Much has been written about why China chose this time to cross the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in all sectors of Ladakh, in a premeditated and well-planned fashion. However, little has been written on what India has already done and demonstrated, while simultaneously strategising a ‘Four-Step Counter-Strategy.’
There are some views published in media on demonstrating a pro-US stand to pinch China. Such commentators build their case on withdrawing from the S-400 deal and buying the American THAAD missile system, banning Huawei/ZTE and using Samsung/Ericsson and/or offering a land/maritime base to the US. These demands are not new. Yet, these steps have been consciously avoided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a long time.
Modi has Refrained from Building a Strategic anti-China Alliance
Despite multiple sections voicing such demands in the past two months, PM has still not relented – a clear signal to President Xi Jinping that he doesn’t wish to build a strategic, anti-China alliance with the USA.
Prime Minister Modi’s demonstrated move to send his Defence Minister to Russia, not to USA or Japan or Israel, and to announce an acceleration of the S-400 delivery and not THAAD, was another clear signal to China that India means no harm. An even bigger signal to defence lobbyists pushing for F35s and more Rafales was the decision to top up the Rs. 40,000 crores Russian defence deal with more than 30 Mig 29s and Sukhoi 30s, the mainstay of the Indian Air Force. This too when the preferred brands for the more than 160 fighters needed for the Navy and Air Force were not Russian.
Signaling the United States
The above are dual-directional signals to the US as well, that if it needs India, it needs to do more on cessation of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, rather than India needing to do more to buy American equipment and open up to lower duties on American imports.
It is important to remember that beginning with Harley Davidson, India has not yielded either on those duties, on data residency, on the Equalisation Levy on US tech companies or on several trade issues regularly highlighted by the US, over the past three years, thereby demonstrating India’s desire to remain non-aligned.
Disengaging China while Remaining Non-Aligned
Therefore, India is in a difficult and crucial phase of its life. It needs to remain non-aligned and yet garner support to disengage with China. It faces three very daunting challenges if there is no deal to resolve the current stand-off with China.
First, it will have a hot and hard LAC of 3,500 km, added to the already existing 3,200 km border with Pakistan, as also the prospect of 2000 km of a fenced armed border with Nepal. From just about 3,200 km, India would need to scale up border guarding significantly, a serious drain on resources, notwithstanding China’s fast-developing rail network to Nepal.
Second, Chinese expansionism will rise even more, with cascading outreach. It will use its military and unlimited resources to develop at least three maritime bases in the Indian Ocean region, Djibouti and Gwadar being the declared ones. Whether Maldives or Hambantota will be the third is a question time will answer.
Third, it will put paid to India’s ability to threaten aggression with Pakistan. India’s theoretical chance of sending its much-depleted Army to Afghanistan, its realistic chance of a limited conventional war without a nuclear overhang with Pakistan, and its philosophical stature as a go-to-power for SAARC nations will suffer serious damage.
Engaging a Four Step Strategy
In this context, India’s strategy to counter Chinese moves may not be as difficult as made out to be and easily defined as a Four-Step.
The first involves standing firm at the border, unyielding on each square kilometer, strong on the sea and unyielding on the Dalai Lama. Indian ethos percolates into its political and diplomatic domains, that of being polite and straightforward. Duality in speech and purpose is yet to become a part of India’s foreign policy, as it has with much of the world. Being difficult at the land borders and talking sweet at the table, a much-acclaimed and much-derided Chinese trait requires a visit.
The second would involve re-opening the One-China question on all three of its core issues, Taiwan, Tibet and the recently added, South China Sea. Visibly offering a diplomatic exchange with or making an official reference to Taiwan and its Ambassador, vocalising the unfinished agenda of sharing of maps as per the 2003 agreement. In that dramatic time, India recognised Tibet as part of China, while China was to do Sikkim as a part of sovereign India, but it did not. Such an incomplete agreement normally requires restoration of status quo ante, which would require reference to the map of Tibet as an independent nation. Also reiterating India’s resolve to support the militarised Quad, which could have just two domains of focus – the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region.
The third would be to extract the most from a highly unionised form of globalisation, wherein the west is currently the corona-tormented section and baying for an investigation and prosecution, having lost half a million lives and two years of economic growth. India’s position as a member at UNSC and the Bio-Weapons Convention (BWC), Director General at the World Health Assembly of World Health Organisation (WHO) and vocal member at Financial Action Task Force (FATF), would be of great assistance. Smoking-gun evidence from an investigation by WHO, followed up at BWC and FATF with a Nomination to the Grey List, like that of Pakistan, but based on available evidence of money laundering and proliferation financing, would tie the dragon down into a defensive position.
The fourth would be the slowest and for the medium term, that of import substitution. Knee-jerk stoppage of imports or selective ban of apps, leaving some out while including others, do send the intended message, however, they are double-edged swords that hold out some harm to India too. Therefore, exercising supreme caution on trade and investment, even if letting it continue, while implementing the first three steps, is a better strategy.
India has intelligently chosen to disengage via talks and engagement but may need to scale up its counter-strategy as the Chinese understand deals and negotiating levers only.