Leveraging China ties

The United States of America happens to be a third party in the India-China tent, which introduces a profound contradiction.

The Bharatiya Janata Party should be quietly pleased that disregarding its objection – albeit proforma objection on procedural grounds – the UPA government pushed through the appointment of Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag as the next army chief. The general is a rare ‘China hand,’ who is not given to soldierly bluster and has a fair grasp of the strategic setting of India-China relationship.

The point is, if the BJP forms the next government under Narendra Modi’s leadership, India-China relationship will be at the very top of its foreign-policy agenda and its focus for a foreseeable future will have to be on consolidating the peace and tranquility prevailing on the border.

The curtain is falling on the UPA-2 with Beijing’s polite rejection of the
expression of concern by Delhi over
recent developments in the South China Sea. Beijing allayed our concern, but also signalled that the territorial disputes in South China Sea don’t really concern India. The curious diplomatic exchange underscores the complexities of the India-China relationship.

The circles associated with the BJP often articulate a notion that Delhi should hold hands with regional states with shared concerns over China’s rise. The assumption here is that the US and its Asia-Pacific allies wait impatiently with open arms for India. Whereas, the ground realities speak for themselves.

First, for the recovery of the American economy, constructive engagement with China has become an imperative need for the Obama administration. Meanwhile, China has become a vital trade and investment partner for the US’ allies in the Asia-Pacific. The American public opinion disfavours any US involvement in messy conflicts abroad. Thus, much strategic ambiguity surrounds the US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia. The US-China interdependency too has reached such a high level that Washington is a ‘stakeholder’ today in China’s reforms.

However, America happens to be a third party in the India-China tent, which introduces a profound contradiction. Without doubt, Modi government will attribute the highest importance to national defence and in building up
defence capabilities through massive procurement of weapons from abroad and, by stepping up indigenous production of weapons. We may expect fierce competition between foreign arms manufacturers seeking business opportunities. The big question is how far India can exploit the ‘market forces’ to its advantage, and, secondly, whether India can ensure that foreign collaboration doesn’t come with political strings attached.

Delhi has so far withstood the pressure from Washington to sign the so-called ‘foundational agreements’ on interoperability despite the agreement in principle given by the NDA government a decade ago. Now, invoking the legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Washington will revisit the topic. The heart of the matter is that these agreements serve American strategic interests but they curb India’s strategic autonomy.

The US is pushing for strengthening bilateral ties both between private
defence firms in the two countries as well as the two militaries. By working on India’s disquiet over the threat posed by rising Chinese power, the US hopes to influence Delhi to adopt foreign and security policies that end up creating new opportunities for the US and incrementally leads to India’s strategic ‘bandwagoning’ with Washington.

Making choices

In sum, would a Modi government jettison Delhi’s well-considered reticence regarding the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia? Some of our pundits have joined hands with American lobbyists to clamour that India has failed to play a ‘confident role’ on the world stage and that India “will have to make certain choices”. They trust that a leader like Modi with his ‘natural assertiveness’ should make a clean break with the ‘political miasma’ in Delhi. This thesis is cleverly camouflaged as a need for “pushing aside the accumulated shibboleths of some fifty years” so as to harmonise it with Modi’s nationalist stance for a strong and assertive India.

To be sure, if the Modi government falls for this thesis, there could be
negative fallouts for India-China relations. In the Chinese perception, it is indeed legitimate for India to modernize its armed forces, but it is an entirely different thing that Delhi becomes a ‘lynchpin’ in the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia, which Beijing sees as a thinly-disguised containment strategy.

The Hundutva ideology is far from anathema to China. But circles identifying with right-wing nationalism have often fancied that India is holding a ‘Tibet card.’ Some amongst them have counselled an early meeting between Modi and the Dalai Lama. Indeed, Beijing has done its part in the most recent years by hosting RSS delegations; Modi himself visited China more than once. Thus, the initiative lies entirely with a Modi government to fine-tune how the robust BJP-RSS ideology of cultural nationalism rubs on the India-China relationship.

On the other hand, Modi attaches the highest priority to reviving the economy. Indeed, a good foreign policy should always be an extension of the country’s domestic policy. Taking into account the strategic calculus of the Asia-Pacific, even if it can’t be at the mind-boggling stupendous level at which China is helping the Obama administration in the recovery of the American economy through investment, trade and financial support, Beijing can still become a peerless partner for the Modi government to push its agenda of restoring India’s economic growth.

India needs a vibrant economic partnership with China. In the ambitious infrastructure development programme that the Modi government is certain to undertake, India needs all the investment that China is prepared to make. Modi is riding high popular expectations and the people – the youth, in particular - anticipate that he would have a remedy for the crisis of unemployment and a magic formula for returning the country to its high-growth trajectory.

On the foreign-policy side, therefore, the accent ought to be on economic diplomacy. An external environment conducive to it needs to be created and a level playing field is offered to a wide range of foreign actors, including (or, especially) China. This is where a leap of faith is needed.

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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