India's China policy has shifted since Narendra Modi's election to a second term as prime minister. Image: iStock

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted a hawkish China strategy after he was re-elected to a second term in office and appointed Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as external affairs minister in May 2019.

The shift in India’s China policy was evident long before the Ladakh incident, and the unfortunate death of 20 Indian servicemen hastened the process. Undoubtedly, Jaishankar is the architect of India’s new China policy.

India does not have a publicly available China policy, per se. However, the changing contours of its policy toward China appeared last year in two separate papers.

These documents were Jaishankar’s address at the Atlantic Council on October 1, 2019, and his remarks at the fourth Ramnath Goyenka Lecture on November 14. These two lectures provided a framework for how India’s China strategy could change during Modi’s second term in office. 

At the Atlantic Council, an elite foreign-relations club that was created to promote trans-Atlantic understanding and galvanize US supremacy in the world, Jaishankar outlined how India and the US could move forward by upholding “democracy” and “rule of law,” in his view superiors in “moral virtue” to any other system of governance.

Similarly, Jaishankar spoke on the topic “Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian Foreign Policy in a Changing World” at the fourth Ramnath Goyenka Lecture, a gathering of diplomats, strategists, foreign-policy experts, academia and journalists.

The crux of his chat was that India’s foreign policy until 2014 was dogmatic because it did not look toward “the West” to a full extent.

By reviewing these documents and observing India’s strategy on China, we see that Jaishankar looks like a good pathologist, but a bad physician. He is a good pathologist in the sense that he diagnosed India’s strategic “disorder” correctly on its China policy, but a bad physician because he prescribed bad and unaffordable remedies. He also suggested the last treatment at first.

Good pathologist

In the diagnostic perspective, first, Jaishankar seemed mindful of the “Goldilocks Principle” because he categorically pronounced it in his Atlantic Council speech. The Goldilocks Principle is that the superpowers neither allow their possible rivals to grow too strong nor allow them to become too weak.

The incumbent superpower always tries to keep the aspirant superpower in the middle, meaning neither strong nor weak. 

He was right, in his address to the Atlantic Council, that a weak India is neither in the interest of “the West” nor of China. For instance, the West helped India after it was weakened by its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

But the West opposed India when it claimed South Asian prominence by playing a crucial role in Bangladeshi independence in 1971. Jaishankar recognized that superpowers play a pivotal role in the expansion and contraction of any country’s strength. 

Second, he rightly said that risk-taking is an inherent aspect of strategy, diplomacy and policymaking as it is in investment management. India had been suffering from a risk-averting or low-risk foreign policy. As a result, it had been getting few rewards.

Bad physician

In prescribing the remedy to these Indian disorders, Jaishankar gives the impression of a bad physician. If he invests all his assets in a single investment scheme, he is not taking a risk but is gambling, which could turn out to be a strategic blunder.

He is committing such a blunder by putting all his eggs in the American basket.

He seems unaware of the portfolio-management theory, which advocates diversification to minimize risk. This theory is equally valid as a risk-taking approach in diplomacy.

There is no guarantee that the West will provide preferential market access to India for its hawkish China stand for it to achieve its goal of becoming a US$10 trillion economy by 2030.

What could be the adverse consequences of Jaishankar’s strategic risk-loving policy on China? 

Participation in the US-led alliance puts India at risk on several fronts. First, its strategic autonomy will be at unprecedented risk.

For example, India has been maintaining and strengthening its diplomatic, economic, military and trade ties with Iran and Russia, the United States’ adversaries. India also will not able to reverse its relationship with China.

Yet India needs to give up its relations with these countries for the sake of the US alliance – none of whose members will solve India’s border problem beyond lip service. 

Second, India now considers itself the regional leader in South Asia and a security guarantor in the Indian Ocean Rim. However, India is backed by none of the South Asian countries, except its protectorate Bhutan.

India will also be confined as a partner of the US-led alliance in the Indian Ocean Rim. Again, boosting its role as a security guarantor in the Indian Ocean Rim entails massive investment in its navy, which is likely to bleed its economy without any tangible gain.   

Third, the US-led alliance against China has not developed along ideological lines as the US strategists and Jaishankar initially supposed amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Only India and Australia backed the US-led ideological allegation that the pandemic was of Chinese making.

As MK Bhadrakumar has rightly pointed out, it requires two blocs to launch a cold war. The US could not cobble together an anti-Covid alliance against China, and China did not show interest in putting together a bloc countering such a narrative. 

Fourth, the armada in the sky, the fleet in the ocean, tanks and artillery on the ground all play their role as deterrents. The deterrence helps a country keep standing on its position firmly, but the real battle is over the agenda on the table.

However, India does not have an agenda per se on the table as China has in the current Sino-Indian standoff. It seems India is standing against China not to support its own position, instead of at the behest of someone else. 

Last, India’s destiny to become a superpower will be halted for at least a half-century because in a military alliance with the US, India’s role will be as a rule-following nation, not as a rule-maker. The superpower makes the rules; others follow the rules. 

India’s strategic adventurism

“Hide your strength, bide your time,” was the mantra of Chinese foreign policy until 2014. Deng Xiaoping’s dictum proved to be wise to enhance China’s current posture on the global stage.

He recognized the risk of disputes in the South China Sea, and the border dispute with India resonated even more. He urged postponing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and pursuing a peaceful rise in the world. 

Deng learned a lot from Mao Zedong. As Henry Kissinger depicts in his book On China, Richard Nixon offered Taiwan to mainland China in his meeting in Beijing with Mao.

However, Mao rejected the proposal by saying not now, probably 100 years later. Because Mao knew that Nixon wanted to understand China’s territorial ambitions. Mao successfully hid his ambitions.

The size of China’s economy in 1999 was about $1.1 trillion, whereas the US economy was $9.6 trillion. Indian strategists should learn a lot from their Chinese counterparts.

A NATO-led airstrike hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. In my view, it was an intentional attack to assess Chinese strength and reaction. However, the Chinese successfully hid their strength again.

If China had not applied Deng’s dictum and retaliated to “the West,” it would have been dismantled in 1999. China started to come to global prominence only after attaining a $10.5 trillion economy in 2014.

One estimate suggests that by 2030 the Indian economy will be three times smaller in the best-case scenario and 10 times less than the Chinese economy in the worst-case scenario. 

India’s economy has been in deep trouble since 2016. Even before the pandemic, Indian GDP growth dropped to 4.2%, the lowest in 11 years.

According to the former chief economist of the World Bank, Kaushik Basu, and Ela R Bhatt, India’s Gandhian economist and cooperative organizer, the indicator to gauge the overall robustness of the economy, the non-food bank credit, had fallen below 7%, by last December, a record low in the last 50 years.

India’s current strategic situation is parallel with China, but is opposite in direction. For instance, the sizes of India’s and China’s economies were $2.7 trillion and $14.14 trillion respectively in 2019, the World Bank suggests.

But China was hiding its strength to expand its economy, while India shows its muscles despite not growing fully. 

“The West” took out more than $43 trillion from India during more than two centuries of occupation. It also caused about two centuries of national humiliation by subjugation, famine, slavery and the opium trade, as Jaishankar pointed out in his Atlantic Council talk.

However, he believes the defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war is a more prominent national humiliation for India than 190 years of colonial subjugation. 

Consequently, he pushes India to the US-led alliance. India neither can hide its strength nor bide its time. Jaishankar is taking steps now that India cannot afford economically or militarily. These steps were supposed to be taken some 30 years later after India reaches the $10 trillion goal. 

More in-depth analysis coming from Indian think-tanks shows that the Indian elites do not believe in their economy reaching $10 trillion by 2030, even in the best possible case. Hence there is strategic adventurism among the elites to enter a grand alliance with “the West” to counter and derail China’s economic expansion. Jaishankar represents this adventurous strategic school of thought among the Indian elite.  

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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.