New Delhi’s pivot to the West driven by its foreign minister has given China the upper hand
India’s China strategy has looked shaky over the last 10 months. It looks as though India has been facing severe anguish after it tried to tilt toward “the West” to counter China. The indefinitely protracted Sino-Indian military standoff in Ladakh has made New Delhi’s jitteriness more palpable recently.
There is no publicly available information on India’s recent China strategy per se. But the Twenty-Second Report submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Sixteenth Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and a public speech by Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, outline India’s new China strategy.
Jaishankar has been a strong advocate of a “pro-West” strategy to counterbalance China for a long time; he got the chance to implement his ideas as official foreign policy after becoming EAM in May 2019.
India’s China strategy has undergone four distinct phases in the last 10 months.
The first is the policy-departure phase. Jaishankar has been an ardent believer of the notion that India’s strategic interests can be best fulfilled if it goes for an alliance with “the West” since he was a joint secretary in the Indian Foreign Service. He introduced his thinking on India’s China policy as the strategic doctrine that India’s national interest is best served by going for an alliance with the US.
Jaishankar outlined his doctrine in a speech at the Atlantic Council on October 1, 2019.
The Council is an elite foreign-relations club created to promote trans-Atlantic understanding and galvanize the US supremacy. Jaishankar tried to link India to “the West” in his remarks titled “India’s relationship with the West” at the Council.
He sketched how India and the US could move forward by upholding “democracy,” “rule of law” and “human rights” as core values, which in his view, were superior “moral virtues” than any other political system of governance.
He intended to depict subtly that India’s relationship with the US would be superior to one with communist China.
In this phase, Jaishankar persuaded his boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to go for the “pro-West” policy.
The second phase is preparedness for the risk-taking stage. Jaishankar adopted a risk-taking China strategy after the second informal summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the historic Indian town of Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, on October 11-12, 2019.
Jaishankar delivered a speech on the topic “Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian Foreign Policy in a Changing World” at the fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture, a gathering of diplomats, strategists, foreign-policy experts, academia, and foreign-policy journalists on November 14, 2019, in New Delhi.
The crux of his remarks was that India’s foreign policy until 2014 was futile because it didn’t look toward “the West” entirely. All previous Indian governments, in his view, were risk-averse in nature.
He claimed that India had been suffering from a risk-averse strategy. As a result, India had been getting minimal rewards from its foreign policy. He strongly advocated that India must be ready to take significant strategic risks to earn handsome rewards.
The third is the implementation of India’s strategic position and standing firm on it. Thus India abandoned the long-cherished non-alignment policy and took the colossal risk of tilting toward “the West” completely.
The second 2+2 talks led by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh for India and the US represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper was held on December 19, 2019, in Washington DC.
During this talk, the two sides signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) to the India-US General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The agreement was supposed to ease the transfer of high-level technology from the US to India and safeguard classified military information.
During US President Donald Trump’s India visit on February 24-25 this year, the two parties agreed to expedite the talks on the conclusion of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the BECA negotiation was suspended, but it was agreed to recently. The BECA will be signed during the third round of the 2+2 meetings to be held virtually in September.
India and the US inked two other foundational agreements, namely the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, India abandoned the agreements and consensus made with China during the first and second China-India informal summits. India supported the US in many issues such as the Taiwan row, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and demand for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and how it spread from China.
Chinese strategists reckon that India has exploited China’s vulnerability, particularly when it grappled with the Covid-19 crisis and the trade and technology war with the US. Beijing considers that India wants to take advantage of China’s brief and temporary susceptibility due to the pandemic to take revenge for the 1962 war, take back Aksai Chin and gain additional territory.
China also considers that India’s road construction near disputed territory in Ladakh was an attempt to stab it in the back when it was busy trying to improve the severely deteriorating bilateral ties with the US triggered by the trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic.