The India-China-US dance: Three questions New Delhi must answer in order to balance its geopolitical equations

Tara Kartha

It's truly a curious phase in India's history that finds the country in a continuing war with a catastrophic virus; a bloody and almost daily war with Pakistan; and in a very serious and threatening crisis with China €" which is so absent from news headlines that one might very nearly miss it altogether. Yet those who did know marvelled that a country that was responsible for nearly two lakh people being infected in India €" leading to a complete grinding to a halt of the economy €" was crass enough to resort to violence in the remote north.

That began inoffensively enough with a few pushes and stones thrown. Now satellite imagery seems to indicate that China is digging in, rather rapidly expanding its footprint in the remote but sensitive area, in an attempt to deny India its rapidly increasing infrastructure development along the Line of Actual Control. As of now, it seems that China is using a salami-slicing approach for tactical advantage.

Salami-slicing refers, as the term suggests, to small incremental steps to improve one's position or territorial space. Indeed, General Bipin Rawat, the then-army chief had warned of just such tactics after the Doka La standoff.  This is what Beijing does, in the South China Sea and along its Himalayan borders. But a question that has to be asked is whether tactical advantages point to aggressive future plans, under what former foreign secretary and scholar Vijay Gokhale describes as the newly overconfident and arrogant leadership. This is the first question.

Faced with its inordinately large neighbour, Delhi has chosen to handle the whole quietly, without public noise and fury, even while keeping all its friends informed on the situation. That incidentally, is standard practice that has been followed ever since Jawaharlal Nehru's time. It's true that some friends are closer than others, not due to any particular affection but due to the fact that both have common enemies €" namely China €" and common interests, that include keeping the world's one remaining territorially predatory power in check.

Donald Trump's offer to 'mediate' between India and China took everyone by surprise, as did his claim to having spoken to Narendra Modi on the issue. The Ministry of External Affairs politely but firmly declined the offer, observing that the Asian nations were 'fully engaged' to resolve the issue. Embarrassingly, 'sources' also made it clear that the last call with the US president had been on 4 April.

The Chinese foreign ministry fumed, and Global Times  ran a piece that warned that the US "exploits every chance to create waves that jeopardise regional peace and order". China has since then made an effort to soothe the diplomatic waters, even while it continues to augment its strength on the border, which is being matched by India soldier-for-soldier. That raises the second question.

Trump and the White House bureaucracy have been pushing India towards the "Indo-Pacific" construct, to Beijing's dismay. The Department of State's chief South Asia official Alice Wells has repeatedly praised the end of Indian diffidence in working with the US. Trump is wooing India consistently, with his latest being a statement in which he said that the G-7 needs to include India and others to make it more representative. He's also steadily increasing the pressure on China; abruptly quitting the WHO, removing certain Chinese firms from the bourses, even while Congress has passed a bill calling for sanctions on China on account of the ill-treatment of the Uighurs.

Then there is the most vexing of all, the move to give Taiwan a seat at the WHO. There is indeed a section of opinion that views (without much proof) the present conflict as arising from India taking over the chair at the world body. The question then is this: Given rising Chinese strength on the border, how much should India actually come out of the closet and become a virtual ally of a country that is determined to annoy China in every way possible? Its all very well for the foreign minister S Jaishankar to say that India's relations with other countries will be 'issue based', but does the defence of India's sovereignty call for coming out of the closet, for a closer relationship with the US?

That brings matters to the most important question of all. There is little information or a tabulation of the series of actions that India has been taking €" however legitimately €" in terms of infrastructure on the border. Apart from the engineering feat in the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road that brings connectivity right up to the border, together with link roads thereof, two bridges in Arunachal Pradesh were also recently inaugurated. Recent news that 11 trains are to bring 12,000 workers to continue road building on the China border indicates that this thrust will continue. Which then means that China will also bring up more forces across, and this cycle will lead to more incidents.

Indeed, the steady increase in border clashes is precisely due to this.

The bottom line is that despite the talk of 'mirror deployment', China can bring up a lot more troops and equipment than India can for both monetary and terrain reasons. The third question then is this: Is India choosing the right border to show its strength? Look at the map from Beijing, and what is immediately apparent is that large peninsula jutting outwards into the sea. India has a huge advantage at sea, and where 'allies' are also available. Is it better to shift away from a strategy of strength on the border to one that emphasises capability at sea, that too in a budget-constrained environment?

Impassable forests and mountains may be a better defence than anything else India can provide, particularly when the country has a string of airfields along those borders. A decision on such a shift will may well decide the answers to the other three questions. Militaries are slow to change things from the way they were. But politicians and strategists need to reconfigure. It's time to bring out the maps.

Also See: Tensions build along India-China LAC in parts of Ladakh, northern Sikkim as both countries deploy additional troops

Decoding Chinese intrusion at LAC: India should not lower guard despite Beijing's conciliatory tone, here's why

US ready and willing to mediate in 'raging border dispute' between India and China, says Donald Trump

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