Enter the Dragon: What are India’s strategic options dealing with China?

There is a sense of unease in the global politics with nations struggling to come to terms with the challenges put forth by COVID-19. It’s an acute challenge which has brought unique problems and has

There is a sense of unease in the global politics with nations struggling to come to terms with the challenges put forth by COVID-19. It’s an acute challenge which has brought unique problems and has opened a can of worms in the world politics rarely encountered in recent history. The lack of global leadership has affected the status quo to an extent that a new world order is starting to take shape. (read my article on this topic here)

This is a grim reality which has the potential of turning the tables quicker than we ever imagined. But in all honesty, this was in the making and the world should have been ready for this eventuality. The bigger question closer to home is where does India fit in this world order and what strategic options does it have to counter the threat from its big brother to the east.

Very few countries in the world have such a unique neighbourhood as compared to India. Geographically situated in the middle of Asia, the largest country in the subcontinent and the second largest in terms of population, India is surrounded by countries which face different challenges of their own. Poverty, political instability, threat of terrorism, economic challenges are some of the severe challenges that every country faces in this region.

To add to that, having countries around you that are nuclear powers and have their own vested interests in the world politics makes things even more difficult for India to navigate through. And to top it off, long standing border issues with Pakistan and recently resurfaced issues with China has only heightened the stakes for a country that is trying to establish itself as key global power.

India and the rest of the world:

Looking back at the history of the role India has played in world politics, it is safe to say that India has adopted a neutral approach which for a country of the size of India has been somewhat odd and frankly incorrect. The unanimous approach of past governments in ensuring India is seen as a country that keeps its cards close to its chest without impacting the world order has been confusing and presents a lack of ownership on its part. This has resulted in developing uncertain equations with the powerful countries in the world.

No wonder then that despite India being the 7th largest country geographically, 5th largest economically and 2nd largest in population has failed to find a permanent place on the UN Security council.

India’s relation with global powers

Let us look at where does India stand in terms of its diplomatic and strategic relations with key world powers.

  • Russia: India proclaims it allegiance towards a country like Russia which has had strategic relations with India for decades (especially since the Cold ware). However, Russia no longer is the power it once used to be during the Soviet era and is currently led by an autocratic leader who can or cannot be trusted. It’s lacks both on the economic and military front as compared to India and still tends to believe that it can throw around its weight in the world politics due to its past glory.
  • USA: India also proclaims its strong strategic partnership with USA (which fought the cold war with Russia) which has been the supreme power in world politics until now. However, India has never really taken a strong stand on larger world issues, to the dislike of USA. USA has always complained publicly at the lack of India’s say in key world issues (like the middle east conflicts etc.), partly due to the complex nature of relations India has with certain countries like Iran which have long standing disputes with USA. Also, there is the small matter of perceived closeness between USA and Pakistan that has always led to moments of distrust with USA. USA has a big stake in the strategic success (or failure) of Pakistan as a state and this has prevented all out expansion of relations between the two largest democracies in the world. Given the current leadership crisis faced by USA which is more and more leaning towards being an inclusive state with diminishing say in the world politics has resulted in lack of power vacuum which India cannot rely on. However, USA and India have a major stake when it comes to economic dependence and cannot really allow the relations to falter beyond a certain point.
  • EU: Then you have the EU (which UK was a part of) with which India has always had relations that are more bound by history and economics as compared to strategic. It does not look like India can really call one or two nations in EU as their close strategic partners that it can rely on the event of it requiring strategic support.
  • Japan and South Korea: Then you have Japan and South Korea which have historically supported India, but are no longer the strong players in world politics they used to be. Economically, yes, they are still a might, but politically, their weight has diminished in the recent past.
  • Pakistan: And then you have Pakistan right next door with whom India has had the most troubled past. With them, India has fought a number of wars and little skirmishes (that tend to happen regularly) over the disputed Kashmir issue. Although, India has always come out on top in all the engagements, and being 5-6 times larger on the economic front, the nature of the dispute and the threat posed by the nuclear state of Pakistan (which never really has turned out to be a clear-cut democracy) with a tendency to export terror has prevented India from resolving this issue once and for all.
  • China: And finally comes the big brother to the east, which has grown 5 times the economy of India and can safely claim its stature as the next global superpower that will replace USA in the coming decade as the ultimate powerhouse. China which has been accused of exporting the coronavirus to the world is facing its biggest challenge in decades with countries from round the world slowly uniting to corner China and make it pay for the mess the world finds itself in. However, this raises the risk of China taking alternate approaches to stamp its authority on the world. China has ambitions far and wide that can have severe consequences for the world, mainly due to its autocratic and bulldozing nature. But these repercussions will be felt most by countries right next door to China, of which India is the biggest of all.

China has turned itself into the second largest economy in the world, an economy on which the entire world’s supply chain is dependent and has made itself indispensable in the near future. It is also the second most powerful military nation in the world with nuclear warheads second only to USA and Russia. It will take more than a pandemic to put a dent into the China story.

What is the deal with China?

And this is where India needs to be really careful while dealing with the current situation. The current Indian government has made international relations as one of its key agenda points in the past 6 years, one of them being strong economic and diplomatic ties with China. Leaders from both countries have embraced each other (at least on TV) and have given the impressions of a strong bond between the top two populated countries in the world. Both the nations stand on the opposite spectrum when it comes to politics, but are united in ambition and capability.

However, there is no denying the fact that China as of today, is better equipped to make its way out of the economic challenge than any other country on the planet. Plus the way the government functions internally in China gives it unique advantages compared to large democracies.

India has the military might to sustain concentrated conflicts with any country, but given the surroundings it finds itself in, it would be foolish to imagine that it can handle engagements on two fronts. India needs to quickly tackle either one of the issues and put it to rest, so as to ensure, it has the time and resources to get back on track on the economic front. The Indian economy has taken a big hit in the past 6 months, and it cannot afford any more slip ups, let alone full fledge conflicts with a country especially like China.

Can India afford to put economic pressure on China?

So, implying that India needs to boycott business with China is easier said than done. Putting in place such measures will not only enrage an already frustrated and irritated dragon (due to the world being against it), but it might also lead it to take extreme steps to reinforce its claim to be the strongest power in the world. The after-effects of such a measure could be far worse than imagined. The last thing India needs right now is a full-fledged engagement with China.

Hence, India needs to carefully make its way through choppy waters both strategically and diplomatically and ensure that it has the right resources both on the economic and military front to tackle the current challenging times. It needs to first get back on its feet economically, get more business flowing in to move towards self-sustenance, build the military capabilities with modern technology and reach a level where it can safely defend its boundaries on all four sides. To achieve this, India can take care of the long-standing issue in the Kashmir valley once and for all, or calm down the tensions on the east diplomatically, economically and strategically.

What are the options for India?

The times call for extreme caution given the nature of world politics. India cannot rely on the USA to act consistently and favourably to put pressure both economically and strategically on China. And it cannot rely on Russia due to its lack of prowess on the economic and military front (not to mention its geographic location). Plus given its uncertain diplomatic stance towards world issues of the past, India has uncertain levels of support from global communities. Simply put, the world has more stake in the failure of China as compared to that of India.

Hence, the times call for all Indian’s to stand together from a political and general population standpoint, work towards safeguarding India’s interests in the long run and protect its boundaries from hostile neighbours. The times also call for India to start creating a space for itself in the world with authority.

It needs to leave the traditional sitting on the fence approach behind and start making its voice heard, for people to sit and take notice. It also calls for all Indians to come together and work hard towards building a strong and self-reliant India that in the next 10 years, and safeguard itself to address the enormous challenges on various fronts rarely faced by any governments in the past 100 years.

Do leave a comment or feedback on whether you agree to the thoughts presented and what you think should India do.

One thought on “Enter the Dragon: What are India’s strategic options dealing with China?

  1. Wonderful article. Very thoughtful and effective. Your views specially with regard to China are worth thinking. You simply cannot ignore them in the given situation. As you rightly stated that India cannot handle two boarders. Tough time ahead for India.

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