As the border stand-off with China deepens, India will have to think of all possible strategic options that give it leverage in this crisis. One element often discussed in this context is new arrangements with a variety of powers. Many strategic experts are salivating at the prospect of an even closer alliance with the US.
This is a propitious moment to mobilise international opinion on China. The degree of global alienation with the Xi Jinping regime is unprecedented. But can this be translated into concerted global action to exert real pressure on China? India should pursue all possible avenues. But we should also have a clear-eyed view of the limitations of what new alliances or arrangements can do for India.
It is important to remember that international relations are formed in the context of a country’s development paradigm. India’s primary aim should be to preserve the maximum space for its development model, if it can actually formulate one. India is not unique in this respect. The US-China relationship may have had its origins in the strategic attempt to create a Sino-Soviet split. But for decades, this relationship was sustained not by a strategic logic, but by the logic of the political economy of development in both the US and China, where they reciprocally depended on each other. What has changed profoundly in the US is the view that this arrangement largely benefitted big business in America at the expense of its own domestic manufacturing base.
The political legitimacy of the development model waned, and it is this fact that will largely be the driver of the US-China relationship. The question for India is not just whether the US has a stake in India’s development, which it might. But it is, rather, to ask whether India’s development needs will fit into the emerging US development paradigm. Will the very same political economy forces that create a disengagement with China also come in the way of a closer relationship with India? Some sections of American big business might bat for India; but the underlying political economy dynamics are less propitious.
Will the US give India the room it needs on trade, intellectual property, regulation, agriculture, labour mobility, the very areas where freedom is vital for India’s economy? Will a US hell-bent on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US, easily gel with an “atma nirbhar” Bharat? To see what is at stake, we just need to look at the way in which friction over the development paradigm is driving tensions on trade, taxation and regulatory issues between the US and EU.
There is sometimes a complaint in the US that India is invited but refuses to come to the table with enthusiasm. There is some truth to this, despite the salutary cultural and political momentum in this relationship. But the drivers of this have often been legitimate differences over development, including climate change. It has also been that, at various points, that ask was antithetical to India’s other strategic commitments. India was wise to stay out of the war in Iraq, it was wise not to spurn Russia entirely, and it is wise not to throw its weight behind the US’s Iran policy. There is more maturity in the US to understand India’s position. But there is a section of India’s strategic community that sees India’s reluctance to go in with the US, hook line and sinker, as a kind of ideological wimpishness, not a sign of more deeply thought out realism, which it has been.
It is an odd moment in global affairs, where there is recognition of a common challenge emanating from China, but no global appetite to take concerted action. An interesting example might be the global response to the BRI. Many countries are struggling to meet their BRI debt obligations. Many Chinese loans have become a millstone around the debtor countries’ necks. But it is difficult to see the rest of the international community helping all these countries to wean their regimes away from dependence on Chinese finance. Similarly, there are now great concerns over frontier areas of conflict like cyber security and space.
It is difficult to imagine concerted global action to create rules in these area, partly because Great Powers like the US and Russia will always want to maintain their exceptionalism. So we are in a paradoxical world where the strategic necessity of the rest of the world to come together on China has never been higher; yet the appetite for concerted action has never been weaker. Fundamentally, few countries are going to put their money where their mouth is.
The value of global alliances and public opinion in settling our local conflicts has always been limited for two reasons. First, the international community has not been very effective in neutralising low cost asymmetric options exercised by some powers. This is the tactic Pakistan has used. Second, what military options India can exercise, fortifying defences, gaining strategic leverage in areas where we can, is for military experts to decide. But don’t count on the fact that the world will support an Indian escalation beyond a point. The efforts of the international community, in the final analysis, will be to try and throw cold water on the conflict; no one has a serious stake in the fate of the terrain India and China are disputing. At the end of the day, India has to manage China and Pakistan largely on its own.
The logic of the Chinese opening so many fronts together is baffling. Reassuringly, it could mean China is overreaching. Less reassuringly, it could mean that rather than displaying strategic coherence, China is now a regime that, like so many authoritarian regimes of the past, is willing to damage itself and the world. Such regimes are always harder to handle because it is not straightforwardly interest that drives them. Even as we deal with the military situation on the border, the test of India’s resolve will be its ability to return to some first principle thinking about its own power.
How does it create the space for accelerating its development — in the long run, the only cornerstone of a defence policy? How does it stay true to its greatest strength, its political identity as a liberal, pluralistic democracy? How did India, in its quest for global prestige, manage to lose its own neighbourhood? Our major vulnerabilities are all at home, and so are the solutions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 26, 2020 under the title ‘On our own’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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