Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU
“Japan is manageable, Australia will soon fall in line; that leaves India, which is already feeling jittery with Trump certain to never return to the White House,” according to a recent Chinese commentary. Moreover, how can New Delhi ride in two boats at the same time, i. e. be part of anti-China Quad and/or “mini Asian NATO” and also remain in SCO and BRICS, some Chinese analysts are already asking.
With the United States currently in a state of limbo, thanks to soon to be “removed” President Trump, China’s strategic affairs commentariat, it seems is having a field day throwing pins at their new found object of ridicule – India. To understand what is being suggested, a mere glance is enough at the numerous op-ed pieces in the mainstream Chinese media in the past few weeks – not even suggesting you look at the loose cannon The Global Times. The news and current affairs platform Guancha.cn alone, influential and widely read App among China’s urban, upward mobile nouveau riche, carried almost two commentaries-a-day on average on India since the signing of the much coveted Asian regional trade pact, RCEP. Recall India’s last minute dropping out of the world’s largest 15-nation Free Trade Agreement.
Interestingly, following the sudden Indian decision to stay away from the RCEP deal, announced last year by Prime Minister Modi in Bangkok during his 3-day visit to Thailand, the authorities in Beijing, though surprised, but reacted suspecting India’s intentions. Some Chinese analysts later on did draw a connection between the Bangkok announcement and the India provoked escalation of tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – de facto international border between India and China – in eastern Ladakh region a few months afterwards, i.e. in April 2020. Unlike in the similar border standoffs on several occasions in recent past, the border skirmishes in the Galwan Valley region soon snowballed into potential heavy military confrontation. As a result, amid accusations of belligerent aggression into each other’s territory by both countries, India started deploying massive military build-up along the LAC in the region.
As tensions with China along the border remained high, some Chinese experts began to describe the deployment of additional 35,000 more troops by India in the region as what is generally referred by scholars of international relations a “security dilemma.” Citing Robert Jervis, the world renowned IR theorist and former president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), who popularized the “security dilemma” theoretical concept whereby “actions meant to increase a state’s security can be perceived as hostile,” the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) researcher Li Hongmei wrote in a widely debated article: “For quite some time now, India has been implementing a policy of ‘encroachment’ and ‘nibbling’ toward the Chinese side of the LAC.” Li went on to say: “India’s purpose is to unilaterally alter the status quo of the border by blurring the LAC.”
Most other Chinese commentators have attributed India’s this new-found audacity to militarily challenge China in the increasing defence and political backing India has been “offered” from the US, Japan and Australia. Moreover, the Chinese analysts believe the so-called US-led Western seducing of New Delhi (against China) will remain unabated under the president-elect Joe Biden.
Will India continue to get a “free ride” under President Biden? Will Biden aggressively push Indo Pacific strategy? Will Biden administration lead or promote a comprehensive US-led Western anti-China “united front”? Will US continue to “seduce” India? In geostrategic terms, India needs the United States more in order to thwart off China threat, but will India “retreat” if Sino-US relations show signs of easing up under Biden? These and many more “ifs” and “buts” are currently confronting both China’s US experts and India specialists respectively. Apparently, a “determined” India is becoming a dilemma to most Chinese experts.
Further, even if the President-elect’s top six foreign policy picks are those who served in Obama administration and when Biden was the Vice President, at least some Chinese observers are unwilling to dismiss Joe Biden as mere “old oil fritter.” “Biden was elected as a Senator at the age of 30. He has been in Washington politics for almost 50 years. He has served as the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of Committee on Foreign Relations respectively. He was the US vice president for two consecutive terms in the Obama administration. He is aware of the bipartisan consensus in the US Congress on China policy. Unlike Trump, Biden is too sophisticated and elegant to be unrealistic in completely reversing the previous administrations’ “anti-China policy,” is how Wu Zhifeng characterized Joe Biden in an article on the day the US media declared the vice president as the US president-elect.
Wu, a lead researcher at the China’s National Development Bank, pitched for Biden adopting a concerted policy to “tame” China, in a special column he wrote for China’s financial daily, 21st Century Business Herald (Ershiyi sheji jingji). “The Biden government will gradually return to organizations that the US withdrew from. This, in order to strengthen the US leadership position in the international organizations on one hand, and to repair the damaged relationship with the US allies caused by the Trump administration on the other,” Wu wrote. According to Wu, on the trade front, while the new US administration will quickly return to the erstwhile TPP, or now Japan-led CPTPP, at the same time it will also strive to revive the TTIP with Europe.
Echoing similar sentiments, another Chinese analyst’s view led to a new debate among China’s strategic community circles, that is, the Biden administration will strive hard to convince Japan, Australia, South Korea and other staunch US allies to delay the implementation of the recently signed the world’s largest free-trade agreement RCEP. “If successful,” the scholar observed, “this move combined with twin revival of the trans-Pacific TPP and trans Western Pacific TTIP, is sure to achieve the ultimate goal of squeezing from all sides China’s economic and trade relations with the world.”
No wonder, following the success of India-initiated Malabar joint military exercise with participation from the other three QUAD members – the US, Japan and Australia, several IR scholars in China have now realistically acknowledged the existence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, at least militarily if not politically. A recent article in the Chinese language Chongqing Morning Post, entitled “Has anti-China ‘mini Asian NATO’ really arrived? An essential move in US-Japan-Australia-India military cooperation,” seems to suggest likewise.
Moreover, it is quite evident from several commentaries in the Chinese media, especially in past few weeks, that Biden administration is generally expected to continue with Trump’s China policy; that Biden administration aims to put China under mounting political as well as economic pressure; that Biden administration is not going to reverse or dilute the previous US administration’s efforts in seeking the emergence of a “mini Asian NATO” directed against China; that Biden administration will pursue allies in the Pacific Rim region to carry out a concerted “contain” China policy by combining together “TTP-TTIP-Pivot to Asia Policy-Indo Pacific Strategy.”
To sum up, perhaps it is this never-seen-before Indian “resolve” to risk enter “anti-China” US-led political and military alliances which is touching a nerve in the Chinese psyche. Or, it may well be that Beijing is feeling rattled by the near consensus arrived at by the Indian political elite in the wake of last year in mid-June Galwan “massacre” leaving 20 Indian soldiers brutally killed. Add to this China’s stubborn refusal to return to status quo ante in Ladakh which led India to admit, relations with “expansionist” China have reached an inflection point and that India must teach its northern neighbour “a good lesson.”
This year China will be celebrating the CPC centenary. Beijing would not like to see military conflict with India, or with any other country, escalate amid the Party’s hundredth birthday celebrations. It is no surprise some scholars in China are already advocating “desperate measures” to prevent India from joining QUAD or “mini Asian NATO,” i.e., Beijing should seriously consider expelling India from either SCO or BRICS, or from both.
The article was originally published as “Beijing must rethink on India’s SCO, BRICS membership” on January 4, 2021 by NIICE.