by Talmiz Ahmad

NEW DELHI: As India has been battling with the double blow of a surge in COVID-19 infections and the severe damage to its economy, the military confrontation with China in Ladakh has posed a fresh national challenge.

This rapid downturn in ties has evoked a cacophony from the Indian commentariat calling for strengthening of India’s affiliation with the US-led western alliance. A former foreign secretary has called for “consolidating a countervailing coalition of like-minded countries", while another has specifically recommended closer ties with the US. A former ambassador to China has urged for stronger “partnerships with democracies of the world", while another senior diplomat has called for “diplomatically isolating China". A distinguished journalist viewed the Ladakh encounter as a “watershed moment" in that India joining the US in its confrontation with China would shift the balance of power in Washington’s favour.

With the pandemic accelerating change, India needs to shape a fresh approach that would secure its strategic interests on the global stage. Here, the Russia-India-China (RIC) format best serves India’s interests in these turbulent times. Let us first examine what might have motivated the Chinese to initiate this bloody encounter with Indian troops at that remote and desolate border.

Ladakh Face-Off

Indian commentators have offered a variety of explanations for this unexpected challenge from China. Some believe that China has viewed with concern the significant logistical improvements that India has been making along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which are reducing its strategic advantages in the region.

Alongside this are added concerns China might have about India’s intentions relating to Aksai Chin that is under Chinese occupation, though claimed by India. In Parliament, on 6 August 2019, home minister Amit Shah had forcefully stated that Aksai Chin was an integral part of India. Later, India had issued fresh maps showing Aksai Chin as part of the newly formed Union territory of Ladakh. The confrontation could thus be initiated by China to remind India not to seek to change the ground situation unilaterally.

The other explanation relates to China’s domestic situation. Writers note the emergence of a military-official grouping, Ying Pai (hawks or eagles), who, led by Xi Jinping, are seeking to expand China’s global footprint and assert China’s centrality in world affairs.

The third explanation is that China is concerned about India increasingly becoming a part of the US-led coalition against China. Over the last three months, as the US has reeled under the pandemic, it has widened the existing divide with China by holding it responsible for the pandemic. More immediately, India has welcomed the US invitation to join the expanded G-7 that is deliberately being shaped as an anti-China platform. This has crowned the already substantial political, economic and defence ties India has developed with the US, particularly the “Quad", the maritime association that also includes Japan and Australia.

These assessments assume that the confrontation at Ladakh was the result of preparations over several months. India, the commentators aver, should firmly resist this intrusion, starting with a boycott of Chinese goods. Some even suggest that war could be an option.

The US-based scholar of Chinese origin, Yun Sun, has explained China’s concerns differently. She does not believe the confrontation was premeditated: given the ongoing deteriorating ties with the US, China has little interest in opening one more military front. China’s principal concern is that India should not take advantage of the Sino-US divide to associate itself with the US-led anti-China alliance. Confirming Yun Sun’s analysis, the official mouthpiece Global Times has emphasised that it views the emerging India-US alliance as part of the US campaign to challenge China’s rise.

On 22-23 June, the regional corps commanders of the two countries, after marathon discussions, agreed on “a gradual and verifiable disengagement" which will involve withdrawal from present confrontational positions to be followed by a thinning out of troops along the LAC.

Turn To The West

While several of India’s stalwarts have clamoured for the American embrace, they have not actually set out the details of this arrangement and what it entails for India and its western “partners". There are some issues that need to be considered.

To start with, the US is a superpower with global interests; it has always put US interests above all other considerations. Many of these positions, particularly those in support of Pakistan, have harmed India’s interests over several decades. The US is always in election mode, with domestic factors and the influence of its diverse interest groups leading to major shifts in policy positions following changes in the White House or Congress. This hardly makes the US a reliable long-term partner.

The US has almost always resorted to military force, rather than diplomacy, to address complex global challenges and has allowed the interests of its domestic lobbies to determine its military and foreign policy positions. An alliance with the US would drag India into conflicts that would not serve its interests.

In any case, what kind of security arrangements are we looking at with the US? A security alliance? A looser “arrangement" in which we back the US on issues pertaining to China? Any firm affiliation with the US is likely to place India in a position of permanent hostility to China. This would set up a zero-sum scenario in which even minor differences would escalate into full-blown confrontations, possibly even conflict. This situation would also encourage China to mobilise allies in India’s neighbourhood, leaving South Asia in a state of permanent instability.

Of course, an affiliation with the US will take away from India its freedom of action, its strategic autonomy, while exposing it to external interventions by the US and its other allies to mediate in matters involving India. Finally, we need to examine the US’ own interest and capacity to assume “global responsibilities" and provide global leadership. Veteran diplomat Richard Haass finds the US much diminished: he notes that the pandemic has “reinforced doubts about American competence" and that it has been “shorn of much of its available power". Political scientist Francis Fukuyama says that the US’ “current highly polarised society and incompetent leader" have prevented the state from functioning effectively.

The US hardly seems like a credible world leader capable of or even interested in handling global responsibilities.