China challenge hangs like a dark cloud but India will increasingly strive to be a rule shaper, not rule taker

India will continue to leverage its external partnerships to buy time for internal development and seek to meet the China challenge on its own terms

Sreemoy Talukdar December 31, 2021 07:37:01 IST
China challenge hangs like a dark cloud but India will increasingly strive to be a rule shaper, not rule taker

File image of Eastern Ladakh. PTI

On Tuesday, while dedicating to the nation 24 new bridges and three new roads built by the Border Roads Organization in areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh said “in today’s uncertain environment, the possibility of any kind of conflict cannot be ruled out.” His reference to China wasn’t to be missed. These infrastructural developments are mostly girding India’s border regions with Beijing.

One of these roads, the Chisumle-Demchok Road in eastern Ladakh, the world’s highest motorable road, is built at an altitude of more than 19,000 feet. The Chinese have built so-called “civilian settlements” in the disputed region over which India also claims sovereign control, and Demchok has seen frequent clashes between troops in the past.

In this regard, Singh’s pointed remarks are worth noting: “Infrastructure development in border areas also strengthens our strategic capabilities. As we move forward in strengthening the border infrastructure, we must also strengthen our surveillance capacity in the same manner.”

Singh is not a man of casual remarks. The mention of possible “conflicts” and the resolve to strengthen India’s infrastructural and surveillance capabilities are a warning that over 100,000 troops from both sides continue facing off in the high Himalayas across the entire LAC amid another brutal winter. The Galwan clash of May 2020 that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops is a reminder that the chance of an escalation arising even from a miscalculation remains high.

All past agreements and protocols have been torn away and the entire LAC is now ‘live’. Both nations have deployed state-of-the-art arms and equipment. In India’s case, it means recently acquired US-made weaponry and operationalisation of a full Mountain Strike Corps. The situation imposes steep costs on both sides, but it is particularly painful for India whose GDP is five times lesser and defence budget is a third of China’s.

Any review of India’s foreign policy in the past year and projection for the year ahead must be put in the context of the ongoing crisis that poses a challenge to India’s grand strategy. If India’s rise is predicated on creating a favourable external environment that allows India the time, space and resources to build capabilities to accelerate its own progress, then a resolution of the dispute with China is a prerequisite.

As we come to the end of 2021, the prognosis for Sino-Indian bilateral ties is grim. The year started with some promise. In February, Indian and Chinese troops disengaged from the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso and Kailash Range followed by the withdrawal of troops from Gogra in eastern Ladakh in the first week of August.

At that stage, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect gradual disengagement from the rest of the conflict zones such as the crucial Depsang Bulge and Karakoram Pass in the north, as well the Demchok area where Chinese “civilians” remain pitched in tents.

Despite the optimism that prevailed, it was worth noting that China appeared unwilling to take forward discussions on further disengagement, and the “no-patrolling buffer zones” post disengagement were “largely coming up in what India claims to be its territory.”

Throughout the dispute, it was evident that India is more interested in the two in pragmatic management of bilateral ties that it believes will carry lesser costs than a confrontational posture — without compromising on sovereign interests.

The pragmatic settlement of a dispute that has introduced hostility and distrust in bilateral ties will carry some costs, but it will be “less than the costs of a difficult relationship,” as external affairs minister S Jaishankar writes in his book, The India Way. The focus right now for India is finding the right terms for a pragmatic settlement while managing the expenses of that strategy by limiting expectations and audience costs.

As it grapples with tensions along the land border while trying to position itself as a trade hub and fulcrum of international commerce, the trouble for India is that China doesn’t appear to be interested in a pragmatic settlement.

An invisible switch was flipped post the Gogra disengagement in August. China seemed to have drawn a red line, perhaps driven by a calculation that India has no more leverage to force a return to April-May 2020 status quo.

Beijing’s behaviour betrayed a belief that it has the wherewithal to force India to accept the new border settlement on its preferred terms. Satellite imagery showed China is building several villages and accommodations in the uninhabited, disputed tri-junction areas between India, Bhutan and China.

On 23 October, amid the protracted border tension with India, China promulgated a new ‘land border law’ that aims to solidify its claims on disputed areas by framing the peripheral regions as “sacred and inviolable”. The wording of the law, which comes into force from 1 January, is kept deliberately vague to encourage variable interpretations and create space for coercive actions.

Researcher Shuxian Luo points out in her column for Brookings Institution, the “law prohibits the construction of permanent facilities near China’s border without permission from Chinese authorities”, potentially challenging India’s rapid upgradation of infrastructure along the border. Also, as Shuxian observes, “while border town development resonates with China’s domestic agenda of “developing the border regions, enriching the local people” (兴边富民) articulated in 1999… it may be perceived as legitimizing a land version of the “salami-slicing” tactic that China is seen as employing in its maritime disputes.” 

India’s reaction was predictable. “China’s unilateral decision to bring about a legislation which can have an implication on our existing bilateral arrangements on border management as well as on the boundary question is of concern to us.” In view of the overlapping claims along the 3,488-kilometer LAC that serves as the de-facto border, India said: ”Such unilateral move will have no bearing on the arrangements that both sides have already reached earlier,” and the external affairs ministry spokesperson underlined that “we also expect that China will avoid undertaking action under the pretext of this law which could unilaterally alter the situation in the India-China border areas.” 

India’s concern isn’t misplaced. Framing the dispute as a sovereignty issue puts it beyond the pale of border negotiations that involve rational give-and-take associated with historical legacies. In effect, China is telling India that it is disinterested in any further discussions on restoring the status quo on disputed areas that it now controls, and India’s sovereign claims on the peripheral territories are therefore notional — a proposition that is obviously unacceptable to India.

On Thursday, China’s ministry of civil affairs declared that it has issued “standardised” names for 15 places in India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls Zangnan or South Tibet) to be used henceforth on official Chinese maps — prompting an acerbic response from India that “Arunachal Pradesh has always been, and will always be an integral part of India. Assigning invented names to places in Arunachal Pradesh does not alter this fact.”

What are India’s options as China consolidates control over areas on which New Delhi’s sovereign claims overlap? It is noticeable that a significant section of India’s strategic community prioritizes conflict resolution over the settlement of dispute.

According to former NSA Shivshankar Menon, who had played an integral part in past Sino-Indian border agreements, “New Delhi and Beijing need to improve communication, including by engaging in a high-level bilateral strategic dialogue to identify each other’s core interests, determine which are complementary and which are in conflict, and then decide how to manage their relationship. Such a process would not immediately restore trust between India and China, now a scarce commodity. But it could solidify the uneasy calm and prevent a slide into conflict.”

But adopting a strategic framework that works and engaging in a meaningful dialogue won’t be easy, especially when China is keen on leveraging its considerable national power and enormous capabilities for strategic purposes.

That creates a gap which India, at this stage of its development, cannot surmount. Quite naturally, the dialogue mechanism as it exists right now seems to have broken down. After the 13th round of talks on 11 October, India pointed out that the “situation along the LAC had been caused by unilateral attempts of the Chinese side to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements.”

China responded by saying that India is making “unreasonable and unrealistic demands” and “China’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty is unwavering and we hope that the Indian side will not misjudge the situation.” It isn’t difficult to see how this argument could be bolstered by the newly promulgated ‘land border law.’

For an aspirational nation that is climbing up the global hierarchy and setting the agenda for its rise, increasing rapidly its capabilities and focusing on developmental priorities at home, the China question hangs like a dark mist that clouds future vision.

In October, at a DD News conclave, foreign minister Jaishankar said that both nations should “give each other space” and “mutual respect”. Batting for a multipolar Asia, the minister said: “A lot of the dynamics between India and China would be how well they understand each other, how much they respect each other, how sensitive they are to each other, as I said, do they give each other enough space and recognize that sometimes… they will have different interests, and learn to live with it.”

India’s clamour for space and respect is understandable because it feels that China is constricting both in seeking to stunt India’s growth even as it scripts its own meteoric rise. A sense of pessimism in the minister’s speech was evident a month later at an event when he said, “We are going through a particularly bad patch in our relationship because they have taken a set of actions in violation of agreements for which they still don’t have a credible explanation and that indicates some rethink about where they want to take our relationship, but that's for them to answer…”

That the frost in the relationship still couldn’t prevent a record rise in bilateral trade (46.4 percent year-on-year from January to November 2021) and a concomitant rise in India’s trade deficit (up 53.49 percent year on year)  point to China’s deep relevance to global and Indian economy.

This adds to India’s constraints because while it needs resources, capital, technology and best practices to increase capabilities and engage with the world in its own terms, India cannot decouple itself from China despite stating clearly that bilateral ties will be affected if peace and tranquility in border regions is disturbed. As I had argued previously, India’s main leverage vis-a-vis China (or what New Delhi considers as its chief leverage) — the restoration of normalcy in bilateral ties — isn’t working.

Also read: India, China border emerging as a bigger flashpoint than Taiwan for a short, sharp war; all bets are off​

Under the circumstances, what we are likely to witness in the coming year is India’s continued move towards issue-based coalitions and even more perceptible shift from a policy of non-alignment to tightening further its strategic relations with the United States, Europe and Indo-Pacific countries. Towards this end, India is developing rapidly its security and military ties with the US, whom Jaishankar has described as “undeniably the premier power of our times.”

The direct threat emanating from China rise — given the fact that Beijing seems to have decided that as a classic ‘land-sea’ power it needs to pull its weight equally on the continental front as it has on the maritime frontier — may compel India to strike more counterbalancing coalitions and leverage its own position as a democratic counterweight to China to address the bilateral imbalance arising from the power differential with Beijing.

It has helped India that Europe, long peripheral to India’s security calculus, is taking a greater interest in Indo-Pacific if only to invest in resilient supply chains and ensure the free flow of trade. The European Union finally came up with an Indo-Pacific Policy in September this year that reassesses its engagement strategy with the nation. The EU approach to Indo-Pacific may not be overtly military-security-centric as the US policy is, yet it still presents Europe as a key player in maintaining and shaping the order that is facing enormous geopolitical turbulence from China’s assertive rise.

This presents a unique opportunity for India that looks to harness more multilateral and plurilateral partnerships to leverage its position. As German Marshall Fund fellow Garima Mohan points out, “an important dimension of the Indo-Pacific is the emergence of flexible coalitions among like-minded partners, particularly the Quadrilateral between the US, India, Japan and Australia. While outlining its approach to China, the EU strategy also opens the possibility and willingness to work with other partners and coalitions. It explicitly mentions working with Quad working groups on vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies.”

While the EU-India relationship is yet to fully develop despite the convergence of interests in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi has been rapidly scaling up its partnership with nations such as France and the UK. With France, specifically, whose defence minister Florence Parly arrived earlier this month for the annual defence dialogue, India’s level of “trust, confidence and comradery” (as Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan writes in The Diplomat is worth noting.

In an interview with Times of India, Parly said: “France is a nation of the Indo-Pacific, and India is our foremost strategic partner to keep this region free, open, and prosperous. And I am glad that our other partnerships in the region are also gaining strength, such as the one with the UAE whose armed forces will now also be flying Rafale jets.”

Alongside, the hardening of public opinion against China has also enabled India’s leadership to take concrete steps vis-à-vis its relationship with the US that though falls short of a formal alliance yet has “some characteristics of an alliance”. To quote Brookings scholar Tanvi Madan in War on the Rocks, “Faced with Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and the recognition that it cannot tackle this challenge on its own, Delhi has chosen to deepen ties with partners that can help it build Indian capabilities, offer alternatives in the Indo-Pacific, and maintain a favorable balance of power in the region. The United States is seen as particularly useful…”

It is evident that in the New Year, in an Asia that it defines as multipolar, India will not be just a rule-taker, it will strive to become a rule shaper. From that prism, India will continue to leverage its external partnerships to buy time for internal development and seek to meet the China challenge on its own terms.

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