Doklam Continued: India’s Renewed Focus on China

29 June 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

While India’s decision to move around 50,000 troops to its border with China stands to reason, much more needs to be done economically and politically.

 

Background

In May last year, satellite images emerged that purported to show a great deal of construction activity at a Chinese air force base at Ngari-Gunsa, high in the Tibetan Himalayas. The air base is located relatively close, about two hundred kilometres, to Pangong Tso, the Himalayan lake that was the scene of heightened Sino-Indian tensions after vicious hand-to-hand fighting between Chinese and Indian troops around the same time. The images depicted the construction of a second taxi-way to the main runway and/or an extended tarmac that could accommodate more helicopters or fighter aircraft.

Given the sensitive, indeed dangerous, state of the Sino-Indian relationship, those images caused a good deal of commentary at the time, with calls being made within the strategic community for India to, similarly, upgrade its own air bases in a show of force and in order to be prepared for a future attack by Chinese forces.

Although quite a long time coming, India has now enacted measures to not only counter China but to carry the fight to it. To put it plainly, India’s most recent measures see it taking an offensive posture against China.

 

Comment

In the wake of the fighting between Chinese and Indian troops, the two sides have undertaken a series of “confidence-building measures” (commonly referred to in India as “CBMs”) at the local and government levels. While they are meant to put in place agreed-upon protocols in order to reduce the tension and to prevent violence and loss of life, China, never one to adhere to international agreements, as the South China Sea islands and Hong Kong show, sees the measures as little more than a device that allows it time to take stock of the situation and to move assets to the locality and region in order to secure a long-term advantage. That approach by China was demonstrated in a previous FDI paper that examined the situation at Pangong Tso and found the CBM process to be a waste of time, save for international perceptions, insofar as India is concerned.

Despite nationalistic statements that India would not cede an inch of its territory and so forth, the fact remains that by the beginning of 2020, India had lost around 300 square kilometres of its territory to China as one Indian commentator reported in an interview, a report that the Indian Government has not denied. Now, however, India appears to have adopted a stronger stance against China.

It is likely those perceptions domestically, coupled with his government’s poor performance over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, that have led Indian Prime Minister Modi to take a stronger line against Beijing. India has reportedly moved an additional 50,000 troops to its border with China, bringing the total number of troops located there to around 200,000. According to at least one report, India, which had previously sought to block Chinese moves along the border region, will now use an “offensive defence” strategy and move rapid-deployment troops and field artillery from valley to valley by helicopter ‘to attack and seize territory in China’. Extra troops are being positioned at Leh, Joshimath, Sukna, Tezpur and Dimapur. Mr Modi, who banks on his strong-man image domestically, cannot afford to have the loss of territory to China become widely known in India.

The Indian troops being deployed to the border will be backed up by the Indian Air Force. India has moved fighter squadrons to three areas along the border, including its newly-acquired Dassault Rafale fighters that are equipped with long-range missiles. To be clear, those fighter squadrons will be needed in the event of a conflict with China. As noted earlier, China has upgraded existing airbases in Kashgar, Xinjiang, which is within striking distance of India, and at Hotan, Ngari-Gunsa, Lhasa and Bangda along its border with India and is in the process of constructing more at Tashkorgan in Xinjiang, which is even closer to India than the one at Kashgar, and at Tingri and Damxung in Tibet. Beijing is hardening existing runways, adding more in existing air bases and constructing bomb-proof bunkers that will be used to house fighter jets. Those assets will complement the rocket regiments, long-range artillery and tanks that it has also moved to the border region. Although far from the border, the Indian Navy has also been busy, sending more of its warships to patrol the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean for longer periods and, notably, studying Chinese energy and trade flows across it. Mr Modi might have decided to take a leaf from the Chinese play-book and cast off caution in favour of appearing decisive.

He needs that appearance of strength and decisiveness. While playing to India’s nationalistic forces, Mr Modi has put Muslims off-side with the National Citizenship Act, which allows Hindus and people of various faiths, except Muslims, who live abroad to return to India and claim citizenship, and by removing the privileges that the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir enjoyed and turning it into a union territory governed directly by New Delhi. The memories of the demonetisation of certain currency notes have not faded entirely, either.

Apart from ameliorating the social discord that those measures have brought about, Mr Modi needs to do much more than merely banning certain electronic applications that are used on mobile telephones in India to curtail China’s growing inroads into the Indian economy. As one Indian commentator notes with more than a touch of bitterness:

Despite the Galwan clash, the Chinese expanded their share in the Indian smartphone market from 71 per cent to 75 per cent in 2020, thus conclusively disproving the theory that the lure of the Indian market would be a deterrent to Chinese military pursuits. In fact, it is now the Indian market that is dependent on Chinese telecom instruments, electronic instruments, components and consumer goods, computer hardware and peripherals, and pharmaceutical ingredients. The latest trade figures put out by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry show that we imported goods worth [US]$65.21 billion from China in 2020-21, topping the charts, whereas our US imports were not even half of that value at just [US]$28.86 billion. Sure, we export more to the US and hence have a trade surplus, but the trade deficit of [US]$45.9 billion with China tells the real story of our dependence on Chinese manufacturing.

Even when our import bill fell by about 17 per cent, the Chinese goods as a share of our total imports only grew in the year of the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control. No wonder the Chinese believe that India has no option but to gulp its pride [sic], lick its wounds and carry on with the India-China trade to ensure that our digital economy, telecom connections and computer terminals remain hooked and running.

Mr Modi also needs to move politically to demonstrate to Beijing that New Delhi is not to be taken lightly. It is true that in the event of a full-blown conflict between the two countries, China might prevail if they do not fight to a standstill. The fact remains, nevertheless, that the losses that India would suffer in that conflict would be much greater than those incurred by China. If Mr Modi could cast aside India’s so-called strategic autonomy, even if only until such time as it truly becomes a major economic and military power, and become a treaty ally with the US, just as Canberra and Tokyo are, the Quad would become a strong institution rather than the alignment that it currently is and China’s position would be weakened considerably. That would leave India relatively free to focus on its economy rather than have to choose between its economy and defence.

To be clear, it would take much political will to broach the subject in New Delhi but that is just the kind of difficult situation that Mr Modi claims to relish. It would be one of the largest policy shifts in independent India’s history, if not the single-largest, but would break the final shackles of Nehru’s non-alignment that constrain India even today and raise Mr Modi to an unequalled stature among his fellow prime ministers.

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