US President Donald Trump has been in office for a year pursuing an America First agenda and walking out of multilateral initiatives such as the Paris deal and the agenda of globalisation. Chinese President Xi Jinping at the same time has not only consolidated power within the country but has also extended its influence all the way across the world with his Belt and Road Initiative. India has had some good and bad news – while the economy is still growing, it has slowed down and this will have a determining say in how New Delhi will be able to shape an Indo-Pacific that is peaceful, prosperous and stable.
India’s concerns in ensuring a stable Indo-Pacific comes essentially because of a rising China that is looking at Asia with a hegemon’s eye. The bilateral relations between India and China have not been the best in the last couple of years. Despite the increased trade and commercial interactions, the two have been in a conflict because China clearly does not want to see any potential peer competitor emerging in Asia. Given this Chinese goal, India has to craft a policy that is more in tune with this reality. In the post-Doklam situation, India must acknowledge and accept that it is not business as usual.
Recognizing China as an adversary is important. Without this clarity, India may fumble along than deepen its Asian strategic engagements. Going to war is not the only indication that China is an adversary. India must recognize that even as there may be areas that India and China cooperate occasionally, Beijing will take every opportunity to deny India any strategic advancement. One should note that even during the height of the Cold War, the two superpowers – the US and the USSR – cooperated on a number of issues but that did not remove the political and strategic tensions between the two. Hence, India must not be under the impression that the two collaborating from time to time on trade or in multilateral bodies such as WTO does not alter the fundamental dynamic between India and China. China will never endorse India’s case for UN Security Council reforms or extend support to India’s membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and counter-terrorism and Pakistan.
But it is equally important for India to ask, given its limited diplomatic strength, should we be realistically chasing the goals such as UNSC seat and NSG membership? This is not to suggest that these are not important goals but given the consensus principle that drives decisions within the NSG where China will continue to oppose India and the Chinese veto capability regarding India’s UNSC seat, it seems a waste of India’s diplomatic efforts. These goals are fine, and we may continue pursuing them rhetorically, but we need to understand that China will never support India.
While dealing with China, India needs to learn to bargain effectively. For example, the BRICS statement issued in 2017 included LeT and India felt satisfied that it had managed to convince about the Pakistan-based terrorist groups’ role in perpetuating terrorism. But India must realise that China was not being particularly considerate of India’s request. First of all, mention of LeT came at the end of two preceding paragraphs on the situation in Afghanistan and LeT was essentially mentioned in continuum. Two, China wanted to include some of the domestic groups like The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the BRICS statement and therefore they were willing to do the bargain with India.
India’s cooperation with regional groupings such as BRICS and RIC is good as long as India does not raise its expectations too much about what can be achieved. By being in these groupings, India should realize that often, India is pushing others’ objectives, particularly China. Better diplomatic bargaining is necessary to ensure that India gets some of its own ways.
India must also contemplate on some of the old partnerships such as with Russia and new ones like Japan and Australia. While Russia continues to be an important partner for a number of security-related goals, India must recognize that Russia will never stand with New Delhi against China. This is so because Moscow needs Beijing more than ever in and therefore, Russia will not support India at the cost of its relationship with China. This is a central principle that India needs to get right to avoid critical errors in our strategic calculations. Russia will work with us when they can and when it does not go against China, but not otherwise. So engaging Russia in SCO, BRICS and RIC is fine but India must know we do not enjoy any particular advantage in these organizations because India’s old strategic partner, Russia is in there too. There are any number of examples to demonstrate this. In the Doklam conflict, for instance, Russia did not take a stand. Similarly, India-Russia collaboration on Chandrayaan 2 has been affected by the China factor. India’s admission into SCO is a classic case. India applied for its membership several years ago and despite Russia’s support to India, it could do nothing until China decided to include India along with Pakistan. So the Russian ability to stand up to China is limited. More critically, India needs to be careful of its dependence on Russian military equipment and ask if supplies of spares will be affected if India is engaged in a confrontation with China on the border.
India must also place greater effort in cultivating new partners such as Japan and Australia, who are equally concerned with an aggressive China. Significant improvements in ties are already visible and India must strive to build on these because of we share common strategic objective.
Also, India must prepare seriously for a military conflict with China on the border, which increasingly seems possible. India must take up infrastructure-building on a war-footing basis. This has begun to pick up pace in the last few years, but there is a need to accelerate the pace in the face of an aggressive China that wants to teach India a lesson. This recognition must also translate into better defence capabilities along the border. The Strike Crops, for instance, that is being formed must have at least three divisions. India has to be able to enhance these capabilities sooner – it cannot be taking 3-4 years to get the force up and running. Similarly, rapid mobilization capabilities need to be beefed up. Heavy lift helicopters for troop movement is an absolute necessity.
All of this means that India’s defence budget needs to go up – the current 1.56 per cent of the estimated GDP of 2017-18 will not do. This defence budget is the lowest since 1956-57 (Laxman K Behera, India’s Defence Budget 2017-18: An Analysis). In the absence of a formidable force, India will be lagging behind China and may not have ultimately the capacity to deal with China.
(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She tweets @raji143.)