Recalibrating India’s Foreign Policy in South Asia: The China Factor

China has long adopted a foreign policy of undermining Indian influence in South Asia. Beijing’s assertive approach has included regular high-level official visits, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the sale of military weapons and platforms to India’s neighbours. The Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020 is only the latest form of such a policy.

Clearly, there is little let-up in China’s pace despite the fact that the Chinese economy is struggling on a number of fronts. One of these is the impact of COVID-19 but this might be said to be a common problem across the world. What is noteworthy is that China is currently also contending with the consequences of an ongoing and sharpening conflict with the United States in the form of a ‘trade war’ since January 2018, and what is being described as a new cold war on the political front. What is more, the chances of an outbreak of kinetic conflict because of a mistake or heightened tensions cannot be ruled out either. How is it then that China has opened up a new front of conflict on its borders with India at this juncture? 

Even if one were to assume that the Galwan incident of 15 June 2020 was the result of a local incident escalating, it is logical to assume that the Chinese would have factored in the possibility that their aggressive push to claim territory across the Indian perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) could escalate. Indeed, the speed with which the Chinese moved subsequently to occupy areas of tactical significance along the LAC in eastern Ladakh (the Finger 4 ridgeline at Pangong Tso, for example) suggests that they were reasonably well-prepared for things getting out of hand and indeed, probably intended it to be so. 

Understanding the rationale behind Chinese actions, of why it seeks to undermine India rather than come to some sort of accommodation with it, is crucial to understanding also how India might deal with the problem of increasing Chinese influence in South Asia and how it might rework its increasingly frayed ties with other neighbours.

First, it is important to underline that the Chinese state led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) sees democracies everywhere as a threat to its own legitimacy as a ruling party at home. For this reason it will seek to undermine democracies everywhere in whatever manner possible. Thus, in Afghanistan it will argue that the duly elected government in Kabul must negotiate with the Taliban who have scant respect for democracy. The Chinese argument is that the Taliban, too, represent the Afghan people. This might be so but allowing bigots space simply because they have the numbers or because they engage in or threaten violence would be to give in to fear and set back progress achieved in civil liberties for the Afghan people, and invalidate the whole idea of democratic progress. For Beijing, however, a democratically-elected government in Afghanistan is a Western import into Asia and weakens its argument for the so-called ‘Asian values’ and its attempts to get powers like the United States to leave the region.

With Xi Jinping’s taking over as General Secretary of the CPC, the Chinese have pushed forward this agenda even more strongly. Using the benign-sounding phrase, ‘community of common destiny’ or the more direct, ‘Chinese dream’, the Chinese have tried to sell their model of economic development – fast economic growth under strong and centralized but not necessarily democratically accountable political leadership – as an alternate path to those espoused by Western liberal democracies as well as India. 

Thus, it is that the in 2019 and 2020, the CPC has organized training sessions for the ruling Nepal Communist Party on the Chinese model of governance and economic development now referred to by the expression, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. Here, it must be underlined that it is not so much the alignment of a communist ideology as a common animosity towards India – even if for different reasons – that drives the Sino-Nepalese relationship. 

What do these facets about the foreign policy of the Chinese Party-state suggest by way of options for India in its own foreign policy?

One, India needs to be able to differentiate itself better from China. If China is an authoritarian state and India is a democracy, then that difference must be visible in both words and actions. Further, because the onus for higher standards will always be on the democracy, it is India that needs to work harder at differentiating itself from China. 

Unfortunately in India, the tendency has to been to go the other way – to centralize power at the cost of federalism, and to promote a strongman culture and majoritarian political climate unconcerned about the spirit of the law while exploiting the letter of the law. This is exactly the model in China with Xi centralizing power and the minorities of Tibet and Xinjiang subject to the most invasive forms of state control and regulation of their daily lives.

Under such circumstances, and if the Indian economy is also weaker than that of China by several orders of magnitude, smaller countries in South Asia will see little advantage to privileging their ties with India. If anything, aggressive nationalism or majoritarianism in India only increases worries in these countries that sooner or later they might be targeted by India in some fashion. China has deftly exploited these insecurities in South Asian capitals to gradually build and sustain an anti-India sentiment in these countries. 

Two, India must urgently institute structural reforms internally. For too long now, New Delhi has tried to work around its internal contradictions and a weak economy with the help of rhetoric and high profile diplomacy but it is increasingly difficult to keep up the act and countries big and small are beginning to see through it. India will need to learn from the Chinese in this regard and concentrate on improving its economic capacity – by decentralizing and giving greater power to the states and by increasing the size of its foreign and other ministries whether through direct recruitment or lateral entry. 

Three, India cannot live in a state of permanent enmity with Pakistan. This situation has blinded Indian politicians and the people to the larger challenge from China. The possibility that New Delhi will have to improve its relations with Pakistan in the interest of dealing better with China is completely ignored. The Americans and the Chinese did something similar in 1971 by beginning a rapprochement in order to deal with what each perceived to be the larger threat from the Soviet Union. 

Arguments that the Pakistan Army would be against any improvement of ties with India are well-worn but the question should be asked if India can hope to be a regional power, leave alone, a world power without mending ties with its neighbours? And if, the inability to mend ties with Pakistan has to do with reasons of international politics or an ideological mindset at home that prefers to see the enmity continue? In fact, it is not just China, but even countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal that have managed to play the Pakistan card against India.

The failure of several Indian initiatives with Pakistan under the BJP and Congress governments should not mean that it is pointless trying to fix ties, but that new things need to be tried. And it is India that needs to fix ties if it has to block Chinese ascendance in South Asia. What is more, there remain opportunities for India to exploit. Despite the Sino-Pakistani ‘all weather friendship’ there have been concerns raised for years among many sections of Pakistan’s society about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor over discrimination against Pakistanis, environmental concerns, and, of course, a potential debt trap.

Four, as the biggest country in South Asia, it is inevitable that India will need to make the greater efforts and to be more generous, including with resources. India already does this in many ways but not with Pakistan and even when it supports other countries with development assistance it seldom does so with grace and tact. Smaller countries have their pride, too, and are no longer minded to take New Delhi’s sense of superiority and condescension lying down and will turn to Beijing as a counter.

If politics is the art of the possible and India’s politicians are constantly showing themselves capable of innovation at home, it is time now to bring those skills to the reform of India’s foreign and security policy institutions and thence, to the international arena and especially India’s neighbourhood in greater measure. Just like war is too important to be left to the generals, foreign policy is too important to be left to the diplomats. And it is not enough for one politician to be given a free hand but for the wider political class to involve themselves in foreign policymaking.

This article was originally published in December 2020 in the Manorama Yearbook 2021.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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