border into a zone of tranquility – as if beggars can be choosers.

Bharat Karnad, a seasoned, security analyst who has long sounded the alarm against expansionary China, advocates we take a leaf from the Pakistani war book to contain a much bigger adversary- in their case India- via the induction of “first use” tactical nuclear weapons.

The advisability of deploying such lethal weapons along a poorly defined border between India and China is debatable. The doctrine of “first use” requires a finely honed set of compulsory triggers for initiating action. Is this possible, with line of control infractions happening often, sometimes inadvertently. Factoring in restraint to avoid an “overkill” reaction for small or temporary infractions, risks undermining the “first use” resolve itself.

Luckily for us, the Indian security and diplomatic establishments are highly professional institutions with sophisticated protocols, honed over decades, including diplomatic and trade incentives/sanctions, to deal with overseas friends and foes.

It remains unclear however whether we are as well versed to deal with those “in between”- like China. China feels, somewhat mistakenly, that it has become big enough not to need a friend and can buy whatever support it needs to legitimize its overseas ambitions of pushing the US to second place.

India can in no way either stymie this objective nor can it hope to collaborate to do so. That is a game for the big boys, not us. Consider that India’s GDP only equals the combined GDP of the five bigger ASEAN economies – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Philippines. There are lessons to be learnt in the wily, circumspect manner they manage China to their advantage.

Consider also, that over the last two decades (2000-2018) the ASEAN big five grew at a respectable 8.5% per year (nominal terms) versus 10.5% for India. To us it appears that we are pulling well ahead of ASEAN. But to the big five, it is China, which continues to be the lodestar of prosperity with a 14.3% nominal growth over this period (WB data).

Using nominal growth data here is more appropriate because business is more concerned with current money values unlike economists who measure and compare in constant terms to get to the bottom of what policies work and why. For business what matters is whether the customer has the US$ required to buy their products and service their investments.

In terms of near-term business prospects, the ASEAN big five do better than us. Their combined trade (import plus export), in current US$, was 3X of ours in 2019 (Trade Map International Trade Statistics) though we have closed the differential since 2001 when the it was 6.5X. Versus China we remain a minnow with their trade being 5X of ours in 2019, with only a marginal improvement since 2001

What does all this have to do with the China-India relationship? The sheer dominance of China in the region deserves respect- much like we demand respect from our smaller neighbors. After the diplomatize and polite chatter is done, economic size matters, as does an evidenced history of exercising economic muscle.

Tellis points out that the big difference between the US and China is that the former has a century old, recent history of asserting power across the global, the continuing physical capacity to do so and institutions to match. Similarly, we must recognize, the vast differentials in the path dependencies between China and India.

Over the past three decades, China has persistently pulled away from parity with India. Its’ manner, of asserting itself globally, is unseemly – an example India would do well not to emulate, once the time is ripe. But, did not the United States also go through “The Ugly American” phase in the 1960s and 1970s?

Also, “Emperor” Xi at 67, might have hastened China’s global muscularity to a fault. Has he fallen into the classic “strong man” trap of trying to achieve superstardom in his working life? If so, then he will have stretched China’s resources beyond sustainable levels and the fiscal strain should start showing up soon.

It is in this context, that India’s tepid response to the latest Chinese adventurism should be viewed. China is tiring slowly. India is just getting started – hopefully, this time around we will shed the mantle of being the perennial high potential economy and become one. India must play the long game and tire out an ageing adversary not by engage aggressively by boxing above its weight – as Alt-Right nationalists would want.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia has core skills in institutional analysis, energy and economic regulation and public financial management backed by eight years of project management experience ...

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