The tragedy of Modi government’s foreign policy is that it does not realise when it overplays its hand. Believing that perception of power is a reasonable substitute for real power, the government has exposed its ignorance of a well-established truism – that the foundation of an assertive foreign policy is formidable national (comprising economic, technological and military) power.
Hence, when defence minister Rajnath Singh decided to read the riot act to his Chinese counterpart General Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) defence ministers’ meeting in Delhi, he was confusing domestic politics with geopolitics. Worse, he was also exposing his government’s total lack of understanding about China, and the regional geopolitical order with global implications that it is ushering in in the Asia-Pacific region (which the US calls Indo-Pacific region), in consort with Russia through a competitive security architecture pivoted on the SCO.
For a nation aspiring for a major power role in the world, this level of ignorance is dangerous. Singh’s narrative on the border issue has moved India one step closer to war with China – a war that neither nation wants.
Let’s start with the border issue. Singh said that peace on the border is necessary for development of bilateral ties; peace was defined as disengagement at the border followed by de-escalation. Since disengagement of forces at Depsang and Demchok was discussed at the recently failed 18th round of military commanders’ talks, Singh meant that these be resolved before de-escalation of troops for border peace.
Li’s narrative was different. He made two points: One, since the border was stable, the two sides needed to work for normalised management. And the two countries should place the border issue in the proper place (on the larger geopolitical canvas).
In these opposing narratives, China has the legal upper hand. After all, both sides had agreed on a joint statement signed by foreign ministers S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Moscow under the rubric of the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping on September 10, 2020. The joint statement neither mentions de-escalation for border peace nor specifies areas on the Line of Actual Control in East Ladakh where disengagement needs to take place. It only says that once disengagement is done, both sides should work on new confidence-building measures (CBMs) for normalcy in border areas. The new CBMs are the new modus vivendi since all bilateral agreements after 1993 lost their meaning when the PLA did multi-prong deep incursions to occupy Indian territory. Therefore, Li’s normalised management implied work on mutually agreed new CBMs.
Moreover, since RIC evolved into BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), its present and numerous aspiring members waiting for induction into the group would be wondering why India had developed amnesia on the joint statement. At present, BRICS nations compete with G-7 nations in terms of GDP. In its 2022 summit in Moscow, the group’s bank, BRICS National Development Bank (NDB), had agreed to issue a new global reserve currency to displace (not replace) the US dollar. The BRICS is at the centre of new global economic order, and the last thing its members would want is disharmony between India and China, just as animosity between India and Pakistan resulted in the demise of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Thus, two pertinent questions are why India signed an unfavourable joint statement in 2020 and why is it disowning it at present. When India sought Russia’s help to sign the joint statement with China, its leadership, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was badly shaken up by the June 15, 2020 Galwan killings. Fearing an escalation to hot war (for which the Modi government lacks political determination), it accepted China’s terms for peace on the border.
Conscious that it had tarnished its domestic image of fearless leadership, India signed the fourth and last US military’s foundation agreement – Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement – by which the Indian military became part of US Indo-Pacific Command (USPACOM) in the last days of the Donald Trump administration. When the Joe Biden administration came into office with guns blazing on China, he elevated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US to highest political level as the guidance forum for containing China’s rise. This included QUAD nations combat patrols (operations) in support of USPACOM’s defence network (called integrated deterrence) tasked with ensuring rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Buoyed by this, India started to believe that in the evolving multi-polar world, it is one of the poles (major power) like China. New Delhi downplayed the crucial difference: India’s supposed rise in geopolitical status was propped up by the US. And China was not another major power in the emerging world order; it was, much like Russia and the US, a geo-strategic player with capability, capacity and political determination to influence events far away from its geographic borders. Moreover, with two presidencies in 2023 – G-20 and SCO – India gave disproportionate importance to G-20, believing that it would have greater perception value domestically. With US’s fulsome support, the G-20 projection through regular references and advertising across the nation, Modi sought to pitch India as the leader of Global South amongst the powerful western nations club. Foreign minister Jaishankar’s repeated assertion that India is a pole in the multi-polar world needs to be seen in this context.
Believing its own rhetoric of major power status, and hence China’s peer competitor, India thought it could, like the US, combat, compete and cooperate on its own terms with China. And what better way of conveying this than what Rajnath Singh did during the defence ministers’ meeting with General Li – refuse to shake hands. To ensure that the message was driven home loud and clear, Singh shook hands with all other SCO defence ministers. With the 2024 general elections around the corner, how could the Modi government be seen as weak compared to China?
This brings us to Li’s second point, that both nations should place the border issue in the proper place. For China and Russia, the proper place is the SCO, which has evolved from Shanghai-five in 1996 focused exclusively on terrorism into a formidable security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. With its novel ‘collective security’ concept, it presents a big challenge to USPACOM’s integrated deterrence which is pivoted on military power.
There are two big differences in the two security architectures. One, the US’s integrated deterrence is meant to guard the rules-based order where ‘rules’ have never been spelt out, since they are made and unmade by the US with no higher authority to check US’s wars and arbitrary economic sanctions. On the other hand, China and Russia as the original big powers of SCO maintain that ‘collective security’ will work under the United Nations (UN) where no single nation, however powerful, would decide on wars and sanctions.
To emphasise the central role of the UN, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a new Global Security Initiative (GSI) at the Boao conference in Beijing in April 2022. The GSI was a follow-on to Xi’s announcement of the Global Development Initiative (GDI) made at the UN General Assembly in September 2021. Since the UN endorsed China’s BRI as compatible with and essential for accomplishment of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) announced in 2015 and to be completed in 2030, China got the opportunity to introduce the GDI and GSI which are other names for the BRI (meant to deliver prosperity and cooperative security) at the world stage.
And two, collective security talks of inclusive and indivisible security with no zero-sum game where one wins at the cost of the other. While SCO will be its main forum for multilateral security discussions and military exercises, the participating nations would be free to form bilateral security arrangements. For example, one of the key roles of the PLA is to protect Chinese infrastructure, people and interests in BRI nations which would be done by mutual agreements.
The US’s integrated deterrence, according to China and Russia, is an exclusive club which seeks to integrate numerous blocs like QUAD, AUKUS (Australia, the UK and US; since France has joined it lately, it is now being referred to as FUKUS), ASEAN, Pacific Islands Forum, Indian Ocean Rim Association and NATO which is becoming global. Unlike the US, which is creating new blocs to support its integrated deterrence strategy, the SCO membership is growing voluntarily. Iran is slated to join as the ninth member at the SCO summit this year; Afghanistan, Mongolia and Belarus have observer status; and many dialogue partners like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Qatar are waiting to be elevated.
Interestingly, one of the exceptional outcomes of the ongoing Ukraine war is that both big energy exporters like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan and importers like China and Russia have come on the side of collective security. This has placed a welcome responsibility on the SCO nations to (a) trade in local currencies, and (b) build secure and stable energy and commercial supply chains on land by moving away from vulnerable sea lanes of communications. Notably, the new Russia-Iran corridor has got Russia to invest one billion dollars to connect the sea of Azov with Volga waterways which are being broadened. There is also the Iran-Central Asia corridor, the International North-South Transport corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor if Pakistan succeeds in stabilising its domestic politics.
Perhaps, the most spectacular outcome of the GSI is the peace deal between arch enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, which was not signed in Camp David, but in Beijing. This will transform the geopolitics and geo-economics of the Middle East. Spurred by this event, Ukraine President Zelensky reached out to Xi Jinping, without the knowledge of the US and NATO, for peace with Russia. The European Union and the reluctant US have supported Zelensky’s peace effort. Moreover, who knows – arch enemies like Armenia and Azerbaijan too might seek China’s help for permanent peace, especially once they join the SCO as full members.
Since BRI, GSI and GDI are names of regional and global initiatives by China made through the SCO, BRICS, BRICS-NDB and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it is essential for China to concentrate on both collective security and common prosperity, which are linked. The latter involves physical and digital infrastructure building. The digital infrastructure comprises mobile and industrial internets – China seems to be ahead of the US in these technologies. For instance, mobile internet is about communications by fibre optic cables, submarine cables, Baidu global navigation satellite systems which is operational, with Huawei 5G providing last mile connectivity.
The industrial internet can be explained as ABCD: AI, Blockchain, Cloud Computing and Big Data. Huawei 5G is its backbone. It is well known that 5G, which is at the heart of cyberspace connectivity, is still not operational in the US, whereas the inflection point for China to move from mobile to industrial internet with Huawei 5G happened between 2017 and 2019. Moreover, given China’s vast middle class, it will likely be able to set norms and standards in the fourth industrial revolution (industrial internet) technologies faster than the US, and share these with BRI nations for common prosperity.
Given this big geopolitical picture, which Xi calls ‘changes not seen in a century’, Li was making the point to Singh that India should support the SCO fulsomely. The SCO is backed by two geo-strategic players (China and Russia) and compared with the US’s integrated deterrence, geography (which should be basis of geopolitics) favours the SCO’s collective security architecture.
Moreover, Russia is undergoing foreign policy orientation from west to east. President Vladimir Putin has aligned his pet project of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with BRI, and both China and Iran have indicated readiness to join the EEU. And SCO will join with Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Against this backdrop, there are two serious defence implications for India. The first involves India’s relations with Russia. Given the geopolitical investments made by China and Russia in the SCO, there should be no doubt that if push comes to shove, Moscow will stand firmly with Beijing rather than India whose foreign policy is predicated on projection. Moreover, given India’s limited defence budgets, it will not have the monies to buy expensive US weapon platforms. For all the talk on an India-US Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET), Washington will not share cutting-edge capabilities with Delhi. And what little it does as part of joint ventures, the US will retain the right to withdraw without notice and explanation. Russia is India’s only safe, reliable and time-tested bet for state-of-the-art acquisitions and capabilities, provided it does not upset the SCO applecart at a time of tectonic shift in global geopolitical and economic orders.
The other implication comes from how China reacts to the recent treatment meted out to Li. China’s diplomacy is different from the West since it does not give too much importance to an event. Instead, it focuses on the process keeping the larger geopolitical picture in mind. Unfortunately, this is the second time that India has acted unusually tough with China. During the earlier visit of Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang to Delhi for the G-20 foreign ministers’ meet, China was given a similar response on bilateral ties by external affairs minister Jaishankar, except that it was less provocatively done as compared to Singh.
India should keep in mind that the US, both for domestic reasons and pressure from the EU, has walked back on its strident China narrative. The US’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, recently said at the Brookings Institute in Washington that the US has aligned its position with EU on China. It no longer seeks ‘de-coupling’ from China, but ‘de-risking’. While the former would have implied end of trade and commerce with China, the latter involves denial of advanced microchips for artificial intelligence and quantum computing. China, of course, will wait to see if the US’s words match its action. Furthermore, after months of war drumming on Taiwan, US’s intelligence chief recently told the House Services Committee that war with China is ‘neither imminent nor inevitable’.
China will observe the US’s actions in the months ahead and if indeed they appear favourable, it could spell trouble for India. Remember, China started the 1962 war knowing well that the global situation was favourable for it since the US and Soviet Union were hotly engaged with the Cuban missile crisis. To be sure, China is in a hurry, with Xi having announced what the nation needs to accomplish by the centenary years of the PLA and Communist Party in 2027 and 2049 respectively. SCO is important for China to further its geopolitical agenda even if it implies a short, swift, intense, sudden, whole-of-nation, decisive war with India. In its reckoning, it is unlikely to jeopardise its narrative of peaceful rise.
Pravin Sawhey’s recent book is The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China.