Crafting A Strategic Policy In The Era Of Chinese Dominance

In the present period of hiatus when the government is busy dealing with the domestic issues and foreign affairs are left to the vivid imagination of media houses, what are India’s strategic options in the early 21st century? What is expected of the government? What role should the opposition play? Discusses Vithal Rajan in his lucid anlaysis.

Vithal Rajan

Either terrorists from Pakistan or its Border Action Team of regulars have committed an atrocity by beheading two Indian soldiers. There is widespread anger in India, and an army spokesman has said we will give a fitting reply. But it cannot be a similar barbaric act. So, what can be done, besides dark threats?

Mr Parrikar, India’s former Defence Minister, had a penchant for elaborating on John Foster Dulles’ theory of brinkmanship. Perhaps, he found it amusing to keep his counterparts in neighbouring countries on their toes, but he did little to advance India’s foreign policy initiatives. Now, the Finance Minister is holding Defence portfolio as additional charge, beset as he is with the faltering of the economy after that needless experiment with demonetization, a severe drought in the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, the prospect of an uncertain monsoon, and the taxation makeover under the new GST regime. Hence, his is a holding brief, a period when no new defence initiative is expected to be taken, when certainly the frisson caused by Parrikar’s rumination on not being tied down by the doctrine of ‘No First Use’ of nuclear weapons will be allowed to die down quietly. During the recent discussions with Michael Fallon, the British Defence Minister, both sides focused on creating a ‘launch-pad’ in India for selling defence material in the region. Here Arun Jaitley was on familiar financial ground. The elusive issue of creating a long-term strategic policy that India can adopt has been quietly lost sight of, and we can expect only angry reactions to terrorism to surface from time to time.

In this period of hiatus, when the government is busy dealing with domestic issues, and foreign affairs are left to the vivid imagination of media houses, it might be worthwhile to list out, tentatively, what are India’s strategic options in the early part of the 21st century.

A country’s defence strategies and foreign affairs initiatives are never based purely on national will. When the Emperor Napoleon and later Hitler tried to imprint their will on the map of Europe, the costly result after great loss of life was utter defeat. A country’s strategies are normally based on a cool assessment of regional and international developments under way, the forces beneficial and restrictive to the country’s interests, the fluid alignment of military, political, and economic forces. If von Clausewitz said that war was a continuation of politics by other means, he clearly saw the use of force as limited and surgical, applied only to produce a desired political result. The ill-conceived brinkmanship of Dulles and the adolescent naiveté of Kennedy during the Cuban crisis would have appalled that theorist.

Much has changed since the days of von Clausewitz. The American Civil War established the military fact that victory in future would go to the stronger economy, and not to brilliant tacticians.  The World Wars were fought for economic dominance. The old empires of Europe, imprisoned within the jingoistic rhetoric of their chancelleries, were unable to finesse out of war and flew like moths into the flame of Armageddon. Many saw the needless war coming but could do little to avoid it. Not even the Kaiser. Not even Viscount Grey, one of Europe’s most experienced diplomatists, who portended: ‘The lights are going out all over Europe, we will not see them lit again in our time.’

After a hundred million had died, social values changed in Europe, and this led to a patient building up of European economic power. Two nations have stood out against this trend. Britain, a victim of its nostalgia over its lost empire. America, saddled with imperial longings which it can maintain only through its preponderant military power. Every attempt at maintaining its empire through military force has diminished American power, created economic hardship at home, and a public unwillingness to go to war for the sake of shoring up the interests of their leaders. Such decline has been seen before, from the days of the Roman Empire to the end of the British Empire.

Ironically, it is the Chinese Communist Party that has understood the new capitalist rules for world dominance. If von Clausewitz were alive today, he might have said that economics was an extension of war by other means. India had by far the stronger economy at the time of Independence, but why it was not able to maintain leadership in Asia is another story. The fact remains that China is by far the stronger economic nation, with, even more importantly, its per capita income being over five times that of India. Despite all the encouraging verbiage from economists, there is no question of India matching China’s might in the 21st century. In fact, there is every indication that as America weakens rapidly, China will be the dominant superpower within the next twenty years or so. This key expectation should dictate India’s foreign policy and its defence strategy.

India is going through a phase of ultra-nationalism, politically stoked to create a unifying sense of national pride and purpose among frustrated youth, such as produced the European nationalisms of the nineteenth century. But times have changed towards pluralism, individuality, and a multiplicity of cross-cutting identities. India does not need to repeat the horrible mistakes of nineteenth century Europe. Whatever might be the domestic party-political compulsions, it would be self-defeating to allow such pressures to influence foreign policy or shape India’s strategic options.

If China, India’s great neighbor, is swiftly on course to become the world superpower, it is important for Indian theoreticians to assess what are China’s genuine intentions towards India. The last seventy years of misunderstandings and mutual misperceptions, increased by one actual border conflict, demonstrate that China has no further territorial gains to seek from India, and in any case will not attempt a wasteful military adventure. It seeks hard economic domination and soft political hegemony in Asia.

Are Chinese intensions hurtful to Indian interests? As Europe has proved, regional economic cooperation could be beneficial to neighbouring countries, provided negotiations are carried out from positions of mutual understanding and respect, and strength. Unfortunately, Indian leadership from the early grandiloquent days of Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon has consistently mis-communicated with China and failed to understand Chinese signals. China is not yet numero uno. It faces challenges to its ascendency from America, Europe, Russia and Japan. From India, China seeks a quiet southern border, and conviction of friendship. India has consistently played the Dalai Lama card to annoy China; petulantly joined naval exercises in the South China Seas where it has no strategic interest; withdrawn from cooperation with the Silk Road; and in several small ways needled China. All of this has gained India nothing, and only demonstrated its impotence to prevent China’s ascendency.

It is very important at this stage for Indian leadership to have a realistic estimation of Chinese power today, and in the days to come. Petulance shows only weakness. Since nothing can be done by India to weaken China – even if it were advisable to do so – it behooves its leadership to make friends with the dominant power, or at least become a reliable economic partner. It goes without saying that such a pro-China move has to be carried out as a skillful manoeuvre, without raising Western hackles. But timing is crucial since China is still weak enough to seek friends. Another ten years and India’s support will be worthless.

A key objection to such a strategy would be China’s ties with Pakistan. These were formed as a warning to India that China could hurt India more than India could hurt China. Giving the necessary assurances to China will be a start to wean away that country from its Pakistani links. China wants a South Asian partner, and India is best fitted for that role. The Pakistan connection will soon prove an embarrassment to China as it already is to America. National vanity has no place in defence strategy. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Bhagat Singh will always have an honoured place in Indian history, but it was the social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy and Dadabhai Naoroji who carved the path for national recovery.

A nuanced pro-China policy will isolate the Pakistani military, especially if India simultaneously leads in establishing a multiplicity of cultural, trade, and economic ties with the civil government of Pakistan and its middles classes. Such ties will play a welcome emancipatory role, and erode the power of the Pakistan military to maintain the status quo.

It appears that strategists are considering other scenarios, which might restrict China’s dramatic rise to superpower status. That country’s economy could slow down through overheating; internal dissensions caused by the widening gap between the poor and the very rich could arrest growth; Western technological superiority could reverse trade trends; the formidable military might of America could contain China for the near future. Along with such expectations, strategists may be looking for a Pakistani implosion caused by sectarianism and uncontrollable terrorist activities.

However, caution dictates that a conservative prognosis be adopted that present trends will continue, and no dramatic windfall in India’s favour will occur. This is especially critical at this juncture since the greatest threat to national security may arise from internal factors. The aspirations of the majority of citizens have been denied by continuing unacceptable levels of poverty. This has been accentuated by several hundred farmer suicides, an indicator of high rural distress. Lack of educational opportunities and joblessness has created high levels of frustration among youth of disadvantaged communities, especially among tribals, dalits and muslims. These so-called minorities are huge in actual numbers and are spread throughout the country, and exist in every conurbation. The muslim population alone is equal to the total population of Pakistan or Bangladesh. A persistent sense of disaffection lingers among all these communities heightened by the reality of discrimination, politically, economically, and socially. So far, the armed struggles of disaffected groups have been contained in Kashmir, the North-East, and in Central India, but for how long? National interests require that these grievances be addressed with immediate effect, and this would require deployments of very large sums of money in the social sector. A non-adventurist foreign and defence policy could pull back funds to meet the greatest perceived threat of the moment.

It is clear to everyone that economic levers alone cannot cope with disaffection as long as a sense of unfair and prejudiced treatment persists among large sections of a ‘minority’ community. Certainly, a formula for the Kashmir valley will have to be devised in consultation with the people of the region to ensure real and acceptable Kashmiri autonomy. The hobgoblin of territorial integrity must not be permitted to override national interests. After all, Europe has seen several national boundaries being redrawn in the recent past, which have lessened conflict zones and have been, for the most part, for the benefit of all. An important caveat would be that any new arrangement should not play into the hands of the Pakistani military, or that of any other power, but so designed as to solve the Kashmir question, and bring back feelings of friendship among Kashmiris. A similar, greater effort is needed to bring peace to the North-East among its varied tribal nationalities.

It is time a comprehensive national strategic policy should be designed and implemented with determination to lessen, if not to negate, both internal and external threats to India. A long period of consensus among the leaders of all major political parties would be needed to carry out such a strategy effectively. However tempting it might be, leaders in opposition should refrain from rabble rousing in the national interest. A great threat to such a long-term vision and policy is the political rightwing messianism gripping many communities today. This in tandem with media-hyped jingoism can wreck any long-term strategy, and it is left to the wisdom of political leaders to defuse the opposition of arm-chair critics. The people of India want peace and prosperity, and the leadership of the country has the capacity to deliver both in time, provided the selfish interests of the few and the mistaken notions of patriotism of the many do not railroad decisions towards infructuous confrontation and conflict. If divisive forces are pulled back, by political and economic means, and democratic processes enforced both in letter and in spirit, the South Asian region might see a dramatic lessening of tensions  between, and within, national borders.

(The writer is a reputed thinker and humanist who lives at Ketti, The Nilgiris)

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