US Vice-President Mike Pence delivered a key speech on his country’s China policy early this month on 4 October 2018. His speech drove home the message of the burgeoning challenge to American interests from China. Using specific examples, he pointed out how the Chinese sought to influence American domestic politics, stole American technology, and undermined other countries through debt-trap infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative.
Implications for India
Pence’s speech on China has also been read as being politically motivated given the November mid-term elections to the US Congress. While this may be so, it also offers Indians an opportunity to think why their country’s foreign policy challenges from China do not form more of an issue at least during parliamentary elections.
While the alleged corruption over the Rafale jet fighters deal with France threatens to become a major electoral plank for opposition parties in much the same way as the Bofors scandal played out in an earlier era, it remains an issue essentially about the perceived crimes and foibles of Indian politicians and of their rivalries rather than about genuinely addressing national security implications or foreign policy.
The US Vice-President’s speech as well as President Donald Trump’s many actions since taking office has put China at the centre of a national conversation on US foreign policy strategy and objectives. As Pence was at pains to point out during his speech, there is now growing bipartisan consensus and understanding that China has cheated and manipulated its way to the global high table taking advantage of a more open global economic and political order while itself remaining closed to outside economic competition or political influence.
By contrast, the attempt in India seems to move foreign policy issues away from the national conversation or to refer to them in broad-brush, black-and-white terms – of one party being stronger or weaker, experienced or less experienced, than others in defending sovereignty and other national interests.
Foreign policy or security actions – ‘surgical strikes’, for instance – are sold as signs of the government’s determination rather than explained for their strategic rationale. On Doklam, meanwhile, the national conversation has gone cold despite evidence and analysis suggesting that the Chinese have solidified their presence in territory claimed by Bhutan and undermining in the process, India’s commitment to Bhutan’s defence.
Start the Conversation
Compared to debates on Pakistan, those on China both within and outside the government are relatively sober. But there still is not confidence enough to bring it into electoral discourse, the way the Americans have done. This despite the fact that the Chinese challenge to India’s political values, economy and regional and global strategic interests is real and visible.
While, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson termed as ‘very ridiculous’, Pence’s charges of Chinese intervention in US internal affairs, Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 offers plenty of evidence that China seeks to export its model of economic development as well as its brand of politics to the wider world.
General elections due next year in India are an opportunity for political parties to turn greater attention towards foreign policy issues and elevate the level of discussion on China in the popular domain.
For example, the fact that Indian telecom and electronics manufacturers are so heavily dependent on Chinese hardware with the attendant security risks, should be a spur to restart conversations in Indian politics on the nature of economic incentives, the quality of our technical universities, labour relations and so on.
In Indian states bordering Tibet and Xinjiang, infrastructure development can be sold more plausibly as a matter of both national and local interests and not limited to a tradeoff between development and the environment, if there was more informed discussion and debate about Chinese security and economic policies.
Similarly, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative gradually extending into Nepal, this will have implications for not just the Indian central government but also for the economies and polities of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that have the closest links to the Himalayan nation.
The earlier, therefore, China is addressed openly and rationally as an issue of concern in Indian elections, the better prepared India’s politicians and people will be.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Why is the challenge posed by China not yet an electoral issue in India?’, Moneycontrol.com, 15 October 2018.