The biggest strategic challenge facing India today is ‘systemic’. India is trying to figure out its position in the contemporary international system, because the system is itself in a state of flux. One of the major geopolitical shifts is the rise of China. In China the authoritarian model of governance and scuttling of dissent by force has been since the brute force used to suppress pro-democracy student activism in Tiananmen Square in 1989. China showed its belligerent irredentist power by conquering Tibet in 1955 and then inflicted a crushing defeat on India in 1962. India’s relationship with China has entered the lowest ebb since 2017 when the border standoff in Doklam happened, although the political and diplomatic establishment from both sides tried to mitigate the animosity by shaking hands at an informal summit in Wuhan and then at Mahabalipuram.
Noted international analyst Kanti Bajpai refers to the new approach of Modi as ‘hybrid neoliberal-cum-hyper-realist grand strategy’ — deepening economic relationships with China yet getting tougher on border issues and more assertive in Indian Ocean. Other examples of this approach are simultaneous military and defence alignments with the USA, France, Australia, Japan and Russia, coordinating at military level by inviting Australia to join ‘Malabar drill’ to put pressure on China. Meanwhile, Indian foreign policy has entered a period of increasing tension between ‘militarism’ (i.e., coercive international stance) and ‘moralism’ (i.e., cooperative international stance). India’s policy making in the immediate post-cold war environment attests to its inability to meaningfully accommodate the desire for a more assertive role on the global stage while lacking the confidence that it can and should do so. Not surprisingly, these pragmatic and conceptual dilemmas produced a visible ‘normative schizophrenia’ in New Delhi’s international outlook.
The Pokhran nuclear detonations, which were based on the premise of Chinese nuclear threat, made explicit India’s post-1998 foreign policy assertiveness and emphasised the end of New Delhi’s ambivalence between militarism and moralism. The nuclear detonations reflected the strategic decision to rely more on power politics and less on morality and unilateral restraint in the pursuit of Indian interests. The 1998 nuclear tests projected in an emphatic manner to the rest of the world India’s newfound self confidence, without being subservient to hegemonic powers. But the Galwan tug of war in which twenty Indian soldiers were killed manifests a different trajectory and asymmetry of power India has with China. China has an advantage of being technologicaly, militarily and geo-economically far ahead of India. It does mean that our own conventional and nuclear deterrence has failed to tap the expanding territorial thirst of China, which is eating India bite by bite. China has emerged as a strong geopolitical adversary in India’s strategic gameplan. Pravin Sawhney and Gazala Wahab in their commendable work, Dragon on our doorsteps, cogently argue that Beijing does not view India as an equal but as a geopolitical pivot or balancing power in Asia. It has orchestrated a multi-pronged approach to contain India: obfuscate the border dispute; not define the LAC; disallow major diplomatic or political concessions like getting permanent UNSC membership; ensure through Pakistan that India remains a sub-regional player boxed in South Asia; make India’s neighbours deferential towards China by showering economic and military goodies on them; build its own military power by appropriate warfare strategy and higher defence management; and bind India with bilateral trade tilted in China’s favour.
The Beijing-Islamabad axis further reinforces the belief that a two-front war is no longer a fantasy, since the Chinese and Pakistani militaries have achieved interoperability and hence one will support the other in time of conflict. A response to this needs a strategy which takes into account military threats and an understanding of adversaries, to arrive at the best available solution—shorn of individual or party ideology and leanings. By the advantage of hindsight it can be extrapolated that China is building a new Asian Security Architecture around OBOR, the other less visible aspect of military power, not only to challenge the decaying liberal hegemony of USA but to be the global hotspot of trade supply chains for rapid economic expansionism. Martin Jacques puts forward an incisive argument in his global bestseller, When China rules the world, “The world has never seen something like it before: a country possessed of a huge population combined with a double-digit growth rate that has sustained for three decades. It is this which is transforming the global order at such a remarkable speed.” This celebrated book overturns conventional thinking about the ascendancy of China, showing how it will signal the end of global dominance of the Western nation-state and future of contested modernity.
India’s strategic choices
Observers interested in the changing global power configuration from unipolarity to multipolarity regularly cite India as one among a few new centers of power and influence that are transforming the structure and process of conducting international relations. Realists envisage an international system that approximates ‘state of nature’ where preparation of war is the best solution to optimise security. There is no short cut to constant military modernisation and improvement of national security apparatus to keep pace with or be one step ahead of anticipated or surprise threats. One of India’s grand strategy to contain China’s warrior diplomacy and expansionist tentacles is to have strong and self-sufficient military with adept offensive and defensive abilities that has such wide outreach that it can project power and meet political objectives far beyond one’s own ‘geographic confines’. China’s continued assertive behaviour on the Indo-China border, the promotion of friction between India and its neighbours such as Nepal, its incrementally expanding maritime claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and its aggressive approach towards Taiwan and Hong Kong – all these developments are further motivating New Delhi to revisit its strategic options towards China.
Meanwhile, the endorsement of a ‘Quad plus’ process indicates India’s growing embrace of an American worldview that aims to defend and strengthen a liberal international order while focussing on building an Indo-Pacific narrative that has been threatened by the rise of revisionist China. The US over a period of time has demonstrated an implicit willingness to align with India to balance China. In Beijing, too, there is recognition that Sino-Indian tensions are likely to draw the US further into South Asian geopolitics. There are admittedly voices within the US strategic community that suggest that Washington should adopt an ‘off-shore balancing’ strategy, conserving US strength until a serious challenger emerges. But the question that remains unanswered is whether USA and India have sufficient traction to counter China’s power?
The writer is a PhD scholar at Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir. Tahirbutt5944@gmail.com