India is on its way to becoming the world's third largest economy

by Minhaz Merchant

The next few weeks will mark a flurry of global engagements for Indian leaders. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is scheduled to visit China in April to rebuild confidence with Beijing following the Doklam stand-off. She will have the opportunity to gauge the mood in China after President Xi Jinping was nominated in effect as president-for-life.

External affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will also visit China in April to meet the newly promoted Foreign Minister Wang Yi who is now also State Councilor. It is rare for a Chinese leader to hold two powerful posts. The State Councilor is the point man for border disputes and will play a leading role in the tense negotiations with India on disputes over Doklam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after holding firm over Doklam last year, clearly wants a thaw in the relationship with Beijing. He was among the first world leaders to call Xi to congratulate him on his elevation. Modi will travel to China for the SCO summit in June. A bilateral meeting with Xi has been confirmed.

Meanwhile, the four members of the Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance - India, the United States, Japan and Australia - are scheduled to meet soon. The agenda: balancing China's rise in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing has made three non-negotiable demands of the international community as it pursues its goal of restoring China to its rightful place as a global power. First, Taiwan must unify with mainland China. Second, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should project Chinese economic power across central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Third, the littoral states of the South China Sea must accept Chinese sovereignty over the artificial islands and infrastructure created by Beijing's aggressive maritime policy.

Confronted with a China that mixes diplomatic aggression with economic heft, India's work is obviously cut out. Hence the Sitharaman-Swaraj-Modi visits to China in quick succession. India has several arrows in its own quiver. It though needs a combination of imagination and firmness to use them against a country that likes to get its way by bullying or bankrolling rivals.

Xi is now the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He has routinely threatened Taiwan and has imposed a quasi-authoritarianism on Hong Kong which under the 1997 Sino-British agreement reverts to China in 2047. Xi told the 3,000 members of the National People's Congress after being crowned president for life: "Every inch of our great motherland absolutely cannot and absolutely will not be separated from China. All acts and tricks to split the motherland are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history."

Xi warned Taiwan that unification with the island was inevitable even though a majority of Taiwan's 23 million people favour continued independence. Xi was equally harsh on Hong Kong's independence movement and has placed China loyalists in key positions in the bustling mercantile city. Xi's distractions with Taiwan and Hong Kong can actually play into India's hands if the ministry of external affairs (MEA) employs a nuanced policy while dealing with China.

Washington's imposition of punitive tariffs on China for intellectual property theft have roiled relations between the world's two largest economies. US President Donald Trump says China is an unfair trader. Apart from imposing annual tariffs of $60 billion on Beijing, Trump has blocked the $117 billion takeover bid of Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom and is keeping a close watch on China's telecoms giant Huawei. Beijing is worried but uses soothing words to calm fears of Chinese trade hegemony. Premier Li Keqiang said recently: "I hope both China and the US will act rationally, and not be led by emotions, and avoid a trade war. China's economy has been so integrated with the world's that closing China's door would mean blocking our way for development. China's aim is to ensure that both domestic and foreign firms, and companies under all kinds of ownership structure, will be able to compete on fair terms in China's large market."

India's deepening relationship with the US was underscored by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's recent meeting in Washington with US intelligence and security officials. Doval has been involved in sensitive border negotiations with Beijing along with Mandarin-speaking foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, a former Indian ambassador to China. The Indo-US strategic partnership is a thorn in China's side. Beijing sees it as a means to counter China's rise. China also recognises its own weaknesses. Its population is ageing rapidly. Mao's one-child policy has come home to roost. The elderly increasingly depend on welfare, placing a strain on national budgets. China's total debt is over 250 per cent of GDP. Its banks are over-burdened with bad loans. Annual GDP growth is slowing to six per cent and could dip further. Authoritarianism is rising. Thousands of protesters have been jailed for speaking out against the Xi government. Dissent is ruthlessly suppressed.

India's shambolic democracy is in stark contrast to China's disciplined but brutal one-party rule. India's foreign policy has historically stumbled while trying to tackle Chinese expansionism. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru first tired to adopt a conciliatory approach with his Hindi-Chini bhai bhai slogan in the 1950s. But after the Dalai Lama was given refuge in India in 1959, Sino-India relations plummeted. Nehru's aggressive "forward" policy on the border was a classical military error: provocation without the means to back it up. The 1962 war that followed set Sino-India relations back by decades as Mao undertook the cultural revolution, purging millions.

In the new Xi era, much has changed. India is on its way to becoming the world's third largest economy. Its under-equipped armed forces are finally receiving some attention though budgetary allocations remain dismal. India's foreign policy, however, is maturing. It has built a network of alliances - BIMSTEC, Quad, BRICS - that coalesce both regional and global powers. China has many client states but few real allies. Its relationship with Russia remains transactional. In the wider world, India has allies to its east and west. It is India's foreign policy establishment though - for long timorous and hidebound - that must start punching at the country's true geopolitical weight.