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India’s Transformational Strategy to Counter China by 2047

The Galwan clash in June 2020 marked a watershed in India-China ties. The Indian Army’s resolute and calibrated response followed by rapid eyeball-to-eyeball deployment including mechanised forces signalled a paradigm shift in the national strategy towards Chinese military incursion. The fundamentals of foreign policy dealing with a belligerent China have changed from a Look East Policy to the Act East Policy

By Maj Gen G Shankaranarayanan

SPECIAL FEATURE
Illustration by: Budha Chandra Singh

Since independence, India evolved a transformational strategy towards China from being a dominant player in the power equation to one that is gradually growing beyond the realms of just maintaining credible deterrence. In a politico-military term, the deterrence equation is a measure of the country’s economic, military, technological, social and demographic potential against the adversary across multiple domains backed by a strong political leadership. In this context, the power equilibrium is slowly but steadily tilting in favour of India.

It has been common knowledge that for decades, the Indian government’s foreign policy towards China was one of appeasement and therefore, India was reluctant to challenge China, though China through her actions has always been intimidating India, claiming for example the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, India’s border state in the North-East region, calling it Zangnan, the southern part of Tibet. This gave rise to a perception that India was diffident when it came to taking on China and therefore, subservient in many ways. The West often scoffed at India’s predicament.

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However, this perception has been undergoing a radical change in the recent past where the Look East Policy enunciated by late Prime Minister Narsimha Rao has been rechristened as the Act East Policy, a more realistic one enunciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It essentially focuses more on strategic concerns with a clear intent of retaliation and retribution for any territorial infringement should the need arise and above all demonstrates the transformational political mindset of the country. While doing so, India has taken several steps to be able to stand up to China as opposed to standing by in the past. Today, the Act East Policy stands extended to Act Indo-Pacific, which propels India into the regional arena. Towards that end, India has been pushing for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region by upholding the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea, thus standing up against China’s maritime claims. A deeper analysis reveals the underlying foreign policy shift that best describes India’s current global posture.

India’s Policy of ‘Strategic Autonomy’

India, exercising due diligence, has been vocal and opinionated in its global responses, in national interest. Whether it is the purchase of oil from Russia, the stand on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, or the participation in BRIC towards de-dollarisation. In diplomatic terms ‘strategic autonomy’ is defined as a state’s ability to independently make its decisions – especially in its foreign relations – and adopt the preferred choices without being influenced by other states. The first dimension of ‘strategic autonomy’ concerns a state’s interactions, preferences, decisions, and practices of its foreign policy, and the second is connected to security and defence-related policies.

Hence, so far as China is concerned, the recent responses fall within this ambit. The Galwan clash of June 15-16, 2020, marked a watershed in India-China ties. The Indian Army’s resolute and calibrated response followed by rapid eyeball-to-eyeball deployment including mechanised forces signalled a paradigm shift in the national strategy towards Chinese military incursion. The fundamentals of foreign policy dealing with a belligerent China have changed from a Look East Policy to one of Act East Policy leading to serious efforts being put in place to change the status quo of military deterrence from being ‘credible’ to one that could be selectively ‘punitive’ so as to be decisive in its military response of forced eviction of Chinese incursions, albeit keeping it well below the nuclear threshold while making India’s intentions very explicit.

Although this military deterrence is one facet against the escalation matrix vis a vis China, diplomatic efforts in the near and long term do envisage the resolution of key disputes ranging from border infringements and incursions at several places along the LAC, resolution of water-sharing issues given the asymmetry in control of river water resources, concerns over China’s dam-building activities on trans boundary rivers, including the Brahmaputra, which have led to tensions over water-sharing. At the political level, India is host to the Tibetan government-in-exile and its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. In addition, tacit support to the democratic government of Taiwan is viewed as a point of serious contention by China despite India upholding China’s One China policy. On the other hand, India’s main objection to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), known in China as the One Belt One Road and sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is the inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), a territory that India claims as its own. India also argues that the BRI projects should respect international norms, the rule of law, and financial sustainability, and should not create debt traps or environmental and social risks for the host countries. These contentious issues are facts-in-being with no tangible avenues for resolution and therefore are a fait accompli.

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In economic terms, India’s trade deficit with China reached a historically high level of US$ 85 billion in 2023-24 primarily due to complex regulatory requirements, intellectual property rights violations, and a lack of transparency in business dealings in the Chinese market.

In the past, India had shown reticence in expressing its views about territorial issues in the South China Sea region, preferring to be a passive observer. But of late, India has been emphasizing its strong support for freedom of navigation and access to resources such as fisheries and gas in accordance with principles of international law besides calling for all the concerned parties in the region to exercise restraint

Geopolitics Behind China’s Assertion

In its quest to maintain an edge over India, China has been actively pursuing several yet parallel strategies that leverages its economic and military dominance in the region. To begin with, China follows a policy of Salami Slicing, a strategy of divide-and-conquer involving incremental threats and alliances to overcome opposition and acquire new territories. In response to territorial claims along contiguous borders with neighbours it follows the creeping strategy. That apart, China’s debt trap diplomacy has subjugated countries such as Sri Lanka Pakistan, and Bangladesh by extending infrastructure loans, which the debtors are unable to pay back, resulting in China controlling key assets.

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So far as India is concerned, China has diligently exercised the policy of the String of Pearls and the Five Fingers of Tibet strategy. The String of Pearls is a geopolitical and strategic initiative to build a network of Chinese-funded, owned, or controlled ports and other maritime infrastructure facilities in strategic locations across the Indian Ocean. These include Gwadar Port in Pakistan, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Chittagong Port in Bangladesh, and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The Five Fingers of Tibet strategy is a metaphoric claim to five regions adjoining Tibet, including Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. In a zero-sum game, this issue will continue into the foreseeable future with no tangible solution necessitating a status quo response.

India’s Response to China’s Aggressive Measures

India’s response to China’s aggressive measures has been a mixed bag of domestic regional and global consolidation in diplomatic, economic and military domains. On the domestic front, as enunciated earlier, the Act East Policy has seen a significant enhancement in troop deployment to enable a counter-offensive capability – a marked departure from the erstwhile defensive credible deterrence posture. Buttressing this has been the qualitative and quantitative improvement in force levels, weapon systems and surveillance capability built in thereof. This also envisages the option of dual front engagement given the antagonist on either side – west by Pakistan and east by China – a collusive status cannot be ruled out in a hot war scenario. Therefore, multidomain modernisation with a high Indigenous component has significantly contributed to enhancing the war sustainability factor. But the single most predominant factor is the man behind the machine. The Indian troops are well versed in high-altitude warfare, which is an edge over China.

In support of this strategy, the focus of the present dispensation in New Delhi has been to increase domestic industrial output to include defence production, leading to higher domestic consumption besides fuelling exports while reducing substantial imports. This inadvertently will have an impact on the financial deficit. Therefore, economically India has been steadily growing over the years with a GDP of 6.7 to 7 per cent. Economic robustness as opposed to China’s economic decline has been posing a serious threat to China’s global dominance. In fact, post-COVID India has been the chosen destination for manufacturing with a large number of multinationals relocating their manufacturing facilities to India, although India does have sizable imports from China.

Regional Consolidation

India, poised to become the fastest growing economy as predicted by IMF, recognises the greater role that it must play if it is to be a significant actor in world affairs. India has long known the value of the ASEAN region with its Look East strategy. With the shift to an Act East Policy now, India signifies a greater strategic interest in forming stronger ties with ASEAN and its member states, many of whom are entangled in maritime disputes with China over the South China Sea. Besides, in the past, India had shown reticence in expressing its views about territorial issues in the region, preferring to be a passive observer. But of late, India has been emphasizing its strong support for freedom of navigation and access to resources such as fisheries and gas in accordance with principles of international law besides calling for all the concerned parties in the South China Sea to exercise restraint, avoid threat or use of force and resolve disputes through peaceful means.

But India’s interest in the South China Sea region runs deeper than a desire for stronger cooperation with ASEAN countries. The South China Sea is a major and fundamental sea corridor used for commercial and naval shipping. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the South China Sea is one of the most important energy trade routes in the world with almost a third of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies passing through it annually. Aside from being a rich source of fish and marine life, it is also purported to hold significant quantities of oil and gas at around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it a potentially rich energy resource for energy-scarce growing economies such as China and India. India is the fourth largest energy consumer in the world and its energy import-dependence is enormous, with oil, coal and gas imports projected to significantly increase within the next two decades. This crucial need compels India to explore sources of energy through various means, including oil and gas exploration. The joint exploration of oil and gas by India and Vietnam in the contested waters of the South China Sea is a natural step. This made India, by consequence, a player in the maritime wrangling in the South China Sea, while simultaneously earning the ire of China as it perceived a direct contravention of China’s appeal to the international community debarring non-littoral countries from their involvement in the South China Sea dispute.

Thus, India is equally apprehensive of China’s provocations in the South China Sea, as it is almost entirely dependent on sea trade. Any disruptions in the sea lanes of communications (SLOC) will be detrimental to its economic and strategic interests in the region. Its strategic maritime interest extends to the maritime choke points in the Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca as 95 per cent of India’s total external trade, along with its oil imports, transit through these waters. The security of passage and freedom of navigation in these vast waters and unimpeded access to the region’s maritime commons are therefore imperative to India’s industrial and commercial growth. Given these maritime compulsions, India has been exploring alternative multimodal transportation corridors.

As a counter to China’s CPEC, India has been pursuing the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) which will also serve as a counter-initiative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the support of G7 nations. In addition, India is looking at the FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) strategy focusing on free trade, promotion, and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and rules-based Indo-Pacific. The QUAD, with its prime focus on establishing a free and secure Indo-Pacific region, is a robust option for India to hedge against China.

Global Strategic Alliances

Although India has always sought to influence affairs beyond its immediate region, it was long seen by the world as just a predominant power in South Asia. This dramatically changed when the world’s largest democracy began to assert itself in the broader Asian region and on the global stage. This gradual yet sure-footed metamorphosis has signalled to the world that India is open for business and ready to increase its global engagement.

The result has been an India that has taken on greater roles in global issues like climate change, has tried to craft productive ties with all the major powers, and has increased its investment in its economic, military, and diplomatic capabilities. Given its fast-growing economy and vast demographic advantages, India is well on its way to being called a developed nation and a global power. Thus, India’s active engagement with like-minded nations to collectively address China’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region has been a step in the right direction. QUAD a grouping of four democracies – India, Australia, the US, and Japan – find a common ground of being democratic nations who support the common interest of unhindered maritime trade and security. The I2U2 is a new grouping of India, Israel, the USA, and the UAE, an alliance that strengthens India’s geopolitical standing in the region.

As a sequel, securing transportation corridors was its prime focus. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) was established through an agreement between India, Iran, and Russia, which creates a comprehensive 7,200-km multi-mode transportation network connecting the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and Caspian Sea. The key node, Chabahar Port in Iran, strategically monitors China’s activities in the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, providing an alternative to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s (CPEC) Gwadar port. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an intergovernmental organisation established to promote economic cooperation and regional integration among countries bordering the Indian Ocean. IORA member states work on various initiatives related to trade, investment, and sustainable development in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).

India’s active engagement with like-minded nations to collectively address China’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region has been a step in the right direction. The QUAD grouping of India, Australia, the US, and Japan supports the common interest of unhindered maritime trade and security. The I2U2 grouping of India, Israel, the USA and the UAE strengthens India’s geopolitical standing in the region

In its quest for regional stability and as a counter to China’s strategy of String of Pearls, India has adopted the Necklace of Diamonds strategy, emphasizing the encirclement of China by enhancing its naval presence, expanding military bases, and strengthening diplomatic ties with regional nations. This strategy aims to counter China’s military network and influence in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

Shifting International Politics

India over the years has strived to consolidate its global collaborative initiatives with several countries which significantly enhances its capability against China. These include agreements with the USA, Japan and QUAD. India has signed four foundational accords such as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA that cover areas of military information, logistics exchange, compatibility. As a result, India and the USA may collaborate and jointly counter Chinese strategies. So far as Japan and QUAD are concerned, India, in collaboration with Japan and Australia, has initiated the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative to reduce reliance on China. On the other hand, the QUAD is the global power dynamics in which India is actively engaged to counter Chinese unilateralism. However, China is collaborating with Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey to challenge the US-led liberal world order.

China has also gone ahead with several initiatives to counter Indian measures. The Himalayan QUAD is a project involving China, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as a counterweight to the QUAD. It has signed a MoU with Pakistan, for long-term planning and development of CPEC with Sri Lanka for the use of the strategic Hambantota Port thereby bolstering Beijing’s String of Pearls with Bangladesh to join the BRI, much to India’s dismay. In Nepal, China aims to build political links, but India’s influence remains strong due to its dominant cultural influence. Similar agreements for economic cooperation have also been signed with the Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan.

Crystal Gazing until 2047 – Preferred Way Forward

A peek into the next two decades, when India will celebrate its centenary since independence, showcases a strong and vibrant India with a mature global standing. This template is postulated against the backdrop of four consecutive regimes at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. That notwithstanding, in the Chinese context, the blueprint for a resolute India has been well articulated and will continue on this trajectory. Therefore, to expect a hot war between these nations is a remote possibility. One that hinges on a grave provocation if not an actual aggression by China. But it is indeed hard for China to get past the continuum of escalation without a sequential retaliation by India both in terms of military and diplomatic intervention.

While evaluating the Sino-Indian embroglio, assessing changes in great power dynamics and formulating incisive responses constitute a fundamental aspect of any nation’s foreign policy. For India, the key focus should be on capitalizing on emerging global opportunities to enhance its alliances with various countries and adeptly navigate complex relations with China besides positioning itself as a credible security provider

Therefore, the only way or preferred way forward is to ensure peaceful coexistence, by continuing on the matrix of global and regional collaboration to include China, while ensuring a strong deterrence capability with a counter-offensive capability built in, besides ensuring a robust domestic economy. The BRIC initiative of de-dollarisation wherein India and China are co-partners to the idea of trading in domestic currencies is a welcome initiative where India and China are seen to be on the same page. That apart, now that India has been initiating dialogues from a position of strength, the resolution of disputes must be rule-based and governed by international law. As part of the confidence-building measures, India must reach out to China during natural calamities as a first responder to gain mutual trust. Increased people-to-people contact must foster cooperative research in science and technology, and environmental issues, such as addressing air pollution and water management besides a focused insight into climate change affecting Himalayan glacial depletion, global warming, public health and counter-terrorism. In addition, it must engage in multilateral platforms to address shared concerns to diffuse conflicts around the globe, while contributing collectively to rebuilding and rehabilitation across all the global hot spots viz. Ukraine and Palestine.

In the economic domain, every effort must be invested in diversifying imports. India needs to reduce its dependence on Chinese imports by diversifying its imports from other countries such as Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Axiomatically, India should focus on increasing its exports to China focusing on high-value products such as engineering goods, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals.

Conclusion

In conclusion, India must vigorously articulate its soft power strategy. The five pillars of this soft power, used in a strategic sense are Samman (dignity), Samvaad (dialogue), Samriddhi (shared prosperity), Suraksha (regional and global security), and Sanskriti evam Sabhayata (Cultural and civilisational links). In keeping with this thought process, India must encourage cultural exchanges and people-to-people contacts, and promote educational programmes, and tourism to enhance understanding between the people of India and China. Simultaneously India must promote track II dialogues by encouraging non-governmental exchanges, involving scholars, think tanks, and civil society, to contribute fresh perspectives and ideas.

In the ultimate evaluation of the Sino-Indian embroglio, assessing changes in great power dynamics and formulating incisive responses constitute a fundamental aspect of any nation’s foreign policy. For India, the key focus should be on capitalizing on emerging global opportunities to enhance its alliances the world over and adeptly navigate complex relations with China besides positioning India as a credible security provider. India’s current ascension in the international system positions it well to effectively manage any abrupt shifts in great power equations while being a strong counter to China’s hegemonistic design.

-The writer is a former GOC-Indian Army and presently a Strategic Consultant, Principal Advisor. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda