Dealing with the dragon

India has chosen to build a new airbase in Tezpur and to upgrade border roads in the Northeast. These are clear signs that India has started to gird its loins.

The latest dust-up in Sino-Indian ties involving Chinese participation in a global conference on Buddhism is emblematic of the troubled relationship. Despite New Delhi’s periodic efforts to downplay the significance of these periodic tensions, it is more than apparent that the two countries are now on a collision course. Though some observers, both domestic and foreign, have sought to downplay the significance of growing strains, there is no gainsaying that the two countries have fundamentally divergent interests in South Asia and beyond.

More to the point, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), cognisant of US domestic difficulties, is most likely to push its aggressive agenda in Asia in general and South Asia in particular.
Given the PRC’s willingness to firmly press its claims in a host of possible arenas, how might India choose to respond to them? A number of possible courses of action are open to New Delhi and it remains to be seen which one or what combination thereof India’s policymakers are likely to adopt. Some policy options, though superficially attractive, could actually have serious long-term adverse consequences and should thereby be eschewed from the outset. Others, though they may entail some initial costs, could protect India’s long-term strategic interests.
One possible strategy might involve simply conceding ground, both literally and figuratively, to the PRC. This would entail making certain territorial concessions to the PRC and thereby avoid an escalation of tensions. Though this strategy has a small number of advocates within India, it is most unlikely to lead to a rapprochement in Sino-Indian relations. Instead it may actually convince Beijing that India is likely to also fold on other issues when it displays a degree of intransigence. In effect it would convey a message of weakness to a determined adversary.
A second strategy might call for a steady alignment with the United States. This option has its attractions as the Obama administration has recently displayed a willingness to adopt a firmer posture towards the PRC. It has also sought to reassure nervous allies in East Asia that it is committed to the maintenance of their security interests. The decision of the administration to station a contingent of Marines in Australia is indicative of the administration’s new-found resolve. The political feasibility of this approach, however, is another matter altogether. Few within India’s foreign and security policy establishments would be willing to compromise on what they deem to be India’s “strategic autonomy”. Others would fret that such an alignment would be needlessly provocative to Beijing. Consequently, it is rather unlikely that India’s policymakers will seriously pursue this option.
A third possible strategy might require a significant effort to bolster the country’s indigenous defence capabilities and to demonstrate its diplomatic steadfastness. To some degree, this option is actually being pursued on both diplomatic and military fronts. India has not given in to Chinese demands that it cease and desist from prospecting for hydrocarbons off the coast of Vietnam. It has also chosen to build a new air base in Tezpur and has started to upgrade border roads in the Northeast. These are clear signs that the country has started to gird its loins when faced with Chinese hostility on multiple fronts. Earlier it had chosen to help build a port at Char Bahar in Iran as the PRC moved to complete one at Gwadar in Baluchistan. India has also ramped up its ties with Myanmar to counter the widespread Chinese presence in the country.
The third strategy, at least at the present moment, perhaps makes the most sense for New Delhi given the constraints of its domestic political culture. However, it would be myopic to simply rely on one’s internal military and diplomatic capabilities to counter an increasingly assertive PRC. Instead, despite its long-standing aversion to the very concept of alliances, New Delhi would be wise to strengthen various strategic partnerships. To that end, instead of merely invoking the concept, it should give corporeal meaning to some key strategic relationships, including those with the United States, Australia and Japan. All these states share India’s concerns, albeit to varying degrees, about the dramatic and uncertain rise of the PRC. Consequently, it would make much strategic sense to start to quietly institutionalising military to military contacts with these states, to broaden the scope of existing military exercises and to organise routine diplomatic contacts to discuss common issues of concern. Obviously, India has taken various steps towards these ends already. However, they have been both cautious and incremental at best.
To maximise its security interests, India could embark on a fourth strategy that offers far, far more promise. This would involve a judicious amalgam of undertaking a series of internal initiatives to bolster its security interests while dovetailing its efforts with those of other states that share its misgivings. Such a strategy would ensure that India would not be confronting the potential dangers that a rising PRC might pose to the stability and security of Asia largely on its own. Instead it would be enmeshed in a set of security partnerships that it could rely on in the event that threats to its security and wellbeing should come under greater stress in the foreseeable future.

The writer is a professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, US

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