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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | India can resist China by acting in concert with its adversaries

We need short-term answers to Beijing’s provocations in addition to the long-term solution of accumulating economic power

At an emergency cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister indicated that the border fighting did not constitute a threat to India. The strategic Chinese threat, he maintained, lies in the rapidly increasing industrial power base of China as well as the building of military bases in Tibet. The only Indian answer, he continued, is the most rapid possible development of the Indian economy to provide a national power base capable of resisting a possible eventual Chinese military move." Arthur Cohen of the United States’s Central Intelligence Agency wrote this in his 1963 study of border skirmishes that occurred in Ladakh in 1959. The Prime Minister he refers to was Jawaharlal Nehru.

The long-term strategy to deal with China has long been clear: Fast, sustained economic growth. It has also been elusive both in absolute terms and relative to China. Now, in the wake of the devastating coronavirus pandemic, the International Monetary Fund projects China’s economy to grow at 1% in 2020 and India’s to shrink 4.5%. While the growth game is a long one, it is clear that for the foreseeable future, India will find it harder to regain a high-growth path. In the meantime, Beijing is sure to exploit its relative strength to change the status quo to its advantage.

Take Ladakh, for example. Although boundaries were uncertain at the time of independence, Indian forces would patrol the expanse of Aksai Chin, which we claim as our territory. In the 1950s, Chinese forces surreptitiously captured that plain, with Zhou Enlai stringing Nehru along with “gentlemen’s agreements" (old-fashioned ways of referring to informal agreements between leaders). The Chinese line extended further west after the 1962 war, and by the 1980s, we had gotten used to Aksai Chin being de facto Chinese territory. Beijing is now asserting that it always had sovereignty over Galwan Valley. If we do not challenge this now—diplomatically and on the ground—a decade hence, we will get used to Galwan being Chinese.

There is a view that we can tolerate this, that a valley lost here or a peak there doesn’t pose a threat to India. That it is worth conceding some ground to buy time to grow the economy. This is partly the reason that, as Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi agreed to put the border dispute on the backburner, Atal Bihari Vajpayee recognised Tibet as Chinese territory, and Narendra Modi invoked the Wuhan spirit after Doklam. The unintended but inescapable consequence of this approach is not merely territorial, but strategic containment by China. Some may argue that even this is a price worth paying if—and it is a big if—India can register fast economic growth, focus on human development, and become a middle-income country. But, as I explained in the first essay of this series, there are deeper structural reasons why India will not accept the status of a tributary to the Middle Kingdom.

So we cannot let a long-term solution become the enemy of what we need to do now. But, how can we take on an adversary that is militarily stronger and has an economy that is five times as large as ours? Disagreeing with his predecessors Bharadvaja and Visalaksha, who recommended surrender and going to war, respectively, Kautilya says, “One submissive everywhere lives despairing of life… and one fighting with only a small army perishes like one plunging in the ocean without a boat. He should find shelter with a king superior to him or in an unassailable fort."

In other words, the short-term answer is alliances and strategic defence. The latter comes from nuclear deterrence. What about alliances? This is somewhat a bad word in New Delhi, as it is seen to undermine our strategic autonomy. The fear is that allying with the United States will drag us into its other superpower capers. Yet, this aversion to an alliance with the United States is strange, because restraints on our policy freedom due to Chinese sensitivities are somehow not seen as abridging our strategic autonomy.

We must reconsider our position on alliances. Times have changed. The United States is no longer fascinated by China, no longer Pakistan’s patron, and no longer globally preponderant, as it was 20 years ago. At the same time, through the Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Modi years, there has been a growing convergence between Washington and New Delhi, not least in defence cooperation. A new alliance need not be of the 20th century type that the United States is used to, nor do we need to rush into one. But in the short term, we cannot resist China without acting in concert with its adversaries. This calls for greater investment in the Quad and shaping the Indo-Pacific balance of power.

Geo-economics does not work for us as it works for the West—a blanket restriction on trade will hurt us more. We should use economic ties to gain strength.

We should avoid war. Yet, diplomacy as usual without the capability to deny pleasure and give pain will not protect our interests and might not avert conflict.

This is the last of a three-part series on how India could deal with China.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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