Strategic Balancing: India’s Answer to the ‘Bullying Adventurist’

PM Modi
Credit: Palácio do Planalto / CC BY

The recent Chinese move to seize the strategic Galwan valley not only busts its rhetoric of ‘good neighbourhood policy’ but also demonstrates a remarkable lack of sensitivity towards an already hassled neighbour stricken with a pandemic and economic recession thanks to China itself. After occupying the Aksai Chin region in the 1962 war, China has made repeated attempts of encroachments in Pangong Tso, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie, and now it is claiming sovereignty in the Galwan valley of Ladakh region. However, India is not alone, almost all major countries in Asia are victim of Chinese expansionism — a ‘historic right’ claim in the resource rich South China Sea with projection of a ‘nine-dash line’ marking almost the entire zone as its own; competing claims in the East China Sea with Japan and Taiwan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; and disagreements over strategically significant mountainous border with India, Bhutan and others. China’s hunger for power (land, resources and wealth) is insatiable.

China’s greatest desires and biggest insecurities

After coming into power in 2012, Xi Jingping called for fulfilling the China dream of ‘the great rejuvenation of China’ and ‘to be at the centre of the earth’ which, in other words means to become a superpower. This required augmenting China’s strengths while addressing the weaknesses. For decades, China has worked hard on building its comprehensive national power (Economic growth, military strength and political clout). However, to dominate the world, it needs to work on its weaknesses too. The biggest one is insecurity about rebuilding national unity and an unhindered supply of strategic resources that support its booming economy. It is these desires and insecurities that stimulate an unsatisfied and unpredictable China.  

The recent Chinese foray into Ladakh is a product of its internal insecurities. Ladakh is strategically important for China as it connects Tibet and Xinjiang, the two ethnic minority and autonomous regions with an abundant strategic resource (oil and gas in Xinjiang and the water caps of Tibet) but brimming with anti-Han and separatist sentiments. Getting hold of the strategic points in Eastern Ladakh makes it easier for China to maintain its grip over Tibet and Xinjiang as well as smoothen the ancient silk trade route.

China’s smart play: a ‘bullying adventurist’ and a ‘deceptive diplomat’

China’s advances at the border are often a risk-free manoeuvre, as it is India who is at a defensive position. Each time China becomes insidiously assertive, it creates a threat or fear of war leaving a psychological scar on India. Since the 1950s China has been upgrading its border infrastructure. However, whenever India pushes for boosting up its border infrastructure capability, China plays the game of intimidation

China audibly states that its sovereignty and territorial integrity is irrefutable, warning of ‘serious consequences’ for trespassers. However, it does not define the exact range with clarity. It does not recognise the McMahon Line as an official border, and the loosely demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) becomes a source of strife from time to time.

While it agrees to MOUs and border agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity on the LAC, they are of symbolic nature, serving a normative standard for border management. It does not conclude or sign a binding treaty creating a legal border, thus, leaving space for manoeuvre and acts of stealth. 

Every time Sino-India relations seem to be sailing smoothly, the dragon makes a sudden move to change the status quo by seizing an unoccupied land and laying down its territorial markers in form of check posts or facilities for its forces. It resorts to ‘bullying adventurism’ in order to establish greater physical presence at the disputed border without recourse to open military conflict. 

When the neighbour objects, China shows that for the time being it is ready to lay aside the sovereignty issue and is open to bilateral dialogue and negotiations. This saves the stand-off at the border from escalating into a major military conflict or a full-fledged war.

This whole time, the Chinese media complain of provocation and accuse Indian troops of trespassing. After several rounds of diplomatic talks, at a time suitable for China, when it is done with its bullying, it pulls back, but showcasing it as a major victory for China and a climbdown for India, claiming that it is Indian troops who beat a retreat.

India shall answer with a strategic balance of power

The balance of power theory suggests that ‘no nation shall be allowed to grow its power to the point that it starts imposing its will on or interfering with the interests of another’. China is on its way to become a superpower, to be an unchallenged hegemon specially in Indo-pacific; if realized, it will be dangerous for India and its national interest. The solution lies in what Hans J. Morgenthau said: ‘The balance of power can be carried on either by diminishing the weight of the heavier scale or by increasing the weight of the lighter one.’ 

As of today, both in reality and in perception, China has become an economic superpower with its outsized wealth of $25.27 trillion. To balance and manage the mighty China, India needs to strengthen its economic power, which in turn will boost its political power, consequently providing it with strategic power to deal with China. The key is not short-term tactical moves of tightening of investment rules and banning of Chinese apps, but building a robust trade and investment infrastructure to replace the ubiquitous Chinese product and investment footprint in the Indian market.

At the border, India should stand its ground. While continuing the diplomatic dialogue, it shall nowhere compromise its national interest or get bullied. India shall keep all its diplomatic tools handy. The only anti-dote to power is more power, hence pursuing a deeper partnership or forming a ‘balancing coalition‘ with the U.S. and Japan is presently the best bet to resist China’s hegemonic assertions.

India can choose to treat the current border tension as a blessing in disguise to enhance India’s defence capability as well as credibility and upgrade its economic infrastructure. Nevertheless, there is one area where India holds greater strength than China, i.e. ‘soft power’, which it shall use as its trump card to expand its capabilities of political mobilization both domestically and internationally.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Shree Jain is pursuing Ph.D. from Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune. Her research area focuses on the foreign policy approach of China. She is a UGC-JRF scholar with 99.99 percentile in Political Science and a former Adhoc assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ahmednagar College, Maharashtra.