This rapid downturn in ties has evoked a cacophony from the Indian commentariat calling for strengthening of India’s affiliation with the US-led western alliance. A former foreign secretary has called for “consolidating a countervailing coalition of like-minded countries”, while another has specifically recommended closer ties with the US.

A former ambassador to China has urged for stronger “partnerships with democracies of the world”, while another senior diplomat has called for “diplomatically isolating China”. A distinguished journalist viewed the Ladakh encounter as a “watershed moment” in that India joining the US in its confrontation with China would shift the balance of power in Washington’s favour.

With the pandemic accelerating change, India needs to shape a fresh approach that would secure its strategic interests on the global stage. Here, the Russia-India-China (RIC) format best serves India’s interests in these turbulent times.

Let us first examine what might have motivated the Chinese to initiate this bloody encounter with Indian troops at that remote and desolate border.

Confrontation at Ladakh

Indian commentators have offered a variety of explanations for this unexpected challenge from China. Some believe that China has viewed with concern the significant logistical improvements that India has been making along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which are reducing its strategic advantages in the region.

Alongside this are added concerns China might have about India’s intentions relating to Aksai Chin that is under Chinese occupation, though claimed by India. In Parliament, on 6 August, 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah had forcefully stated that Aksai Chin was an integral part of India. Later, India had issued fresh maps showing Aksai Chin as part of the newly formed Union Territory of Ladakh. The confrontation could thus be initiated by China to remind India not to seek to change the ground situation unilaterally.

The other explanation relates to China’s domestic situation. Writers note the emergence of a military-official grouping, Ying Pai (hawks or eagles), who, led by Xi Jinping, are seeking to expand China’s global footprint and assert China’s centrality in world affairs.

The third explanation is that China is concerned about India increasingly becoming a part of the US-led coalition against China. Over the last three months, as the US has reeled under the pandemic, it has widened the existing divide with China by holding it responsible for the pandemic. More immediately, India has welcomed the US invitation to join the expanded G-7 that is deliberately being shaped as an anti-China platform. This has crowned the already substantial political, economic and defence ties India has developed with the US, particularly the “Quad”, the maritime association that also includes Japan and Australia.

These assessments assume that the confrontation at Ladakh was the result of preparations over several months. India, the commentators aver, should firmly resist this intrusion, starting with a boycott of Chinese goods. Some even suggest that war could be an option.

The US-based scholar of Chinese origin, Yun Sun, has explained China’s concerns differently. He does not believe the confrontation was premeditated: given the ongoing deteriorating ties with the US, China has little interest in opening one more military front. China’s principal concern is that India should not take advantage of the Sino-US divide to associate itself with the US-led anti-China alliance. Confirming Yun Sun’s analysis, the official mouthpiece Global Times has emphasised that it views the emerging India-US alliance as part of the US campaign to challenge China’s rise.

On 22-23 June, the regional corps commanders of the two countries have, after marathon discussions, agreed on “a gradual and verifiable disengagement” which will involve withdrawal from present confrontational positions to be followed by a thinning out of troops along the LAC.

Turn to the West

While several of India’s stalwarts have clamoured for the American embrace, they have not actually set out the details of this arrangement and what it entails for India and its western “partners”. There are some issues that need to be considered.

To start with, the US is a superpower with global interests; it has always put US interests above all other considerations. Many of these positions, particularly those in support of Pakistan, have harmed India’s interests over several decades. The US is always in election mode, with domestic factors and the influence of its diverse interest groups leading to major shifts in policy positions following changes in the White House or Congress. This hardly makes the US a reliable long-term partner.

The US has almost always resorted to military force, rather than diplomacy, to address complex global challenges and has allowed the interests of its domestic lobbies to determine its military and foreign policy positions. An alliance with the US would drag India into conflicts that would not serve its interests.

In any case, what kind of security arrangements are we looking at with the US? A security alliance? A looser “arrangement” in which we back the US on issues pertaining to China?

Any firm affiliation with the US is likely to place India in a position of permanent hostility to China. This would set up a zero-sum scenario in which even minor differences would escalate into full-blown confrontations, possibly even conflict. This situation would also encourage China to mobilise allies in India’s neighbourhood, leaving South Asia in a state of permanent instability.

Of course, an affiliation with the US will take away from India its freedom of action, its strategic autonomy, while exposing it to external interventions by the US and its other allies to mediate in matters involving India.

Finally, we need to examine the US’ own interest and capacity to assume “global responsibilities” and provide global leadership. Veteran diplomat Richard Haass finds the US much diminished: he notes that the pandemic has “reinforced doubts about American competence” and that it has been “shorn of much of its available power”. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama says that the US’ “current highly polarised society and incompetent leader” have prevented the state from functioning effectively.

The US hardly seems like a credible world leader capable of or even interested in handling global responsibilities.

Norms for turbulent times

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, certain norms to steer India through uncharted seas can be enunciated.

The domestic factor: the Ladakh confrontation was preceded by pervasive national enthusiasm about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal diplomacy. Here, domestic policy-makers failed to warn the leaders that major political initiatives based on party ideology have ill-served Indian interests and have encouraged suspicion among our neighbours. Less stridency and less polarisation should be fundamental principles in framing our foreign policy.

Linked with this is the need to enhance national capacity – political, economic and military. After six years, this administration has shown itself to be long on rhetoric, short on real achievement. In 1980, the Indian and Chinese economies were roughly at par; today, 40 years later, China’s GDP is five times that of India, while its defence budget is three times larger. China is not just a manufacturer of products of global quality, it has also surpassed the West in several areas of high-technology.

Indian ministries should be directed to prepare five-year blueprints for enhancement of national capacity so that in 20 years we show real achievement. Our motive force should be the realisation that we can reach the global high-table only through national endeavour and attainment, not slogans and high-profile political events.

The regional factor: India shares borders of 2000-km with Pakistan and 4000-km with China, which have built close ties with each other. India’s security interests are inexorably linked with the two countries. These borders mean that ultimately India has to safeguard its interests on the basis of its own capacities and with well-structured regional cooperative security arrangements rather than depend on a remote and often unreliable partner.

Our ties with China will remain competitive: as former national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon has pointed out, the interests and footprints of both India and China have considerably expanded with their expanding economies so that they now rub against each other at various points.

There are also several interests that they share. China is India’s second-largest trade partner, with two-way trade valued at over $80 billion. The economies of the two neighbours are deeply intertwined: China provides 68% of bulk drugs and intermediaries to India’s pharmaceutical sector; 43% of raw materials for the Indian electronics sector; 27% of imported auto components; 80% of India’s solar power projects use Chinese equipment, while mobile handsets made with Chinese components have made India the world’s second-largest manufacturer of handsets.

Despite nationalistic fervour, these ties cannot be readily severed without hurting India’s economic interests.

Convergence of interests

Diplomatic effort by both sides should promote convergence and reduce areas of competition. In this context, various writers have referred to the “China-India plus” format that China had proposed at Wuhan in terms of which the two countries would first agree on regional issues between then and then jointly discuss them with the third party.

A three-step diplomatic approach may be considered:

One, the revival of the “China-India plus” format after Ladakh will require that China accept genuine partnership in place of perceptions of hierarchy. This would be founded on what Xi Jinping had stated at the Bo’ao Forum in April 2018, ie, that China would “follow a new approach to state-to-state relations featuring dialogue rather than confrontation, and partnerships instead of alliance”.

Specifically, this will call on China to accommodate India’s concerns relating to the Belt-and-Road Initiative, so that both Indian and Russian connectivity projects can be pursued cohesively. Above all, it will require China to end the uncertainty relating to the LAC and settle the lines on terms that maintain the interests and dignity of both sides.

What is important is that China understands India’s commitment to strategic autonomy, which has been the foundation-stone of its foreign policy and has given India a unique standing in the comity of nations. This means that India will maintain substantial ties with several nations, including the US, just as China does; in fact, China’s policy-makers are quite anxious to improve ties with the US.

Two, these turbulent times call for a multiplicity of engagements at the heart of which should be India’s ties with Russia and China, the “RIC”. The shared hostility of Russia and China to the US-led world order (and the US’ reciprocal hostility towards them) has brought them close to each other. India’s participation provides balance to this triangular structure.

The format thus has the benefit of diverse value and capacity, while enabling each partner to retain a fair degree of national autonomy. This format also places the triumvirate at the heart of two major multilateral platforms – BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – that are standard-bearers of the new order.

Three, the revitalisation of the RIC and affirmation of its global role was set at the latest meeting of the foreign ministers of the three countries on 23 June. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar called on the three nations to “converge on the value of reformed multilateralism”, while stressing that India needed to get its due place in the world order, denied to it over 75 years.

The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi called on the partners to develop, revitalise and safeguard world peace, while they “correctly treat and properly handle the sensitive factors in bilateral relations”.

The RIC should be the driving force for regional peace and security by promoting linkages of West Asian and Indian Ocean nations with SCO in order to shape regional cooperative security arrangements, replacing the interventions and destructions of Pax Americana with a new and influential global force for peace.

The RIC platform – not the US embrace – is India’s legitimate place in the emerging world order.

Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

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