by Indrani Bagchi

For India struggling to modernise its armed forces, leap-frogging technologies is an imperative, particularly as the new theatres of conflict may well be the barren snowscapes of Ladakh, high seas, space or ethernet

This year began with soul searching on a “world disorder”. As it comes to a close, the pandemic is still with us, mutant strains and vaccines jostling for space. The Chinese are still on our borders, giving “expansionism” new life and “wolf warriors” new voice.

In between Covid surges, geopolitics, wars and economies have moved on to embrace new normals. All of them have implications for Indian foreign and security policies in the coming year, and all of them call for India stepping up to take much bolder steps in 2021. Three issues come to mind.

China is digging in. In eastern Ladakh and even Arunachal Pradesh, China is putting infrastructure and logistics in place for nothing short of a siege. A stand-off/ confrontation has been thrust on India. India has made certain that China will not prevail – India is preparing for a Sumdorong Chu-type situation at best, at worst open conflict.

Is China on a massive overreach? On the face of it, no. Its economy has rebounded after it successfully exported Covid to the rest of the world and managed it ruthlessly at home. Joe Biden may be a less troublesome US president than Donald Trump (who frankly should be credited for calling out China and its scamming off of the global system). China already sees an opportunity to play John Kerry, Biden’s climate czar, to advance its interests in the same way Taliban did with Zalmay Khalilzad.

The world is undeniably circling the wagons. We didn’t pay adequate attention to Trump’s award of merit medals to the Quad prime ministers – it cemented the core of the Indo-Pacific as much as the Malabar exercises (with Australia) did. As the Quad gets more comfortable with each other and builds military muscle, China’s swanning around in the South China Sea will become more difficult. For instance, its militarised islands could become valid targets.

India’s new maritime theatre command will be able to leverage India’s natural geostrategic advantages vis-à-vis China in the Indo-Pacific. US sanctions on Chinese tech companies – from Huawei to SMIC this week – will have an adverse impact on China’s tech advances, as well as its overseas markets.

China underestimated how badly the Hong Kong crisis played in the rest of the world, even if Asia (including India) cravenly shut up. Taiwan is everyone’s favourite Chinese again. US Congress just pushed through a Taiwan support legislation with bipartisan approval. With countries like India and Indonesia, not to speak of Japan and Singapore, all doing their own Taiwan outreach, Beijing is facing a different kind of pressure. Xi Jinping can mount a military offensive against Taiwan, but again, no victory awaits.

Tibet is back on the US table as well, with a new resolution that puts reincarnation within the Dalai Lama’s remit and not the CCP. That should open the door to others to de-legitimise China’s assertion that only the Party can decide on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Joe Biden may be a more “moderate” voice on China but America’s tough stance is unlikely to change. The incoming NSA, Jake Sullivan, has already warned the EU against going ahead with its investment treaty with China. France has backed out, as has Poland. Go figure.

But, as Rana Mitter writes this week, “The biggest obstacle China will face is China’s own authoritarian turn. Beijing’s commitment to that aspect of China’s core identity will make it far harder for the other three nucleotides – consumerism, global ambitions, and technology – of its DNA to recombine successfully.” Xi is an autocrat with an enormous appetite for risk. This will make the coming years more fraught for China as well as others.

The second thing that changed this year is the nature of war. The six-week battle for the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which was won by Azerbaijan’s technological superiority and not by heavy Russian tanks, is an inflexion point that will be dissected by military analysts. Electronic warfare or network warfare has jumped out of scholarly articles into the real world.

For India struggling to modernise its armed forces, leap-frogging technologies is an imperative, particularly as the new theatres of conflict may well be the barren snowscapes of Ladakh, high seas, space or ethernet. India will not dominate these frontier areas without being an active participant in the technological revolutions underway in several other countries.

That brings us to the third issue that changed this year which has implications for India’s future. “Trust” is the new buzzword for economic and tech engagement. The pandemic has spurred diversification from traditional free trade and globalisation to trusted, fair and reciprocal trade, shorter value chains, greater self-reliance.

While that may have implications for China, it has equal and opposite implications for India.

India is learning to weaponize its own market. India’s national security directive for telecom naming “trusted” entities caps a year of determined decoupling efforts beginning with the RCEP walkout, which would deny China access to the biggest growing market and investment destination in the world.

India showed willingness to pay the cost – New Delhi refused to let GM sell its Talegaon plant to China’s Great Wall Motors – instead took a hit. But there is a flip side – India has to adopt predictable rules and regulatory frameworks to be more attractive to the countries it wants – EU, Gulf, UK and US. India’s tax regime is the stuff of nightmares, contract enforcement is iffy, reforms are started but not completed. The government’s economic managers do not inspire confidence. At the risk of repetition, the economy is strategic.

Until then, keep calm and drink Australian wine.