With China threatening US hegemony, the latter has the requisite motivation to halt the former’s ascent. The only power capable of partnering with India to balance China is the US. India should indeed partner other powers like Japan, Australia and France, but only the US provides the decisive power capabilities to swing the military balance

by Kunal Singh

The recent decision of China to raise the issue of Kashmir in the United Nations Security Council has triggered a debate over India’s China policy. The Indian diplomats have even hesitated to call out China for repeatedly raising the Kashmir issue to embarrass India on the international stage. China has received special treatment in this regard. For instance, India has decided to cut palm oil imports from Malaysia for the latter’s criticism of India’s Kashmir policy. Similarly, there are plans to curb imports from Turkey as its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been vocal in criticizing India on Kashmir.

Indeed, there are good reasons for India’s caution when it comes to China. China is a neighbour with which India shares one of the world’s largest land boundaries. The demarcation of the border between the two countries is also subject to dispute, which contributed to a war in 1962. China is a much stronger power than India — in fact, now it is emerging as the challenger to the United States (US), the world’s sole superpower. The annual trade between India and China is close to $100 billion. The former depends on the latter for a range of cheap consumer goods. These factors make the crafting of foreign policy very difficult for the Indian diplomatic establishment.

China does not hesitate from taking positions adversarial to India. Beijing knows well that Kashmir is defined as a core issue of national interest by New Delhi and yet it does not think twice before raising it in the Security Council. With its five times larger economy and three-and-a half times bigger defence budget, China believes that it can get away with needling India even on its core issues. India clearly lacks any leverage over China.

In light of these constraints, India’s China policy has been what can be characterised as part balancing and part appeasement. No doubt, India is much more prepared with military deployments on the China border. However, the war that India is most prepared for is the war it lost back in 1962. Following the shock defeat in 1962, India undertook a huge overhaul of its defence readiness. It undertook a massive arms build-up and doubled the size of the army within a decade. Today India’s preparation, therefore, depends on two assumptions: the fight will be the old style contest of numerical advantage; and China will find it difficult to switch its resources deployed on other fronts to confront India if required.

With shortage of weapons, equipment and a poor technology base, India may be found wanting if China decides to escalate a conflict beyond a simple man-to-man fight on the mountainous border. Moreover, it won’t be difficult to move some assets meant for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait for operations on the India border. According to a RAND study covering the years 1996-2017, China has achieved parity with the US on air superiority in the Taiwan Strait. If even some of these assets are diverted to the south, it could spell trouble for the Indian defence forces. China’s ability to precisely target Indian army and air force bases can further cripple New Delhi’s plans. Of course, India’s nuclear weapons do provide the ultimate security blanket.

In any case, it is clear that India needs to undertake a number of defence reforms to tackle the China threat. This forms part of the internal balancing of China. At a little over 2% of gross domestic product (GDP), India’s defence budget is scraping the bottom of the barrel. A case can definitely be made for increasing the defence budget. However, India being a lower middle income country, there are multiple demands on its scarce capital. There are hard limits to how much the defence budget can increase. Therefore, defence reforms must be about reducing the size of the army so that the expenditure of salaries and pensions can be redirected to weapon purchases. An economic growth rate of 7% and more is a must for keeping some sort of pace with China.

These efforts need to be supported with external balancing. The only power capable of partnering with India to balance China is the US. India should indeed partner other powers like Japan, Australia and France, but only the US provides the decisive power capabilities to swing the military balance. Besides, as China is threatening the US hegemony, Washington has the requisite motivation to halt China’s ascent. India’s partnership with the US is already progressing but both New Delhi and Washington must now pursue bolder steps. The emphasis should be on developing greater military interoperability. India should not hesitate in exploring joint command and control in military exercises and HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) operations. They should develop a joint understanding of contingencies in the Indo-Pacific region and develop joint crisis management plans. The Quad engagement (between India, the US, Japan and Australia) must be elevated to include military exercises.

These steps do indeed appear bold and out of character given India’s past practices. However, the gulf between the capabilities of India and China has never been wider. These times, therefore, call for bolder measures. The old style non-alignment or hedging strategies did not work when India’s threat environment was much more benign as neither the US nor the erstwhile Soviet Union was a real adversary. With a much bigger, clearer threat at the doorstep, India’s options are limited.

Kunal Singh is a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology