The nosedive in India-China relations in 2020 throws up the natural question: Why did we not see it coming? Strategically, China’s geopolitical ambition has been acquiring wings and sharpening its claws for nearly two decades. Perhaps, the answer is that we saw it coming but we indulged ourselves in self-deception. Ironically, Narendra Modi followed Nehru in believing that the structural equations of geopolitics could be tamed through the handshakes and hugs of leadership bonhomie. One sincerely hopes that no future Indian Prime Minister would be so deluded.
China’s rise and its growing ambitions have necessarily to take into account India’s political stance in the global geopolitical race. India’s size and growing geopolitical heft could impact both the US and China, only if it takes sides. Leveraging the dynamics of such sensitivity to navigate the growing tensions between the US and China has been the staple challenge of Indian statecraft for at least two decades. The main interest that should guide India’s political decision-making is the need to sustain progress in primarily improving the welfare of our people by alleviating poverty, and improving education and healthcare.
The Indo-US nuclear deal was a milestone that symbolised India’s recognition that its ambitions for progress required greater engagement with the rest of the world. Deeper economic engagement with China and other economic powerhouses also followed that utilised the headwinds of globalisation. However, by 2010, China was feeling the need to signal to India that the power gap between the two ought to be given due recognition and that it would react to India taking sides. The signals about power gaps were expressed in the form of military exertions resulting in intermittent ‘face offs’ from 2012 in Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Though these incidents were resolved, the political messaging should have been apparent – “do not take sides against us.” Matters came to a head, starting with Doklam in 2017.
At the beginning of the Doklam incident, it was India that attempted to assert itself, for a change. India proactively and militarily stopped the building of a road in West Doklam Plateau – a territory that is disputed between Bhutan and China, but India is a party to the dispute because China’s claims entail a change in the location of the tri-junction which potentially increases vulnerability of the Siliguri Corridor. China’s main reaction was to remind India of its established superiority of power and the outcome of the 1962 War. An agreement was reached that was confined to only the face-off site. But it halted the road construction.
India claimed victory and embarked on a reset of relations that was signified by the unofficial summits at Wuhan in April 2018 and Mamallapuram in October 2019. Through this period, China militarily occupied the rest of the Doklam Plateau less the face off site, and in 2019-20 created additional military facilities in South East Doklam that increase the military threat to Siliguri Corridor. India has chosen to keep silent on what is a blatant act of military aggression against Bhutan. A pliant media and a weak Opposition have been useful in maintaining the charade of India’s self-claimed ‘victory’ in Doklam. It is reasonable to presume that India’s intelligence agencies would have kept the political leadership updated on Chinese activities and silence was evidently the preferred policy.
From Doklam, China has apparently imbibed the message that as long as the image of India’s political leadership is secure in its domestic politics, psychological pressure with reference to taking sides in the global competition can be effective. The Ladakh military aggression in 2020 was probably derived from China gambling on a minimum reaction from India and influencing its swing in the strategic posture at the global and regional levels.
From the above perspective, China’s Ladakh adventure was, in all likelihood, a result of their reading of India’s political leadership. The fact that it has not followed China’s script is because of speedy military mobilisation, the Galwan incident, and India’s pre-emptive action in end-August 2020 in the Chushul Sector.
From the early statements of the political and military leadership, it would transpire that the apex intelligence mechanisms were probably unable to accurately assess the scale and intention of the Chinese moves. This has been attributed to the restructuring of the Joint Intelligence Committee in September 2018 that possibly weakened integrated intelligence assessment at the highest level.
The military-level disengagement talks followed and made limited progress by end-May. But the Galwan incident on June 15 left no scope for playing down the situation, and Modi’s remarks at the all-party meeting had to be modified. Post-Galwan, interactions took place between foreign ministers and NSAs, but it was left to the military commanders to resolve the issue. Despite several rounds of talks, progress has eluded the two countries and the complexity of the problem got enhanced after India’s pre-emptive action in end-August 2020.
Presently, the military situation is frozen by the harsh winter of the Himalayas. The political relationship was described by the Indian foreign minister as “cannot be business as usual.” Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s election victory in the US, the growing proximity of Russia-China and China-Pakistan seem to have deepened political, economic and strategic complexities for India. However, India might have to some extent disabuse China of the notion that absolute power advantage does not automatically convert to successful military coercion. Context matters.
Overall, China’s strategic behaviour has altered, somewhat, the ambivalence of India’s posture. There is acceptance that the possibility of Chinese aggression in the Himalayas will require internal balancing. Evidently, there is the by now familiar scramble to speedily make up the deficiencies in our defence capability.
The larger question for Indian statecraft is the type, scale and scope of cooperation internationally in the economic and strategic domains. The economy has shrunk drastically. There is a need to balance economic needs with the demands of geopolitical realities. China has shown its hand, and challenged India’s strategic autonomy. Standing up to China is not a choice but an imperative if India has to fulfil its own aspirations and be respected by others.
An overall review of orientation in relationships is warranted. The maritime space of the Indo-Pacific provides choices for political cooperation and holds promise for influencing China’s strategic behaviour. The decision on relationships must not be based on superficial readings of personalities who represent the leadership of nations — a cautionary lesson that India must embrace, if it has to pick its way through what are going to be a hugely challenging 2020s.