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India’s China Strategy: Lessons from the Recent Standoff

In a recent month-long military standoff, China intruded and built defence infrastructure in Indian territories of Pangong lake, Galwan valley and Demchok with over 10,000 PLA soldiers. On an average India faces over 300+ Chinese incursions per year, with only some escalating to the magnitude of the recent standoff. While, China defends this move as retaliation against Indian trespassing, patrol blockings and building roads in Chinese territories, India denies these allegations and maintains China as an offender. Nonetheless, this standoff should enlighten New Delhi with its limitations of China strategy.

A rising China has been a primary concern of India for two reasons. First being the assertive nature of China and second, being the contesting objectives of both the countries. With its rise, China is set to behave more aggressively against India. To substantiate China has illegally occupied over 600 sq kilometres of India since the 1980s through its Salami slicing strategy and claim them to be an integral part of China. As seen with China’s claim over the Galwan valley after the recent standoff. These events according to Arun Prakash, a retired chief of naval staff “Compromise India’s national security (with a loss of key defensive and offensive positioning) and damage India’s reputation” considering its vision of South Asian hegemon and Vishwa Guru. Now with over 23 disputed areas including the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, it is obvious that China will further assert against India, disquieting the latter about the former’s rise.

Secondly, both India and China are aware of the other being a sole competitor for its great power status in Asia, where India is a revisionist power. Besides, China’s increasing influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean has challenged India’s status quo in the region. China’s influence in South Asia through investments, economic and military assistance has irked India’s long-established dominance and influence. Further, China’s military base in Djibouti, a proposed military base in Pakistan, commercial ports in Myanmar, Maldives, Bangladesh, East Africa, Sri Lanka and Pakistan has facilitated China’s dominance in the Indian Ocean, which India considers as its waters. India thus with its vision of Vishwaguru and determined to maintain its status quo in the Indian Ocean and South Asia, contests with China’s grand strategy. This coerces India to balance rather than bandwagon (align) with China.

Balancing can be both external and internal. Externally, India can make alliances with countries aiming to limit China. Allying with East Asian countries that are keen on limiting China such as Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam would benefit India. But China’s rise has been so prominent that even an odd alliance with East Asian competitors will not surpass the economic and military capabilities of China. Since forming a regional balance is least productive, India might be seen improving activities with the other three members of QUAD or Quadrilateral Security dialogue (Japan, US and Australia) as they are keen on limiting China as well. This can be substantiated with India’s mutual access of military bases with Australia, and the United States. Similarly, regular naval exercises with Japan and the US are used to counter China’s increasing influence in Asia-Pacific. Keeping this in mind Rajesh Rajagopalan has argued that “it is in India’s long term interest to align with the US”.

But, a formal alliance with these countries, especially with the US is quite unlikely and unfavourable for India. International alignments are new and very distinct from traditional autonomous foreign Policy formulation of India. This would pose a challenge to the formalisation of the alliance. Similarly, formalising alliances with these countries would introduce new players to South Asia and the Indian Ocean region offering new alternatives. This could be disastrous to India as it is already witnessing depleting influence with smaller South Asian states hedging in between India and China. Lastly, formalising an alliance with the US when it is withdrawing from its former alliances and responsibilities would do more harm than good to the partners. Thus a formal external balancing alliance seems unlikely anytime soon.

However, unlike external balancing, India considers internal balancing as an official strategy to check China’s assertiveness and Salami slicing. Although India has considerable military power, it lags behind China’s military technology, capabilities and infrastructure. Thus for the past 10 years, India is pushing for the same to deal with China. India has been developing naval and air force technology and infrastructure in the Indian Ocean Region. It is also pushing for the development of roads, infrastructure and airstrips in bordering regions of China to stand resolute against China’s assertiveness.

But a strategy of this kind would have unanticipated impacts over India. Keeping aside the lack of Indian material capabilities, this kind of internal balancing would further security dilemma with Pakistan as well. This pushes India to defend and compete on two fronts simultaneously, fatiguing its economy and development initiatives. Similarly, internal balancing might provide signs of aggression that will invite counter-aggression and assertiveness. To substantiate, the recent Chinese aggression into Indian territories was a product of India’s construction of Darbuk-Shykoh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSSBDO) road. This road constructed within sovereign Indian territories facilitated for easy troop deployment near to LAC and China, which called for a strong reaction from the Chinese. Thus, pure internal balancing would further competition and Chinese assertiveness rather than resolving it.

Considering the limits of pure external and internal balancing to India, T.V. Paul rightly points out “That India will practice limited hard (internal) balance, soft (but informal) external alliances and diplomatic engagement to deal with rising China”. His prediction best explains the current Indian strategy to contain and minimise Chinese assertiveness. Although it manages to defuse tensions it fails to pre-empt China from tarnishing Indian security and reputation as seen with the recent Galwan valley standoff. Thus this should probe Indian policymakers to consider narratives and normative power in their official China strategy.

T.V. Paul’s prediction is scrupulous of dealing with China, but balancing and diplomatic engagement without any narratives fails to deter Chinese aggression. For example, India currently enjoys diplomatic engagement with China and surging unofficial alliances with the Quad countries. Further for internal balancing, it developed the DSSBDO road, without any official narratives; this vacuum left China anxious as it wedded Indian government’s aggressive foreign policy with pre-existing narratives of “Aksai Chin and POK belongs to India”, thus, leading to a tense standoff.

Similarly, with a consideration of high stakes and reputation, India has fewer options except for balancing China. But, since it is an arduous process and might further Chinese counterbalancing and assertiveness, Indian policymakers must enhance narratives and norms to facade its intentions. To substantiate China used the policy of peaceful rise/development as a facade to firm its influence and material capabilities only to display its assertiveness later. Thus, this kind of narratives and normative policies will limit intense standoffs, while buying time for India to develop material capabilities and hard power against China. Further, as informal alliances will pressurise China and materially benefit India, diplomatic engagements with the latter will provide for mutual concessions and coordination. Thus, bringing an end to Chinese assertiveness altogether.

(Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, is a recent MSc International Relations graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, with the expertise of South Asian international relations and conflicts. He is a guest contributor at The London Globalist magazine and The Statesman newspaper. He has also interned with the High Commission of India, London and SAARC Secretariat, Kathmandu).


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