The current round of tensions between India and China reflects an inflection point in the ties between the two Asian behemoths. The fact that the Chinese side choose to attack an Indian verifying patrol after agreeing to withdraw forces, killing 20 Indian soldiers, points to Beijing’s duplicity.
This may also mark a decisive moment in India’s ties with the United States. India is already getting close to the United States in a wide variety of ways. India has been buying American military hardware in a big way as of late and has inked deals worth approximately $20 billion with the United States in the last 13 years. The United States has also been supporting India on the global stage on various issues like terrorism, membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, membership in the UN Security Council, and on other matters. Both India and the United States are robust democracies and the U.S. president and the Indian prime minister have clearly struck up a close relationship.
One needs good and powerful friends on the international stage and New Delhi will have to make a call. Fence-sitting will not help as New Delhi aspires to take up a leadership role on the high table of international geopolitics. In a welcome development, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted in a recent speech that “the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has escalated border tensions with India, the world’s most populous democracy.”
The current Sino-Indian clashes may also be the proverbial final nail in the coffin of China-India ties. It means that the prime minister’s personal push to improve ties with China has not helped much. Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met each other many times, this has not translated into substantial progress in their bilateral ties. For example, after the Doklam standoff in 2017, the two leaders met in Wuhan in 2018, and the next year in India, in Mamallapuram. The present round of tensions also signifies that the days of the “hide your strength and bide your time,” as famously enunciated by Deng Xiaoping, are well and truly over in China.
In the current situation, New Delhi’s foreign policy options are limited. The Russians have been unwilling on put pressure on China. Hence, India needs to revamp its China policy completely. This could include a rethink on India’s “one China” policy as well. All options should be on the table, especially when dealing with an authoritarian regime like China.
The best thing for India would be to concentrate on the development of border infrastructure. This is what will strengthen India’s hand in the near and long term. In addition, India has to pay more attention to the China factor in its foreign policy calculus, as opposed to the Pakistan factor. Successive Indian governments have made the mistake of being tied down by the Pakistan bogey.
More attention also needs to be paid to increasing domestic economic capacity in order to tackle the China threat. The defense budget will also demand a rethink. Beijing is rapidly modernizing its defense forces and laying more strength than ever before on the navy. Although India has a comparative advantage as of now in the maritime realm, this will not last forever.
Taking on the China threat will need a series of concerted actions on all fronts — diplomatic, economic, as well as military. The basic difference is between a democratic and an autocratic model. No wonder India getting closer to a fellow robust democracy like the United States makes sense at this critical point in its history.
Rupakjyoti Borah is an associate professor at India’s Sharda University. His books include The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India and Act-East via the Northeast. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and the University of Cambridge. The views expressed are personal.