For too long, Delhi has been hesitant to impose costs for Beijing’s military adventurism, preferring instead to settle matters diplomatically. In doing so, India has failed to realise that while Xi Jinping’s China is irrational, it is not an entirely unpredictable actor
The current violent confrontation between India and China in east Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control should come as a surprise to none. This was inevitable. An inexorable chain of events was set in motion in 2017 when New Delhi rejected Beijing’s imperial invitation to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) event presided over by Chinese President Xi Jinping. A second rude rebuff followed later in the summer of that year when India stood up to China’s efforts to reorganise Himalayan political geography on the Doklam plateau. India must be prepared to strongly repel the backlash from Beijing on our mountains, in our waters and through our digital platforms.
The Indian commentariat is needlessly agonising over the drivers of the latest Chinese actions. Let us stop theorising, and be bold enough to accept that China is just being itself. India has made decisions like independent nations do as an exercise of their sovereignty. To argue otherwise would be tantamount to ignoring the sum total of Beijing’s behaviour during the ‘Made in China’ pandemic: The acceleration of territorial revisionism in the South China Sea; the subjugation of Hong Kong through the stoutly contested national security law; repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace; heightened naval aggression around Japan’s Senkaku Islands; and its most recent encroachment in Nepal.
There is a pattern to this madness; a reason for this seemingly inexplicable restlessness.
In Jiang Zemin’s 2002 report to the 16th Party Congress, the Communist Party of China (CPC) presciently foresaw a 20-year “period of strategic opportunity” for China — linked to its entry into the World Trade Organization and America’s misguided interventions in West Asia that enabled Beijing to play a deft game of Chinese Checkers — and build national power. Emperor Xi, anointed to office for life with a heavenly mandate, is now exercising that power as a counterpoise to the diminishing clout of American influence, and the weakening resolve of a wavering EU and unsure Europe. This is the moment for the Xi Dynasty (like the Mao Gang in another era) to take charge of the wheel and steer China to its centennial objective of world domination by 2049.
The new version of Chinese exceptionalism shaped and directed under Xi’s tutelage is linked to China’s past identity, largely a product of myth-making. It has willed itself into believing that it does not need to work within the matrix of international laws, rules and norms. It has decided that the time when China would “hide and bide” its motivations and capabilities is past.
The CPC is now externalising the authoritarian idiosyncrasies it wields at home. Medievalism is the hallmark of Chinese external assessments. This is evident from its insatiable urge to redraw boundaries as an adventure sport and from its estimation of its population (as well as others) as mere fodder. This behaviour is exemplified in China’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ with Canada. Chen Weihua, the European Union bureau chief of the China Daily, offered an unsympathetic glimpse into how China views the issue: “People often fail to note that Meng is worth 10 Kovrig and Spavor, if not more.”
Supplementing this behaviour are two critical tools: an expansionist military and modern methods of engagement. Xi has overseen what is arguably the most wide-ranging modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): purging it of corrupt or disloyal officials, ensuring its transition to a capable and expeditionary naval force; undertaking crucial administrative and organisational reforms; and reaffirming its absolute loyalty to the CPC and its ideology. In parallel, Xi has presided over China’s long-term efforts to securitise and weaponise global supply chains, flows of technology, finance and data, and institutions of global governance. The all-pervasive Chinese State is but an instrument for the benefit of the CPC.
Time and again India has confronted these realities at 14,000 feet above sea level and soon it may have to defend its blue waters against the rising crimson tides. At one level, Beijing is merely attempting to ‘remind’ India of Asia’s geopolitical hierarchy — that failure to kow-tow to the Middle Kingdom carries consequences. More worryingly, Beijing may have concluded from India’s history that heightened aggression along the LAC will invariably bring India to the negotiating table — that India will grant China greater political concessions, market access or economic bargains as the price for ‘peace and tranquillity’. The Indian State will have to dispel and disprove this Chinese assumption.
China is also using this moment to send a message to its other neighbours in the East and South China Sea. While a similar escalation in those waters by China carries the risk of drawing in American military response, the attempt to reorganise boundaries on the Himalayas conveys the same intent. China is demonstrating to the world the limitations of decaying American power without having to actually confront it. In its neo-Confucian assessment an Indian capitulation may signal the final rites of Pax Americana. Beijing may be in for a surprise on both counts, provided countries are able to correctly assess the deeper import of recent Chinese actions.
India must begin with the daunting acknowledgement that the world’s second largest economy is its primary long-term geopolitical and geo-economic rival. It must also internalise that it will not be able to negotiate its way into any favourable outcomes with China. While nations must talk and unofficial summits such as Wuhan and Mamallapuram are important, India must have the singular purpose of investing in and developing robust political, economic, digital and military tools that should, for the short to medium-term, be able to protect territory and rebuff the northern marauders.
For too long, Delhi has been hesitant to impose costs for China’s military adventurism, preferring instead to settle matters diplomatically. In doing so, India has failed to realise that while Xi’s China is irrational, it is not an entirely unpredictable actor. It sees capitulation and a preference for negotiation as a sign of weakness. Delhi must be creative about how it imposes costs for this behaviour — creating unconventional and asymmetric options that help in ‘area denial’ operations in the Himalayas. Accelerating roads and infrastructure is one part, building emplacements is the second. The politics of ‘sharp’ presence (physical) is the only vocabulary understood in those terrains.
The adage ‘it is the economy stupid’ has never been more relevant. Obsession with building India’s economic heft must override all other considerations. China’s rise was underwritten by its strategic co-option of globalisation. In an era where global flows of data are outstripping trade in goods, and where technology supply chains are being jealously guarded, India’s goal should be to emerge as one of the centres of the topography of digital globalisation. India did well to reject the BRI; it must now ensure that it rejects BRI’s digital avatar as well.
The banning of Chinese goods may be important signalling but will have little impact on the northern neighbour due to the asymmetry in trade. Zealous protection of India’s digital backbone and networks (5G) and billion-people-plus digital platforms from Chinese encroachment and intrusion, either openly or by stealth, must be the clear-eyed strategic objective. However, India cannot do this alone — and here is where its own period of strategic opportunity begins. In a powerful dissent against the Xi regime, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun laments the consequences of Beijing’s global assertiveness: “Instead of embracing a [global] community,” he writes, “China is increasingly isolating itself from it.” The challenge for India is to capture this moment – to shed (self) righteous theories of foreign policy in favour of pragmatic, even cynical, partnerships that bolster its economy, provide it with technology, arm its military and support its global ambitions.
That India is still debating Non-Alignment as a choice is a sad reflection of its inability to grasp the reality that stares it in the face, its failure to read the writing on the wall, its myopic disregard for what the future holds. When Non-Alignment was conceived it was an attempt by the leadership of the day to carve out a space for India in a world dominated by two superpowers. Does its propagation allow similar space to India now? Or does a string of strategic partnerships (not of the variety that exists in the dozens) serve India’s interests better?
Indeed, the time for hiding behind ‘strategic ambiguity’ is over. This stands true for New Delhi’s involvement with international institutions as well. How will India take advantage of its seat in the UN Security Council, its upcoming presidency of the G-20, its chairmanship of the WHO, its position in the Global AI Alliance, or its leadership of the International Solar Alliance?
India now increasingly finds a place on the high table of global governance. Question is, can it make the most of these arenas? Can Delhi marshal its diplomatic resources to convince the international community that events in the Himalayas carry global consequences, and that silence now, only emboldens China’s perverse great power ambitions in other geographies and domains? Will New Delhi develop the appetite to call out China on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong in international forums? Can it incubate a discursive space that will challenge ‘wolf warrior’ propaganda?
(This article first appeared in the ORF)Samir Saran is the President of Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Views are personal.