January 3, 2022 4:30:34 am
If Delhi had forgotten by some chance that China remains an ever growing challenge for India’s foreign and security policies, it was reminded by a rude missive from the Chinese embassy last week to a number of Indian parliamentarians who had attended a function of the Tibetan parliament in exile. The question is not about the appropriateness of a foreign embassy scolding the elected members of the Indian parliament. What we see is China’s new hubris in dealing with the rest of the world — friend or foe. Its diplomacy was celebrated until recently as one of the most sophisticated. Today, it is widely reviled as crude and counter productive. But Beijing does not really care. China is confident that the growing hard power — economic and military — gives it the luxury to dispense with diplomatic niceties.
India can live with China’s objections to anything it sees as offensive. What it can’t live with is Beijing’s refusal to reverse the People’s Liberation Army’s territorial aggression in the Ladakh frontier in the early summer of 2020. The PLA has activated the long and disputed frontier all along the Himalayas; it has recently changed the names of various places in Arunachal Pradesh; and it is building villages on the unpopulated border with India. At the political level, its efforts are relentless in trying to drive a wedge between India and its close Himalayan neighbours — Nepal and Bhutan. At the same time, it is also seeking to undermine Indian influence in Maldives and Sri Lanka and, more broadly, in the Indian Ocean. At the root of the challenges presented by China is the growing power gap with India. Redressing the power imbalance with China remains the most important national security task for India in 2022 and beyond.
The problem needs to be tackled at three levels. At the military/strategic level, India has signalled its intent to balance China by drawing closer to the US and more actively participating in the Quadrilateral Forum, along with Australia and Japan. But diplomacy is yet to be backed up by much quicker military modernisation and strategic coordination with its Quad partners. At the economic level, India will need to move rapidly to end its isolation in the global trade domain. Delhi chose to stay out of a China-dominated Asia-wide free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that came into force on January 1. India has sought to partly compensate for that decision by trying to negotiate bilateral free trade agreements with strategic partners like the United Kingdom, Australia, UAE, and Israel. It remains to be seen if Delhi’s notoriously recalcitrant trade bureaucracy can say “yes” to any agreement.
Finally, maintaining internal unity and national cohesion is the greatest need of the hour to cope with the strategic threats that China poses. Yet, our politics is headed in the other direction — to provoke religious polarisation at home. This is the surest way of setting India up for a failure against China.
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