India and China — the global calculus

Kashmir has once again proven to be a potential geopolitical and geostrategic pivot capable of moving the world.

The Ladakh crisis has not only exposed India’s lacking as an aggressive competitor through its fidgety response in Ladakh, but more than that it has exposed the shallow depth of India’s alliance in the Quad (Australia-India-Japan-US) against China. Yet for those who have been tracking India, it is a surprise that India was so unprepared and heedless.

Historically, the two countries seem to have been on a two-prong trajectory; one of a Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai and the idea of Chindia, a partnership in which interdependence would be so strong, that cooperation and peace would be inevitable; and the other of excessive competition in border deployments and control of international waters. Indeed, bilateral trade between China and India touched $89.6 billion in 2017–18, making China India’s second biggest trade partner, yet killing the idea of “more globalisation, less war”, the two states remain wary of an attack from the other.

China’s rejection of the McMahon Line has left several pockets along the border that both states contest. In 1960, Nehru and Zhou Enlai attempted to settle the boundary dispute, but the talks failed, ultimately escalating into the 1962 Sino-Indian War of 1962. Later there were major incidents in the Sikkim area, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, mostly at the same points where China is making incursions in the current stand-off.

Especially in Arunachal Pradesh, where Indian buildup is scarce and most outposts are temporary and only accessible on foot. And representatives have been bringing up the matter of increasing Chinese ingress and buildup, several miles inside the state for decades now, in the Lok Sabha, but only to deaf ears. And it seems that the government has no estimate on how much area is actually occupied by the Chinese in Arunachal.

This means that China’s ingress and acclamation has been ongoing over decades and must not have been a surprise! India’s joining the US as a strategic ally since 2005 has generated further fears of encirclement in China. The US sees India as a partner that would join it in obstructing maritime shipping lanes originating from the South China Sea. With a staggering military budget of $65.86 billion for 2020, India is constantly increasing its capability in air and naval power. Though far behind in technological superiority from the Chinese and unmatched with China’s nuclear arsenal, India’s ambitious maritime policy aims to control the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait through its diplomatic ventures with Malaysia or Indonesia. India is also constantly trying to increase its influence in South Asia and Southeast Asia, where its interests often directly clash with China’s Belt and Road (BRI) projects. India’s acquiring port projects like in Myanmar, Chabahar and military base facilities in Madagascar, Djibouti and Seychelles reflect its extra-regional ambitions. But all these ambitions come with a cost, they make the enemy think and remark that “we can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians” and that the Indian Ocean is just as well China’s “sphere of influence”. And this they have achieved by making the port project in Gwadar and Hambantota along with several other development projects along the Indian Ocean.

One needs to weigh the Modi government’s aggressive posture in Kashmir in the light of all this backlog of animus between the two states that has taken the form of regional competition in the passing decade. And that whether India’s miscalculation in Ladakh are accounted for by the emotive policies of a leaderships that is unable to predict the future because of its belief in a distorted version of the past. A distorted thinking that led to the belief that drastic changes in Kashmir’s status quo would be ignored by its adversaries.

India’s incapacity compared to the political, economic and military profile of China, which is much more global and pragmatic was obvious when it could not even give a conventional response in Ladakh. Yet, instead of trying to step back and compromise, it has actually upped the ante by increasing diplomacy against China, especially within the Quad.

Previously, the Quad had been cautious in its assertions of containing China; Japan had increasingly shown its interest in various BRI projects around the world; and Australia was reluctant to offend China that was so much closer to it than it was to the US. So, the four kept meeting and kept conducting joint naval exercises in the Pacific and Indian oceans, without ever being vocal against China. In fact, at its very beginning, in 2007, Indian PM Manmohan Singh asserted that the Quad carries “no security implication” and that there was “no question of ganging up” against China.

Yet with the Ladakh crisis, India seems to be attempting exactly that! Heeding to India’s fast-track diplomacy in July, one day after Japan said that it opposes any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo” on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Japan has declared that it will make changes in its legislature for intelligence sharing with India, Australia and the UK — which means that the UK wants to join the alliance too now.

In a show of unity, just after India banned 59 Chinese apps, the US and Australia have said they would also ban TikTok. In fact, Australia announced banning Huawei and a huge investment of $270 billion in defense spending. Boris Johnson has also hastened to assert that the UK is expected to phase out Huawei from Britain’s 5G phone networks too.

But banning an app or releasing a statement won’t be much of a help. It seems like everyone is strengthening their own defences at home, and eventually India has to deal with China in Ladakh all alone. India should heed that even if its international friends give it all the supplies of war, they would prefer to be happy spectators as they watch the two regional competitors annihilate each other and it should heed to the wisdom of not igniting a war it can’t win.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2020.

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