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Countering Chinese Checkers

As the global political order becomes increasingly unstable due to China’s belligerence, India needs to effectively address the formidable challenges posed by its arch rival, necessitating a strategic recalibration

By Pranay K Shome

SPECIAL FEATURE

The phrase “Hindi, Chini, bhai, bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) was perhaps the most well-known yet naïve aphorism that emerged to describe India-China relations in the immediate post-independence period under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. This idealistic slogan encapsulated Nehru’s vision of a harmonious and cooperative relationship between the two emerging nations, which were both embarking on a journey of development and modernisation. However, Pandit Nehru did not anticipate the China’s ambitions and machinations that would ultimately prove costly for India.

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India paid a heavy price for this idealism with its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The People’s Republic of China not only inflicted a significant military defeat on India but also captured approximately 38,000 square kilometres of territory, specifically the region known as Aksai Chin. Sixty-two years later, the psychological and strategic scars of this dark episode remain fresh in the minds of Indians.

However, the India of 1962 is not the India of 2024. Today, India stands as the world’s fifth-largest economy, possesses the fourth strongest armed forces, and is recognised as a significant soft power and a technology-oriented superpower. Nevertheless, as Kautilya, also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta, who was a statesman, philosopher, and advisor to the Mauryan Empire in the 4th century BCE, and the chief minister to Chandragupta Maurya, articulated in his seminal work Arthashastra, overestimating one’s strength and underestimating the strength and resilience of the adversary can be disastrous.

The international political order is still grappling with the profound after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and is entangled in multiple conflicts across various regions, from the Middle East to Eurasia. While Asia appears more stable on the surface, this stability is deceptive, masking a continuous power struggle akin to an Asian game of thrones between India and China.

As India enters the Amrit Kaal, the period leading up to the 100th anniversary of her independence from European colonial rule in 2047, it is crucial to reflect on the strategic challenges that lie ahead. Among these challenges, the most formidable is China, the world’s second-largest economy, which possesses a third of the world’s critical minerals, a sizable nuclear arsenal, and a highly mechanised armed force.

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This Amrit Kaal necessitates the formulation of prudent policies and strategies that can help Bharat surpass the dragon and emerge as the dominant power in Asia.

Challenges Posed by China

With over 3,000 kilometres of disputed border, China poses a significant threat to India. This was evident in the June 2020 skirmish between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian armed forces, resulting in an ongoing standoff. Both sides have amassed large quantities of personnel and armaments along their respective borders, constantly confronting each other. This has led to a situation of perpetual tension and occasional conflict, making it imperative for India to be vigilant and prepared.

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The threat from China is not limited to the continental domain; it extends to the maritime realm as well. China’s acquisition of strategic ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, and the Coco Islands in Myanmar is part of its “String of Pearls” strategy to encircle India with both civilian and military presence. This strategic encirclement poses a direct challenge to India’s maritime security and its influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Furthermore, India’s burgeoning trade deficit and dependence on Chinese goods make its economy vulnerable to China’s economic manoeuvres. Despite tense relations at the border, trade between the two nations continues to grow. This economic interdependence complicates the geopolitical dynamics, as India finds itself reliant on Chinese imports for a wide range of essential goods and technologies. Additionally, China has engaged in covert cyber warfare against India, evidenced by the hacking of the server of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi in 2022.

China has also adopted proxy warfare strategies, particularly in India’s north-eastern border states. There is substantial evidence that disturbances in regions like Manipur have been fuelled by Chinese actions aimed at destabilising India. These tactics are designed to create internal strife and weaken India’s overall strategic posture.

Strategies for Tackling the Dragon

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said, “You can change friends, but not neighbours.” Given the permanence of borders, India must develop strategies to strengthen its defences against China. The first step is to reduce economic dependence on China, despite China being India’s second-largest bilateral trade partner. This will take time, but New Delhi can begin by pioneering free trade agreements with allied countries. Efforts are already underway with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Australia, and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries, and negotiations with the United Kingdom (UK) are in progress.

Free trade agreements will enable India to find alternative markets for its products and ensure competitive and equitable market access while complying with World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations. Diversifying trade relations is crucial for reducing vulnerability to economic pressures from China.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War left deep psychological and strategic wounds on India. Today, as it stands as the fifth-largest economy with the fourth-strongest military, India must balance its past lessons with present capabilities

Promoting alternative supply chains with allied partners is also essential. India has signed the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative (RSCI) with two other QUAD partners. Strengthening partnerships with the European Union (EU), India’s second-largest foreign direct investment (FDI) investor, is a logical next step. By collaborating with these partners, India can build more resilient and secure supply chains, reducing its dependence on Chinese manufacturing.

Bolstering Research and Development

A key element of India’s strategy to counter China must be substantial investment in research and development (R&D). Currently, India invests a mere 0.64% of its GDP in R&D. Historical evidence suggests that countries that increase their R&D spending can surpass their rivals in technological advancements. To counter China effectively, India should aim to invest at least 3% of its GDP in R&D, particularly in the defence sector. With emerging domains like artificial intelligence (AI) and the metaverse reshaping global dynamics, increased spending on R&D is imperative. The National AI Mission is a positive step in this direction.

However, innovation should not be confined to elite institutions; it should also emerge from rural educational institutions. A sustainable “rurban” approach, integrating rural and urban educational initiatives, is essential. By fostering innovation across the entire educational spectrum, India can harness the full potential of its demographic dividend.

Promoting indigenous production of critical defence assets and facilitating technology transfer from allied countries is another critical step. Recently, India exported the first batch of BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines and has received orders for the production and export of Lapua .338 Magnum sniper rifles to some countries that have evinced interest in this deal. However, promoting indigenisation requires a collaborative approach between the public and private sectors, akin to the American military-industrial complex’s public-private partnership (PPP) model.

Strengthening People-to-People Contact

Strengthening people-to-people contact is another vital area for India to focus on. Exporting India’s soft power, including Yoga and Bollywood, is already well-known. However, it is also necessary to highlight lesser-known aspects of Indian culture, particularly the contributions of Indic warriors in defending indigenous faiths and cultural systems. This approach will project India as a culture that believes in tolerance and inclusivity, aligning with the Puranic shloka Dharmo Rakshati Rakṣitaḥ, which means “Dharma protects those who protect it.”

By promoting a comprehensive and inclusive narrative of Indian culture, India can strengthen its cultural influence and create a more favourable global perception. This cultural diplomacy can complement its strategic and economic initiatives, making India a more attractive partner on the world stage.

Despite ongoing border tensions, China remains India’s top trade partner. Reducing this economic reliance through diversified free trade agreements and resilient supply chains should be a critical focus for New Delhi

Strengthening Naval Power

India’s strategic culture has historically been dominated by a continental perception of threats from China and Pakistan, leading to the neglect of naval power. To counter China, which possesses the world’s third-largest naval force, India must focus significantly on strengthening its navy. Building dedicated aircraft carrier strike forces is essential. India currently operates two aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya, the latter being its largest war machine. However, we will need at least three more aircraft carriers to counter China effectively. Although aircraft carriers are expensive and time-consuming to build, they are crucial for projecting maritime hard power.

This should be complemented by a new strategy, the “necklace,” enabling India to become a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region and even in the South China Sea, which is strategically important for India. By enhancing its naval capabilities and establishing a strong presence in these critical maritime regions, India can counter China’s influence and ensure the security of vital sea lanes.

Reducing Economic Reliance on China

In the fiscal year 2023-2024, China became India’s top trade partner. However, India’s trade deficit with China exceeds $100 billion, which is a critical concern for policymakers. Reducing trade reliance on China is urgent. Starting with silicon, essential for manufacturing electronic devices, India should reach out to Taiwan. Unlike the United States’ policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan, India should formalise and intensify engagements to secure alternatives to Chinese products. While opening formal diplomatic ties may not be advisable, strengthening economic and trade relations with Taiwan should be a priority. By playing the Taiwan card strategically, India can reduce its reliance on China and enhance its economic resilience.

Thus, it is imperative to adopt a multi-faceted strategy to counter the challenges posed by China. By leveraging its economic, technological, and cultural strengths, India can assert its rightful place as a leading global power in the 21st century.

–The writer is currently working as a Research Associate at Defence Research and Studies (dras.in) and is a columnist. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda