Publish: 28 Jun 2020, 02:40 pm
China’s Ladakh incursions have strengthened a constituency within the Indian establishment for closer strategic ties with the United States. Recognising the military asymmetry with China, India is unlikely to embark on adventurous moves and risk a limited military confrontation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
In the face of its relative tactical weakness, some strategic ‘realists’ argue that India has little option but to align more closely with the US and other rivals of China. They also suggest strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the ‘Quad’) with the US, Japan and Australia, and building a regional security architecture around this core.
India’s Closer Defence Ties With US
Under the Modi government, the basic elements of closer defence cooperation with the US have developed further than under previous regimes. India has signed defence foundational agreements with the US, paving the way for mutual logistics support for each other’s armed forces (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement or LEMOA) – enabling access to advanced technologies from the US, and an agreement (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement or COMCASA) to facilitate US defence companies to partner with the Indian private sector for defence manufacturing (ISA or Industrial Security Annexe to the General Security of Military Information Agreement – GSOMIA).
The last of the four foundational defence agreements, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for enabling geospatial information for targeting and navigation is under discussion.
In June 2016, the US also recognised India as “a major defence partner” – making India the only country in this category, as the US either has NATO partners or bilateral treaty allies.
Among China’s other rivals, Japan is already part of India’s Malabar Naval Exercises and Australia is likely to be invited to join this year. The Quad, which had receded after Australian withdrawal in 2009, has been revived. Five meetings were held in 2017-19, the last in March 2020 for a joint strategy to tackle COVID-19.
US May Want to Use India As A ‘Pressure Point’ On China
A 20 June 2020 editorial in the Global Times suggests that India’s tough stance on border issues may, in part, be because of the US wooing to formulate a joint Indo-Pacific strategy. “New Delhi must be clear that the resources that the US would invest in China-India relations are limited,” it claimed, and suggested that the US wanted to use India to serve “Washington’s interests” – to contain China.
There will be support in the US administration and strategic community to use India as a pressure point on China.
However, it is for India to define the contours of its partnership with the US.
The US cannot get China to vacate areas it has illegally occupied in Ladakh. Although it recognises the McMahon Line as the border between Tibet and India in the eastern sector, there is no equivalent clarity on the Ladakh border.
The LAC, in any case, is not a line but a concept. China and India define it differently.
The best the US can be expected to do is to issue statements against use of force to alter the ground situation.
A security alliance with the US may offer little advantage as it has no appetite today to fight the wars of others. Even its strongest military alliance, NATO, is threatening to come apart. In these circumstances, the hope for a US-led Asian version of NATO is a pipe dream.
Security Advantages Of Joining The Quad
Lessons could be learnt from Japan’s predicament. The US-Japan Security Treaty enjoins the US to come to Japan’s military defence if it comes under attack. Yet Washington has done precious little in Japan’s ongoing dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It has even refused to take a formal position over the ultimate sovereignty of the islands for fear of getting embroiled in a military conflict. Similarly in the South China Sea, where the US itself has military assets, interests and allies by defence treaty, it is unable to do much against China’s persistent attempts to assert control.
The security advantages of joining the Quad are unlikely to go beyond sharing electronics intelligence, jointly protecting the sea-lanes and related security cooperation.
Though such a security architecture outside ASEAN will worry China, any expectations that it would evolve into a larger security institution are premature.
India Should Stop Recognising ‘One China’ Policy
India’s choices are limited by its own internal weaknesses, social, economic and military. If Chinese muscle-flexing leads to putting all its eggs in the US basket, then it can only reduce India’s manoeuvrability. India will have to support America’s Middle-East policy, especially vis-à-vis Iran and its dictates on Russian arms imports. India and Washington differ on several other issues – like climate change, trade protectionism and the movement of skilled labour. Therefore, while it engages the US and expands cooperation in the Quad, Delhi will have to reset its China policy itself. This would involve taking some bold decisions.
For one, the Modi government can undo Prime Minister Vajpayee’s recognition of Tibet as a part of China in 2003, in the hope of resolving the Sino-Indian border dispute.
This is crucial as the entirety of China’s claims on Indian territory are based on its occupation of Tibet. By dubbing China as the ‘occupation force’ in Tibet, India could reopen the issue and build international pressure for China to negotiate Tibet’s future with the Dalai Lama.
For another, India can stop recognising the ‘One China’ policy, especially when Beijing itself does not consider Jammu and Kashmir as a part of India, and lays claim to parts of Ladakh.
India Might Want to Upgrade Ties With Taiwan Now
This may be the right time to upgrade relations with Taiwan.
Moving forward from small pinpricks like supporting Taiwan’s membership of WHO, India could open a consulate in Taipei.
The Modi government could decide to exclude Huawei from its 5G telecom trials. Huawei’s links with the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) are under intense scrutiny in the US. This would send a very strong signal internationally, putting India alongside Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and the US, that have decided to phase out Huawei’s products within their mobile networks.
India still seems hesitant about pursuing these options or about taking up China’s human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. Half-hearted engagement with China will neither work nor buy time.
*The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.