The general thread of wisdom that descended upon us in the aftermath of India’s stalled bid for NSG membership was notable in but one matter, ie, déjà vu. Why?
Two, it regurgitated all the old concepts – China’s working around its own self interests, we need to be more aware of our own (lack of) leverage, this further shows the perils of high profile diplomacy, we need to build areas of leverage for us to get favourable outcomes in such endeavour.
But in our overwrought self-confidence, we risk the worst of both worlds: Not having enough fire power to really hurt any of the powers bigger than us on the one hand; at the same time frittering away the cautious virtues that actually have stood us in good stead.
Even a hard-nosed ex-practitioner, former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, admonishes the approach for not "reflecting" enough about Sino-Indian relations.
The India-China relationship has been diminished by these latest developments and their impact on the construction of a stronger edifice of bilateral interaction. Independently of the latter, we need to carefully assess the pros and cons in pursuing entry into the NSG in this current phase. On both fronts, a season of reflection is called for.
However very little of the analyses dwells on solutions, ie, what should India do different/better/sharper beyond an indeterminate wait to “build leverage/capacities”?
Tied intimately to such analysis is really the search for “free options”. In other words, a search for variables/capacities where we can attain our objectives without giving in to “core principles” (generally defined in terms of maintaining arms length from the US and minimising friction with China). Usually, these include equidistance from all major powers (US, China, in some cases Russia), maintaining dignified multilateralism in our dealings in multilateral fora, recognise that China is a great power and keep engaging with it. And yes, hell, we shouldn’t be “narcissistic”!
Unfortunately, as much in life as in the arcane world of finance, free options are usually worthless. No one sells them, the gullible buy them for value, and only the very naïve try to create such options. The mismatches in Sino-Indian national power equations are not going to be equalised in a matter of years, even decades. In the meanwhile, China’s approach towards present and incipient rivalries is only going to be more exploitative of such asymmetries. No amount of patient “engagement” will change this reality. The search for free options is a chimera extending beyond lifetimes.
Its almost tautological that compromises need to be made, prices need to be paid for achievement of key objectives. In other words, valuable options have a price. Ironically, some of India’s best foreign policy successes required purchase of such expensive options, and we did so with aplomb.
Bangladesh, 1971. One major power (US) had aligned interests with Pakistan, largely misaligned with our non-aligned status, compounded by the personal distaste between President Nixon and PM Indira Gandhi. To counter that, Indira Gandhi entered into the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty in 1971, buying insurance against US military intervention. The price paid was steep – India pretty much gave up all pretences of “non-alignment” in practice. There was not even any lip service paid during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Shakti nuclear tests. It was well known that the tests would bring in wide ranging international sanctions, and India in 1998 wasn’t the India of 2016 in terms of trade/economic muscle. But the Vajpayee government pushed on, and paid the price in terms of delayed economic growth (GDP growth didnt recover till the second half of NDA-II) and money (writing out a big cheque in raising the Resurgent India Bonds).
Valuable options on building leverage over China today have similar prices that need to be paid. What are some of those options?
One, a firm alignment to the US pivot towards Indo-Pacific, at least to certain elements of it. Joint patrols with the US Navy in the South China Sea, ramping up of trilateral Malabar exercises and taking an unambiguous stance on the freedom of navigation issue. This could also include a more vigorous level of activity on the exploitation of Vietnamese offshore oil blocks.
Two, use India’s board seats in the new China-led multilateral financial institutions, notably AIIB, to constrain funding/progress of flagship Chinese projects like CPEC/OBOR. Institutions like AIIB and BRICS Bank are being sought to be used to supplement Chinese sovereign funding for these projects. As founder members and large (2nd largest) shareholders, we should actively look to disrupt such projects.
Three, take the Tibet issue off the ice slab that we have put it on for long. The real Indian leverage that China is truly worried about the seat of the Dalai Lama, and a strong military force in the form of the Special Frontier Force (built around a core of Tibetan emigres), led by the Indian Army (the current Army Chief, Gen DalbirSuhag was IG SFF earlier). The “dissident conference” in Dharamshala earlier this year was a tentative start, overshadowed by the Dolkun visa issue. There’s scope in calibrating the visibility of such initiatives upwards.
Above all, an alignment with the US, even at levels short of the erstwhile Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty, would act as a significant leverage to deal with China. Is there a large price to pay, even beyond mere principles? Of course, there would be. But it is often forgotten that even formal alliance membership doesn’t preclude serious opposition on key foreign policy goals. Turkey is a NATO member, didn’t prevent it from not joining the US war in Iraq, or being on the opposite side in Syria. France, a historically close ally and NATO member, has frequently clashed with the US on critical foreign policy issues. The cherished independence of foreign policy is not dependent on membership of groups, but on the conduct of policy itself.
There would be prices to pay for overt opposition to China too, whether on AIIB board or around Tibetan dissidents. That could take various forms – a larger military presence on the borders, greater military aid to Pakistan. Again, the level at which we buy these options and hence the price we pay is something we can evaluate. In many respects, they will lend themselves as bargaining chips that could be be used with China.