The current Sino-Indian face-off in Ladakh involving thousands of troops from each side, some within handshaking distance, has brought the relationship to an inflexion point.
Talks to defuse the situation at the military, diplomatic and political levels have not succeeded. India wants a restoration of status quo ante. China is unwilling and wants India to resume bilateral relations in a business as usual mode. India has refused to comply. The situation is, therefore, at an ugly impasse.
Hopes that the Jaishankar-Wang Yi five-point agreement of 10 September will defuse the situation are unlikely to be realised. This agreement will fare no better than the agreements of 6 June between the military commanders and of 6 July between Ajit Doval and Wang Yi. The former was followed by the Galwan Valley incident and the latter by the incidents south of the Pangong Tso.
This scepticism is borne of the fact that, given its track record, any agreement with China is not worth the paper it is written upon. The mantra in dealing with China, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it, is “distrust and verify”. Furthermore, the five-point agreement consists of mere motherhood and apple pie assertions, with no hard, practical details and is on similar lines to those made following the Doval-Wang Yi talks. Above all, it makes no mention of a reversion to status quo ante and that business as usual between the two countries is not possible without peace and tranquillity along the LAC.
The five-point agreement is in keeping with China’s tradition of trying to lull us into complacency while planning its next move. From an Indian view point, such an agreement was best avoided as it raises false hopes. The two countries are clearly on a collision course arising out of China’s expansionist urge and inability to accept regional multipolarity.
India’s options on addressing the China challenge may broadly be categorised as follows:
- Dealing with China in a business as usual mode, as done hitherto, and accepting the new realities on the ground created by the latter;
- Blocking any further encroachments by China, imposing some economic costs on it, and gradually upgrading links with other players, while engaging it and treading warily on any drastic moves which may annoy it;
- Imposing pain on China on an across the board basis. This would entail military, economic, and diplomatic moves requiring us to shed our age-old inhibitions of being mindful of China’s concerns.
While the first option would, for the moment, avert a conflict with China, it will encourage the latter to become even more assertive. It will also send a very bad message to the rest of the world, which would see us as a paper tiger and as a country subservient to China. The Sino-Indian standoff constitutes a critical turning point in India’s history. Its international standing will depend on how it handles this crisis. The stakes are huge. Successfully staring down the dragon will signal India’s arrival on the international scene as a significant player. Failure to do so will condemn it to be a bit player.
While there is, of course, a huge power differential between India and China—the result of misguided policies of successive Indian governments over the decades—national self-respect demands that we do not kowtow to China, but instead take all necessary steps to preserve our territorial integrity. There are many examples in history where countries have successfully done so against more powerful adversaries inter alia through linkages with other players and by resorting to asymmetric measures. India, above all, has the great advantage of having a first-rate battle-hardened professional military, which man for man is far superior to that of China. India is also a nuclear weapons state and cannot be pushed around beyond certain red lines.
The government appears to have distanced itself from the first option and taken to the second option as evident from its proactively blocking further Chinese aggression, adoption of steps designed to impose some economic costs on China, such as the banning of 238 Chinese apps, imposition of import duties on some Chinese products, barring the participation of Chinese vendors in the 5G spectrum auctions, cancellation of a few Chinese contracts etc., upgrading the level of participation in Quad and concluding a military logistics agreement with Japan. These endeavours are insufficient to cause China to alter its aggressive policies. Its exports to India, for instance, are only 3% of its total exports and a diminution therein will make no difference to it. Similarly, a mere military blocking action along the LAC will leave the tactical initiative with China while imposing considerable military costs on us of policing the over 4,000 km of our borders with it in the most inhospitable terrain in the world and in extreme weather conditions.
A preferred approach is the third option outlined above, which, no doubt, carries a higher risk of a wider conflict with China, which will almost certainly be joined in by Pakistan. A hot war with China is, however, only a theoretical possibility as it is highly unlikely that the latter would risk this as it would take it back decades in its quest to surpass the United States as the premier world power. If, however, China wishes to impose a war on India, the latter is prepared and will make the realisation of Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream an impossibility.
Militarily, the third option would require us to evict Chinese forces from areas occupied by them on our side of the LAC or alternatively seize areas on their side of the LAC. Simultaneously, we should call on China for an early settlement of the boundary issue or at least a delineation of the LAC in a time-bound framework. In case China procrastinates, we should make known that we will no longer accept the concept of an ambiguous LAC and its associated CBMs which have been observed selectively by them and under the guise of which they have been appropriating Indian territory. This has a serious downside risk for China as it opens up the possibility of our targeting the Aksai Chin area linking Sinkiang (now Xinjiang) and Tibet.
To lend meaningful substance to our unhappiness at China’s actions during the current face-off we should widen the economic measures already taken against it and encourage Indians to refrain from buying Chinese products. Additionally, the implementation of the supply chain resilience initiative recently agreed upon by the Foreign Ministers of India, Japan and Australia should be accelerated.
In depth briefings must be provided to the international community on China’s aggression along the LAC including its breach of all the understandings designed to maintain peace and tranquillity on our borders. This is essential. Failure to do so provides China the opportunity to fill the vacuum with its own narrative. In order to improve our strategic communication, we must have a high level and well equipped multi-disciplinary media team, which presents the correct narrative promptly both in India and abroad.
While most countries will be sympathetic to India in a conflict with China, we should not expect anyone to assist us with boots on the ground. Happily, we do not need such support. We would, of course, need continued supplies of arms and equipment from our traditional suppliers, notably the US, Israel, France and Russia. This is likely to see no interruption. Additionally, the US along with its other partners can be expected to support us by way of providing intelligence. It will also possibly keep some Chinese forces tied up in the Pacific through appropriate naval deployments. It is imperative that arrangements for requirements from these countries are firmed up well in advance.
Additionally, India needs to urgently work at creating a coalition of countries which feel threatened by China and evolve a programme of action on addressing this challenge. There is fertile ground for this in South East Asia, which needs to cultivated. Perhaps, Quad and Quad Plus could be the nucleus around which this could be constructed. It may be recalled that US Secretary of State, Pompeo, had also speculated on the need for a coalition of like-minded countries to deal with the Chinese threat.
Apart from the foregoing we need to actively play the Hong Kong, Uyghur, Tibet and Taiwan cards. On the first three we should spare no effort to highlight the horrific human rights violations being visited on them by China. Our pleas on behalf of the Uyghur people will hopefully shame the Islamic world, which has so far been supportive of China, into being critical of it, will be a slap in the face of Pakistan, and will silence Islamic critics of India both at home and abroad. In respect of Tibet we should also resurrect the UNGA resolution of 1961, which called for respecting the human rights of the Tibetan people including their right for self determination. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile should be allowed to freely conduct their activities in India without any hindrance.
As regards Taiwan we should not shrink from official interaction with it. Indeed, our “one China” policy needs revisiting. Since China does not follow a “one India” policy why should India adhere to a “one China” policy? It should not be forgotten that Taiwan plays a critical role in India’s defence, as by its very existence it ties up a large part of China’s military forces. Above all, Taiwan is an invaluable source of intelligence on China and a technological power house, which can be of great help to us in our Atmanirbhar programme.
India should also press for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO as an observer. This will be of great help in establishing China’s culpability in the spread of the Wuhan virus. Once this is done, we should encourage the filing of law suits against China for damages caused by Covid-19 both at the national and individual level.
Finally, given China’s existential threat to India we must rapidly ratchet up our military and economic capabilities in order to narrow the power differential betwixt the two. Defence spending must no longer be allowed to hover at the all time low of 1.5% of GDP and rapid economic growth must be prioritised.