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China lowered the gun for Modi-Xi Uzbekistan meet. India can’t take its eyes off the barrel yet

Despite ban on Chinese applications and border disputes, China-India economic relations have expanded.

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Breaking the military deadlock at Gogra-Hot Springs in Ladakh has been touted as paving the way for the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit scheduled in Uzbekistan on 15-16 September. The military commanders had probably arrived at a consensus when they met for the 16th round of negotiations on 17 July. But political approval by both sides seems to have taken nearly two months. The delay conceals more than it reveals about the contemporary dynamics of China-India relations and the role of the military confrontation on India’s northern border in the context of power shifts leading to geopolitical competition at the global level.

More than just a border dispute

Choosing specific areas for aggression may have military arguments that offer tactical benefits. But it would be shortsighted to view the use of military force by China to change the status quo in Ladakh as being part of its intentions for purely territorial aggrandisement based on disputed claim lines. Instead, the framework of India’s perception must be based on a much broader regional and global geopolitical landscape, which provides the stage for the part played by the military instrument in the conduct of statecraft.

China’s use of the border dispute as a strategic pressure point to influence India’s political posture in the global geopolitical struggle is perhaps the obvious link that connects Beijing’s military exertions and political objectives. It therefore must be understood as the instrumental use of the border dispute to keep India contained within the subcontinent. In strategic terms, the border dispute is probably considered by China as having the greatest impact on India in its effort of containment. The other containment efforts through Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have been ongoing for long. But nothing can provide it greater heft in the containment game than minor military setbacks in the Himalayas. Such heft is connected to India’s domestic politics.

‘Eye for an eye’ needs bigger budget

Understandably, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government or for that matter any government in power could face a threat if territorial losses accrue due to aggression. China, in particular, has created the ability to inflict some losses and it can even do so without fighting because of the vastness of the northern border coupled with the development of infrastructure that is backed with military capacity. The deterrence of such aggressive actions requires India to pay back in the same coin through actions that are described as ‘Eye for an Eye.’ It would be comparable to the occupation of the Rezangla Heights during the Ladakh crisis of 2020, when India occupied areas not hitherto held by it. An action that later propelled China to undertake negotiations. Notably, militarily, India has by now, probably, built up enough capability to deter China from undertaking such military actions often described as ‘salami slicing’ tactics.

Thus far, efforts by India’s opposition parties to leverage the loss of territory to China have not found any traction in domestic politics. It is unlikely to happen even if China does another round of salami slicing and India’s military reaction is considered robust. But for sure, the enhanced preparation for the robust continental response can impact the growth of India’s maritime power. Stalling such growth would appear to be China’s strategic objective. The development of sustainable maritime capabilities by India requires greater budget support and deeper defence cooperation with the US and its allies.

Unarguably, for India, enhanced defence budgetary support is a strategic imperative. Its priority outweighs the narrow interests of electoral gains. Thus far, the BJP government has displayed no inclination to enhance the defence budget and make up for the additional burden China has imposed on India. It is no surprise that the Modi government has allowed the debate on military hardware, such as the requirement of the third aircraft carrier, to be endlessly prolonged without taking a decision. The political leadership has to move out of such strategic inertia.   

India navigating turbulent geopolitical waters

On the other hand, India is making progress in terms of navigating the turbulent waters of global geopolitics. Its presence on either side of the global geopolitical divide is finding measured acceptance. The divergent pulls from the divide present opportunities that demand political prudence and deft diplomacy. Going forward, as the clouds of global and regional geopolitical tensions darken, India’s proclivity to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds will face strong headwinds, especially in the arena of military, economic and technological confrontation.

China’s efforts to leverage the Indian sensitivities on the northern border through the use of military force seem to have backfired. Instead of keeping India away from the West, it has strategically pushed India further into the US-led orbit. At the same time, India-Russia relations have retained common ground and there is a mutual realisation of the need to maintain robust relations. Even with China, despite the political rhetoric and restrictive measures like the banning of a number of Chinese apps, economic relations have expanded.

The sensitivities of India’s political leadership are what China is trying to exploit in its attempts to distance India from the US, the West and Japan. In terms of international relations, as long as India’s interests are diligently pursued and the principle of legitimacy is preserved, there should be scope for national growth and development. Take the case of recent European Union (EU) decisions.

The EU as well as G7 nations have decided to impose a price cap on oil and gas in December. The price cap may succeed only if India and China as the two major consumers of Russia’s oil also fall in line. It would also require major oil producers like Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. It should not be surprising if India, China and the oil producers do not play ball with the EU. These are unlikely to result from a collective endeavour even as they find themselves in the same tent on the issue.

India’s half-hearted participation in the multilateral military exercise Vostok 2022 hosted by Russia where China also participated was evident in staying out of the maritime leg, ostensibly, to placate Japan. However, instances of such seeming convergence of interests could often be unplanned offshoots of larger events that unfold with the passage of time.

Role of the gun

Former Chinese president Mao Zedong’s famous saying, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun’, seems to animate in some measure the prevailing spirit of India’s relations with China. However, political power is a derivative of the psychological relationship and is enacted as a mind game. The existing and potential battlefields are intimately linked to interaction on the political table.

If the mutually agreed upon tactical disengagement was a precursor to the Modi-Xi meeting in Uzbekistan, China’s gun was possibly required to be lowered as a kick-off measure. Though with Xi Jinping, nothing can be forecast, it is just possible that the dialogue could be taken forward by the two leaders on the route to normalisation of relations, which is still a bridge too far to cross. With XI facing stronger domestic and external headwinds, will the Uzbekistan meeting hold any promise to weaken the role of the gun in China-India relations?

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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