Indian troops positioned at a pass along the India-China border in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Biju Boro

U.S. tightens exports to China’s chipmaker SMIC, citing risk of military use

Indian strategists have been suffering from illusion, delusion, and hallucination since their country’s independence from the British Empire. Their illusions are connected to India’s perception of itself. They harbor delusions in their perception of strategic support made available by superpowers and experience hallucinations when looking toward China. 

The military standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies at Ladakh for the last three weeks tells a tale of a strategic dilemma that could prove a severe setback to India in the future.

The Ladakh standoff

The recent Sino-Indian military standoff at Ladakh is not an ugly dispute over the barren land in the high Himalaya. It is a manifestation of Asian powers’ moves on the geo-strategic chessboard. Several issues have resulted in China’s resentment against India and have caused Beijing to mount pressure on New Delhi.  

First, India backed a joint effort by Australia and the European Union calling for an independent inquiry into the World Health Organization’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a draft resolution proposed for the 73rd World Health Assembly meeting held in Geneva on May 18.

Second, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, participated in a seven-nation virtual meeting of foreign ministers recently convened by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in what was seen as the US attempt to pave the way for full membership of Taiwan in the WHO. 

The meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan and South Korea. All are US non-NATO allies, and they have always supported Washington’s any demand. 

Besides, New Delhi plans to send government ministers to Taiwan to explore cultural and commercial cooperation. India is looking for technological assistance from Taiwan in electronics, fifth-generation (5G) telecom technology, semiconductors, and health-care technology. From Beijing’s point of view, this is evidence of New Delhi backing away from its commitment to the one-China policy. 

Third is India’s increasing participation in the US-led Quadrilateral alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad facilitates India’s defense and security ties with the US, Japan and Australia, based on the United States’ strategy that stresses international cooperation, transparency, and openness in the region. India’s covert support for the US strategy in the South China Sea has resulted in Beijing’s further suspicion.

Fourth, last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced the prohibition of Chinese investments in India, a step China called discriminatory and a violation of World Trade Organization rules.

Fifth, India dropped the idea of participating in the Asia-Pacific Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership at the last minute. The RCEP is a flagship free-trade partnership proposed by China for regional trade agreements among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Sixth, Indian strategists indulged in a gross overestimation when concluding that China’s losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic would turn out to be India’s gain. They deduced that a vast number of American companies would relocate to India in  the aftermath of the pandemic.

However, facts on the ground suggest only 5% of American factories in China relocated to India after the US-China trade war started in March 2018. The American companies’ preferred relocations were not to India but to Vietnam, Thailand or Taiwan.

The Global Competitive Report suggests India lags behind China in all infrastructure Indicators. The president of the US-India Business Council at the American Chamber of Commerce, Nisha Desai Biswal, corroborated the facts in an interview with The Print.

Last, India has further antagonized China because Modi hasn’t fulfilled the promises made during the informal summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan and Mamallapuram.

For example, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, without referring to any particular agreement, said last month, “We urge the Indian side to work together with us, abide by our leadership’s important consensus, comply with the agreements signed, and refrain from unilateral actions complicating the situation.” 

India’s illusion on its own position

Although India has risen as a global player recently, its relative power as compared with China has, in fact, sharply plunged. For example, India’s economy is a midget compared with China, whose gross domestic product is roughly US$14 trillion, whereas India’s is less than $2.7 trillion. China’s GDP is about five times a high and its defense spending nearly 3.7 times India’s. 

It should be noted that China inflicted severe casualties on India in the 1962 Sino-India war at a time when India and China were comparable in economic terms. For instance, the GDP per capita of India and China was $82.19 and $89.52 respectively in 1960. 

The fact that China is far ahead of India in several areas is something that Indian strategists find hard to swallow. India was considered ahead of China in aircraft carriers in the past, but China now has twice as many in-service carriers as India. However, Indian strategists claim that India and China are comparable.

Modi drastically altered several norms of Indian strategy and foreign policy after he entered his second inning in power in 2019. One of them was the scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir by revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution. However, India didn’t carefully consider the geopolitical backlash of its move, and particularly did not take China into account.

Delusion on the US

Indian strategists view the US as their crucial partner and friend. At the same time, China was considered its competitor until 2014. After Jayshankar became foreign secretary in January 2015, India dramatically changed its view of China, with the Indian media portraying China as India’s main adversary. 

The playbook of Indian strategists for engagement with the US has been “partnership of the two greatest fellow democracies for the 21st century” since 2016. But India is moving ahead to a dangerous destiny: It is a leading frontline state against China in Asian geopolitics.

Indian strategists seem to believe that they could benefit from the partnership with the US. However, they have not been achieving what they intended to accomplish. Conversely, they are unable to evade India’s unnecessary involvement in the American-led efforts to contain China in its back yard and the Indian Ocean rim. Indian strategists have failed to resist US pressure.

Despite Indian strategists’ hubris that India is a global superpower, it has a history of inability to set priorities and make decisions on the issues of foreign policy and security. India has repeatedly failed to enjoy “strategic autonomy.”

India lost its strategic autonomy in 1962 because of its miscalculated alliance with the USSR. The Sino-India war of 1962 was the upshot of India’s strategic blunder to rely on Moscow’s backing aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. India again has been repeating the same mistake by overrating the US-India alliance twice in 2017 at Doklam and now at Ladakh. 

Indian strategists overlooked American strategists’ aims to maintain a vanguard position in South and Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific region by keeping China and India apart. The US never allows Asia’s two superpowers, China and India, to reach rapprochement. 

Hallucinations on China

Indian strategists are suffering from hallucinations when it comes to China. China is far ahead of India in terms of economic, political, technological, military, and strategic capabilities. Indian strategists, on China’s rise, used to say, “Shanghai is China’s drawing-room, and everybody keeps the drawing-room attractive. The rest of China and India are the same.” However, they don’t admit that India is far behind China everywhere.

For instance, Chinese and Indian militaries faced off at the Doklam tri-junction of Bhutan, China, and India in the summer of 2017. The standoff happened after the India-US Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed in 2016. The deal gives the US and India access to each other’s military facilities for logistic support on a reimbursable basis. After overrating the scope of LEMOA, Modi was about to declare war on China. It was India’s most significant loss on the diplomatic front.

Now China wants to repeat the history of Doklam in Ladakh. Chinese strategists want the Sino-Indian border problem to linger, so China can keep India off balance and prevent it from focusing its attention on the West. 

India is in a position that no friend to back its place in the neighborhood and South Asia. India is unable to balance China in the region because China helps the country in simple terms. China demands respect for China’s leadership and interest and commitment to the one-China policy. In return, China provides maximum political, economic, and technological benefits to its partners.

Indian strategists find it hard to digest that India cannot compete with China on any front, and China won’t allow any global power to play a game against it. 

Before 2014, Indian foreign and strategic affairs were already being overseen by people not up to the task. But since Modi came to power, affairs have fallen into the hands of even less competent people. They are suffering from illusion, delusion, and hallucinations in shaping strategy. India will undergo another significant strategic loss in Ladakh if it repeats its past errors to deal with China.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.