After moving to an ever-closer relationship with the US, New Delhi is recalibrating its foreign policy by warming up to China.
Exactly two years ago, in the summer of 2020, relations between China and India hit their nadir. Soldiers of the nuclear-armed neighbours were engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the high ridges of Ladakh in the western Himalayas using clubs and rocks. Many casualties on both sides were reported.
It was expected—and reported widely—that the two Asian giants may compete militarily, pushing India ‘closer to the West’, giving a fillip to the United States-led bloc’s plans to ‘persuade New Delhi to become a closer military and economic partner to confronting China’s ambitions.’
None of the two predictions came about.
Rather, Delhi and Beijing are engaging at multiple levels and even backing each other at international forums if it suits their mutual interests. In contrast, India is way more careful with the US, once described as a “natural ally” of New Delhi.
How it all changed
Since the arrival of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, India was treading carefully with both Washington and Beijing, avoiding any diplomatic friction — a difficult balancing act as US and China are growing apart militarily and economically.
But India remained committed to both, with Modi campaigning for Donald Trump and firmly embracing China, considering its deep ties with Indian manufacturers and traders. Thus, Modi visited China five times in five years — the highest by any Indian Prime Minister — and met his Chinese counterpart President Xi Xinping 18 times, a record of sorts.
However, Modi’s trapeze act went haywire when his deputy and Home Minister Amit Shah unilaterally announced that both Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Aksai Chin — a 38,000-square kilometre mountainous upland administered by China — are “an integral part of India.”
Realising the risk of drawing China into the Kashmir conflict, India’s most sought after diplomat and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar rushed to China soon after but failed to stop the face-off in Ladakh in May-June 2020, followed by several clashes on the China-India border.
But despite the Hindutva brigade’s frantic calls to act against China and the West’s interest in widening the gap between the world's two most populous countries, India’s deeply nationalist Prime Minister refused to challenge China militarily after the death of at least 20 Indian soldiers in Ladakh.
Reasons and results
India’s primary and main interest in improving its relationship with China is trade. China is a consistent trading partner of India, often displacing the US as recently as 2021-22, with total trade volume crossing $125 billion.
Secondly, China’s defence spending in 2021 is nearly four times India's – $293 billion to $76 billion.
Thirdly, as China’s naval clout grew, the Indian government had to consider that “55 percent of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and Malacca Straits”.
There are plenty of other bilateral and multilateral issues at stake as well.
India’s refusal to act hastily yielded results in the spring of 2022 when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India. The visit itself is a sign of thaw in relations.
In a post-meeting press conference, Jaishankar said that the relationship is “not” normal as “the situation in the border areas is abnormal,” yet India and China have been in regular touch since the Ladakh stand-off.
“Foreign Minister Wang Yi and I have been in touch with each other over the last two years, even if we had not visited each other’s country,” the Indian Foreign Minister said. He added that they met in Moscow in September 2020, Dushanbe in July and September 2021 and have had several telephonic conversations.
“The focus of these interactions has naturally been on the situation in our border areas. Our meeting had led to an understanding on disengagement and de-escalation. The challenge, of course, has been to implement it on the ground.”
In addition, India and China had 15 rounds of talks between Senior Commanders and “progress”—said Jaishankar—“has been achieved on several friction points from the disengagement perspective”. Clearly, the relationship was not “war-like” as many think tanks, media and self-styled policy experts predicted.
At the end of May, a routine meeting of the ‘Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs’ was held while senior sector commanders’ meetings continued. Moreover, in a significant development, China joined India and four other countries in signing an agreement in Tajikistan, sharing South, Central and East Asia’s security concerns emanating out of Afghanistan.
“Significantly, while not naming the US or any other Western country, the joint statement India signed on to mentioned the 'view' that countries responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan should fulfil their 'obligations' for the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan,” reported India’s widely-circulated newspaper, Times of India.
But possibly, the most significant statement was made by Jaishankar last Friday (June 3), asking the West not to refrain from meddling in the India-China relationship.
“We have a difficult relationship with China. We are perfectly capable of managing it. If I get global understanding and support, obviously, it will also help me. But this idea that I do a transaction, I come in conflict one because it will help in conflict two, that’s not how the world works,” he added.
“A lot of our problems with China have nothing to do with Ukraine, have nothing to do with Russia,” he said at a global security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia.
This is clearly in sync with his – and India’s – new foreign policy as outlined by him in his 2020 book, The India Ahead. The Indian Foreign Minister indicated that while being a competitor, China is also an inspiration for India.
“Indian hesitations (in the past) of playing a leading role derive from its recollection of formidable powers like the US and USSR. But China has shown that a developing society, albeit of a large size and dynamic economy, can start to assume that responsibility. India could well follow in its footsteps, obviously at its own pace,” he noted.
This is partly a departure from the Hindutva brigade’s public position to oppose China tooth and nail.
India’s issues with the West and Washington
India’s 21st-century foreign policy is largely guided by Jaishankar, handpicked by Modi as his Foreign Minister in 2019. In three years, Jaishankar has emerged as the first 21st-century star foreign minister of India, with memes posted on social media aggregator Reddit projecting him as the Indian superhero destroying rivals in Washington and European Union and – surprisingly – not in Pakistan or China as is the norm.
Jaishankar’s doctrine – The India Ahead – can well be described for now as India’s foreign policy playbook. The book navigates through the maze of international diplomacy defining India’s foreign policy priorities in the coming years. Despite its complex narrative, one sentence sums up Jaishankar’s reading of global power balance: “...for two decades, China had been winning without fighting, while the US was fighting without winning.”
About a year after the book's publication, America unilaterally withdrew troops from Afghanistan, deeply shaking Delhi’s confidence in Washington which was taking care of its key Asian ally’s strategic and business interests in the country. New Delhi’s disappointment was evident.
Secondly, the US’ decision to sell long-range nuclear-powered submarines to Australia was another moment of revelation for India. New Delhi realised that the US was yet not comfortable with selling nuclear attack weapons to India; Australia is clearly more trusted as far as guarding the West’s interest against China in the Indo-Pacific.
However, to India’s advantage, France was deeply anguished, too, as Australia cancelled a $66 billion submarine deal to access those from the US. The US action brought India closer to France – and the growing anti-US bloc in Europe – which may augment multi-layered cooperation in future.
Thirdly, India’s ruling BJP’s main domestic political agenda is to address the core Hindutva programmes. As a part of the plan since the party’s inception in 1980, the BJP had introduced the removal of special status to Kashmir in the election manifesto and eventually added the key programmes—like the demand for a temple in place of the Ayodhya mosque in 1989—clearly annoying India’s largest minority, the Muslims. Hindu zealots later demolished the mosque in December 1992. The Biden administration is routinely flagging rights violations in India.
With the Hindutva brigade warming up for the 2024 elections focusing on rehabilitating Hindu Pandits in Kashmir and constructing more temples at mosque sites across India, Jaishankar’s team will have to continuously balance between the West’s civil rights watchdogs and domestic electoral compulsions. On this particular issue, New Delhi is much more comfortable in dealing with Beijing as China never flags rights-related issues in international forums.
In addition to all these, the conflict in Ukraine has deeply unsettled India’s relationship with the West and Washington. India has been subjected to huge pressure—even threatened with “consequences” – for its war-time transactions with Russia. At least two comments of Jaishankar in Bratislava indicate India’s irritation.
On buying Russian oil, he said, Europe is buying Russian oil and gas by imposing a “new package of sanctions designed in a way where consideration has been given to the welfare of its population”.
On alternate sources of oil, he argued that if “countries in Europe and the West and the US are so concerned”, they should “allow Iranian oil to come into the market.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met Jaishankar in Delhi on Wednesday.
Indian oil consumption has increased by nine times since last year, said Jaishankar, adding: “Is buying Russian gas not funding the war? It’s only Indian money and oil coming to India that funds it, but not the gas coming to Europe? Let’s be a little even-handed out here,” Jaishankar asked.
“Why don’t they allow Venezuelan oil to come into the market? They have squeezed every other source of oil we had and now they say not to get the best deal for your own people. I don’t think that’s a fair approach.” India, however, continues to be part of QUAD, a security-economic mechanism with Australia, Japan, India and the US as members. Its key objective is to contain China in the region.
Finally, in the backdrop of the war in Ukraine — where the US’ pre-war policy is “centered on supporting Ukraine in the face of continued Russian aggression”—it was clear that Washington would not fund other’s wars. Yet the confusion on whether to defend allies or not continues.
Late in May, President Biden first expressed commitment to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese military move and then retracted the commitment the very next day, indicating Washington has not deviated from its ‘One China Policy', which acknowledges China’s right over Taiwan.
Biden has repeatedly made such “gaffes”, and while the American press continues to debate whether these are President’s weaknesses or strengths, the slips continue to confuse its allies across the world, especially India, as it shares a nearly 3,500-kilometre border with a country which has fought India in a full-scale war in 1962.
Foreign policy – however – is the trickiest of businesses.
The entire situation based on India’s intention to maintain the status quo may reverse with one wrong step usually undertaken for domestic political compulsions. But if the Jaishankar doctrine is to be believed, India will opt for the “middle path” as it did in times of great crises in the past, avoiding any major confrontation with China or the West.
“After the Chinese attack in 1962, it turned to the US to ask for air cover. In 1971, presented with the prospect of a US-China-Pakistan axis and a looming Bangladesh crisis, it concluded a virtual alliance with the USSR. Whenever crises receded, India went back to the middle path,” notes the Indian Foreign Minister’s playbook.