The Quad summit hosted by US President Joe Biden on March 12 caps an extraordinary year that saw a fundamental shift in India’s response to China’s border aggressions, precipitating a showdown that has been in the making, but one which many had felt might be averted by balancing border discord with economic interests.
India’s tightrope walk ended soon after Chinese troops occupied positions along the Line of Actual Control in east Ladakh in May last year, clearly violating India’s claim lines. The strength of the mobilisation and ingress in the Pangong lake area signalled an intent to bend the LAC permanently to suit China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping’s political and strategic objectives.
The idea was to decisively show India its place in a scheme of things where China is unchallenged hegemon. Xi’s motivations might be several. Decades ago, Mao Zedong’s decision to launch a border war with India was seen to have been triggered, at least in part, by a rising irritation with what he saw as Jawaharlal Nehru’s “pretensions” on the world stage as a leader of non-aligned countries. India’s decision to back demands for an international inquiry into origins of Covid in China might well have angered the communist leadership and read as an upstart act needing chastisement.
But India’s apparent insouciance apart, the need to secure interests along the Karakoram highway and its CPEC projects, as well as a realisation that accelerated civilian and military infrastructure on the Indian side is altering the odds on the LAC, undercutting Beijing’s ability to spring nasty surprises, might be reasons why China used military manoeuvres on the Tibetan plateau as a launch pad for a confrontation along the LAC.
Xi’s actions — such military moves can hardly be ascribed to regional commanders — had an unexpected result. Instead of the usual effort to resolve tensions through dialogue without further raising temperatures, India responded with an unprecedented counter mobilisation. It became apparent that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to soldiers in Ladakh in July was not mere optics. The savage clash in Galwan in June had highlighted risks of the strategy, but India was committed to going toe to toe with a militarily and economically superior opponent.
In the best times, irrespective of regimes in office, Indian leaders have understood that ties with China are largely about “managing” things. It was hoped deepening economic engagement might reduce the risk of conflict, but the dramatic meltdown in China-Japan ties, despite far deeper economic ties, showed this was a false hope. The immutable fact remained that China saw India as a neighbour whose burgeoning ambitions need to be checked by the threat of border incursions and support for Pakistan’s hostile actions, a proxy who serves as the first line of defence.
The annual leadership dialogues (Wuhan, Chennai) have gone out of the window for now. India has sought to loosen the China-Pakistan pincer by a bold preparedness to respond to China’s use of force with a counter threat that it will not shy from escalation. Crucial success in gaining strategic heights on the south bank of Pangong in late August drove home the point that hostilities will not be painless and the communist leadership should weigh its options with care.
Clear message: Reports that Quad leaders discussed the LAC situation must be galling for Beijing
The events may well have helped India truly overcome the “hesitations of history” Modi referred to in his 2016 speech to the US Congress. India’s commitment to the Quad was clearly accelerated by Chinese actions and the significance of the decision can be weighed by the fact that the Prime Minister joined the summit even as the Ladakh disengagement remains incomplete. China’s attempts to extract an Indian commitment to restore bilateral ties as the pullback progresses do not seem to have worked. Rather, Modi’s participation in the summit and reports that Quad leaders discussed the LAC situation along with Chinese actions in the east Pacific must be galling for Beijing. India’s new bottom line seems clear enough: no business as usual if borders remain volatile.
The Quad’s profile as an alliance of democracies has other benefits for the Modi government. It runs counter to persistent attacks it has faced from political opponents, critics and foreign commentators for “democratic backsliding”. Though grounds of criticism often reflect double standards if not patent dishonesty (attacking new farm laws for being rushed through Parliament but refusing to acknowledge the perverse obduracy of unions opposing them), the attacks gave opponents an opportunity to generate a negative narrative. The strong US-India-Japan-Australia synergy showcases a unity of purpose and shared values that respect the rule of law.
For all dire warnings it has directed towards India, the Chinese system recognises and respects firm leadership, and the mandarins in Beijing would be aware that the calculus of bilateral ties has changed for good.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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