In light of the recent border skirmishes between India and China, Indian media and political commentators have spent much time debating India’s proper response in a narrow military sense. However, there has been very little discussion with respect to the larger geopolitical question facing India, of which the recent skirmishes are only minor yet dangerous incarnation. Not since the 1950s has Indian foreign policy encountered such a critical crossroads, and for now the country is sleepwalking its way forward, with no clear vision or strategy.
In the 1950s, the Cold War was gathering steam and countries faced immense pressures to align with either the Soviets or the Americans. This choice determined their destinies for the next four decades and the after-effects still persist. India chose to be non-aligned, though eventually growing close with the Soviet Union. This choice had profound implications. While it allowed India to punch above its weight by giving it a global stature, it also provided space for Pakistan to forge a close relationship with the United States, which continues to be a thorn in the India-U.S. relationship. India had to slowly rebuild its relationship with the United States after the dissolution of the Soviet Union orphaned a dependent poor state. One could even argue that India’s domestic liberalization program was delayed by a couple of decades owing to Soviet influence. Choices have consequences.
In the present day, another fork in the road awaits India, as a new Cold War is brewing between a United States in relative decline and an ascendant China. The former will continue to be powerful for the foreseeable future despite being in decline and the latter is set to be the world’s largest economy in the near future. Both have begun posturing in anticipation of an epic struggle that will shape the contours of this century. Former U.S. President Barack Obama signaled this clearly with his pivot to Asia, which was an attempt to encircle China. On the other hand, Beijing is fast closing its military gap with the United States and has pursued policies like the Belt and Road initiative and its “String of Pearls” to dominate the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Once again, the rest of the world will have to choose sides or find a plausible alternate strategy to alignment.
India needs to have a clear approach going forward in order to avoid being overwhelmed by forces beyond its control. While it is too early to choose sides or affirm another non-aligned doctrine, it is also unwise to merely keep reacting to events instead of being proactive. There has to be a vigorous debate about the best course to pursue in the short, medium, and long term. It has to be first acknowledged that even though the present Indian course is nothing but a reflex extension of status quo, it is firmly taking India to the U.S. camp and very soon this might become irreversible. While there is nothing inherently wrong in that, the concern is whether this is a conscious choice backed up by a long-term vision or merely a path-dependent accidental trajectory due to intellectual lethargy. All indications so far seem to point to the latter. India appears to be veering towards the United States largely because Indo-China relations never really recovered after the 1962 war. However, to just accept that as a fact without evaluating the possibly changing needs of the present is strategic inertia, which could have disastrous long-term consequences.
Present realities raise many troubling questions about India’s current course. Firstly, should India continue to slow walk toward an increasingly unreliable United States? The election of an anti-globalist administration in the U.S., which has already admonished India with respect to its position on Paris Climate Accords as well as on trade issues, does raise the question of whether Washington is a dependable partner. Even closer allies of the United States like Germany are asking themselves the same question; India should not bury its head in the sand and hope for the best. The United States has grown reluctant to continue as the champion of the liberal economic world order, from which India has benefited in the last two decades. New president Donald Trump’s proposed protectionist policies are likely to greatly impact Indian businesses and professionals. Placing bets blindly on a potentially protectionist and isolationist United States is foolhardy.
India should also be wary of any close military alliance with Washington as that could potentially serve India up as a theater for a proxy war between China and the United States in future. Pakistan can be used to fight such a war on behalf of China or alongside China. In such a scenario, it is not clear how much help the United States can offer with India fighting a catastrophic two-front war against nuclear powers. Would Washington be ready to go to war with China for India and risk a nuclear war? The fact that the present U.S. administration is wobbling even on long standing alliances like NATO does not inspire much confidence.
The other obvious and synchronous question is whether India should continue to let the 1962 war and the persistent border disputes define its relationship with China. Strategic thinking should avoid being captive to history and be ready to cast aside past animosities if present interests are better served by turning a new page. India is understandably still traumatized by the humiliating defeat in the 1962 war and this clouds its view of China. However, sometimes reimagining relationships in light of new realities is important. For instance, it can be argued that the thawing of Sino-U.S. relations in the 1970s, despite historical and ideological animosity between the two countries, is a reason why China is ascendant now. Shouldn’t Indian policymakers at the least consider reimagining Indo-China relationship before jumping to the opposite side?
One of the consequences of the 1962 war and the continuing failure of Indian diplomacy is the way Pakistan manages to gain political as well as military favors from both the United States and China. With the U.S. in retreat from the world and also wary of Pakistan’s terror links, decoupling Pakistan and China will isolate the former. A strong Indo-China relationship will also counter the de-globalizing noises emerging from a tired West, which is growing fearful of the very phenomenon it used to push as a panacea for all evils. Such an alliance can also effectively defend the interests of the developing world on issues like climate change and WTO negotiations. The economic benefits of a closer alliance with China hardly need to be stated. Geographic proximity as well as the sheer size of the two markets underline the immense untapped economic potential. Thus, a mutually beneficial Indo-China partnership is imaginable and is possible. Such an alliance also has the potential to secure peace and prosperity for all of Asia.
It is, however, true that realigning relations with China will not be easy, nor is it fully in the hands of India alone. Thoughtful and difficult concessions have to be made by both sides on the border disputes. Even if India is willing, China might not be interested. Also, a compelling case can be made for closely aligning with the United States instead of China. Both are open societies and the current Trump-inspired turmoil in U.S. policies might turn out to be just a short term aberration.
The core argument here is not to advocate for choosing China over the United States or vice versa, or even for a new non-alignment. Rather it is a call to have wider and fresh deliberations on the future course of action for India in a changing strategic scenario. India’s tumultuous past with China should not preclude future possibilities and there should not be a rush to side with the United States just because it turned out to be the right answer to a previous foreign policy question that India got wrong. This is a different question and these are different times.
India has enough stature to take its time to watch and carefully plan to chart a course with China or the United States or somewhere in the middle. All three are viable options. Whatever the future direction may be, it has to be the result of deliberate intent after due consideration of all options rather than a product of the unimaginative bureaucratic continuation of status quo.
The fear is that callousness of the kind displayed recently by the useless saber rattling with China, extending up to the level of cabinet ministers of India, might foreclose any future options and reduce India to dependency on a potentially retreating United States. Such carelessness stems from the lack of a long-term vision, which lets the politics of the present obscure larger goals. Cooler heads should work to bring down this present escalation with China and India should set out to urgently relook and reframe its strategic priorities by involving a wide spectrum of academics and practitioners. It is after all not prudent to sleepwalk between the dragon and the eagle.
Dr. Leslie Keerthi Kumar SM is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi.