External Affairs

When China Chips Are Down, 'Diamonds' in India's 'Necklace' of Allies Lack Sparkle

India, once a counter to China's military clout, now finds itself unable to garner support from the very countries it signed agreements with.

Chandigarh: Numerous strategic partnerships and security arrangements that India had recently built up to counter China’s growing hegemony and territorial ambitions, have proved futile in all attempts at settling the enduring crisis posed by its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the line of actual control (LAC) in Ladakh.

Senior military officers claimed that all these stridently proclaimed regional pacts, agreed 2014 onwards and confined largely to the maritime domain, have failed in providing New Delhi any leverage in ‘pressuring’ Beijing into vacating large tracts of its territory occupied by the PLA since early May.

“The clout these much publicised alliances had promised, and which could have been exercised to persuade the PLA to disengage along the LAC and withdraw to previous positions, have proved ineffectual,” said a two-star naval officer. It’s now apparent that not only do these pacts have weak foundations, but they have also not been progressed or nurtured to yield dividends when needed, he added, declining to be named.

Also read: When it Comes to China, India Needs to Up its Deterrence Game

Several of these strategic agreements – fancifully nicknamed by strategists as ‘Necklace of Diamonds’ – India had agreed with countries like Oman, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Seychelles, Singapore, Vietnam and all five Central Asian Republics to ‘garland’ Beijing, were exclusively defensive in content. They included joint army and navy exercises, port calls, reciprocal visits by military delegations and combined training, but little else.

“Such military diplomacy is good for optics in normal times,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). But for effectivity they need to be robust, concrete and above all, deliverable alliances, he added.

Some years ago a retired Indian diplomat who met with senior security officials from Japan and several Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – all of whom had contentious territorial, diplomatic or commercial issues, or a combination of all three, with Beijing – said they were  jointly ‘assessing’ India as a military ‘counterpoise’ to China. At first glance, he said, these countries agreed that India had noteworthy credentials: it was a democracy, a growing economy, an information technology (IT) pivot, in addition to being a nuclear weapon state and one that maintained a large and professional conventional military.

Its battle-hardened army was continually deployed on counter-insurgency operations, whilst its navy was an emerging blue water force which had surprised the world with its rapid and professional response during the 2004 tsunami. The Indian Air Force (IAF) too had consistently exhibited exceptional combat prowess in multi-nation exercises in Australia and the US and elsewhere, and its multiple peacetime activities and overall competence were widely acknowledged.

But, the diplomat regretfully stated that despite this initial, albeit cursory optimistic assessment, many ASEAN states and other neighbouring countries doubted India’s ability to match up to larger regional strategic expectations, due largely to its vacillating and bureaucratic  decision-making processes and, above all its inability to deliver on its promises and goals.

Delegates shake hands as they pose for a photo at the ASEAN-Japan Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, November 4, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

He said in recent years, Japan and the ASEAN countries had privately indicated to India that to achieve any countervailing muscle to China by 2020, it had to maintain an annual economic growth rate of around 7-8% for successive years to match, if not surpass, that of its larger neighbour. It also needed to develop technical parity with Beijing, especially in the IT and military arena. Diplomats and military officials from these ASEAN and Far East states also asserted that though India had woken up to greater naval and military activity in the region, its efforts lacked coherence and cogency.

Unfortunately, the former ambassador concluded that in the intervening years India had not measured up to any of these markers, even remotely.

It was only after 2010-11 that India gradually, and somewhat tentatively, began augmenting varied regional strategic and naval alliances to counter growing Chinese hegemony and domination across South Asia and in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), areas Delhi considered, and still counts, as part of its extended sphere of influence.

Continuing Chinese military modernisation and upgradation of its defence posture in Tibet along the LAC, with regard to rapid force and long-range missile deployment, logistic capability and communication infrastructure, only exacerbated Indian security concerns. As did repeated incursions across the LAC, increasing steadily each year, even in settled areas like Ladakh and Sikkim, all of which Delhi viewed as ‘coercive tactics’ by its northern nuclear rival to keep India off-balance but did little to find a lasting response to.

China, for its part, was fortunate to have a succession of Indian prime ministers from the 1980s who were willing to be persuaded to place the boundary issue on hold and to concentrate, instead on normalising bilateral diplomatic, commercial, and political ties. Surprisingly, even the ‘hand-in-hand’ exercises between the PLA and the Indian Army were conducted periodically 2007 onwards till their most recent, sixth edition in Pune in 2016.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addresses Indian Army soldiers, at Lukung post in Ladakh, Friday, July 17, 2020. Photo: PTI

The border, over which the neighbours went to war in 1962 and in which India came off worse was, at Beijing’s prompting, christened the LAC in the early 1990s and its resolution, from 2003, artfully delegated thereafter to periodic meetings between Special Representative (SRs) from either side.

The SRs have met some 22 times since then in one of the world’s longest running boundary disputes, but without an outcome.  In the intervening years, however, five bilateral pacts were agreed between 1993 and 2013 to ensure peace and tranquillity along the LAC, only for them all to have precariously and swiftly detonated, resulting in the enduring military impasse in Ladakh.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met some 18 times since 2014, exuding bonhomie and camaraderie; but alongside the bilateral trade deficit between the neighbours, favouring Beijing by over $60 billion, escalated progressively. In its charm offensive, Beijing even lulled India’s security establishment, including its military, into believing that hostilities with China over the boundary issue were a remote eventuality.

Repeated intrusions into Indian territory along the LAC by the PLA, even as recently as May, were dismissed by the army and diplomats and security officials in Delhi simply as ‘transgressions’, stemming from a lack of clarity on the frontiers delineation.

Also read: ‘Teaching a Lesson’ Can Hardly Be Considered a War Aim, Let Alone a Military Strategy

Not content with tactically and psychologically boxing India in, China launched its dual ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ and ‘String of Pearls’ stratagems in the 1990s. These twin manoeuvres entailed Beijing entering into close security, defence, commercial and diplomatic arrangements  with all seven of India’s South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – as well as further afield with Iran and Myanmar.

These states became willing victims of Beijing’s domineering ‘five-finger’ policy of encircling India by investing in each of them in large infrastructure projects, particularly ports, with the potential of supporting PLA Navy (PLAN) operations and providing it critical IOR access. Simultaneously, under its ‘debt diplomacy’ China disbursed generous loans to all these countries, funding joint commercial ventures via usurious financial arrangements that made it impossible for the debtor states to repay their advances.

In time, this led to Beijing pressuring these indebted nations into supporting its wider geostrategic interests of regional and eventually, global domination in lieu of paying their debts. In a flanking move, China also provided several of these nations assorted materiel like main battle tanks, submarines, warships and combat aircraft, further expanding Beijing’s strategic web and emboldening some SAARC states, like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives to thumb their nose at Delhi, that had little or nothing to offer in comparison, except for regional geographical dominance.

Also read: In Talks, China Takes Hard Line, Claims All of Galwan Valley, Chunk of Pangong Tso

In Pakistan’s case, however, other than providing Islamabad a raft of conventional weaponry over decades, China even provided it strategic assets to counter, if not surpass, India’s nuclear deterrence. Accordingly, Beijing looked upon this latter cost-effective strategy of Islamabad pinning Delhi down, as the most dazzling feature in its ‘string of pearls.’

In recent years the ‘string of pearls’ and ‘debt diplomacy’ ploys have morphed into the twofold Maritime Silk Route and Belt and Road Initiative or BRI. Both have similar goals as earlier, except that they are now on a grander scale of expanding Beijing’s reach to encompass Eurasia and Africa, and eventually even further afield to Central and Latin America.

India’s ‘necklace of diamonds’ riposte to China’s efficacious global chess game by regionally weaving a competitive network of economic, military and security-related alliances, appears feeble in comparison and one incapable of enforcing even its territorial integrity along the LAC.

Initiated 2014 onwards, the ‘necklace’ incorporated improving relations with strategically located countries inimical to China and expanding naval alliances in a sphere it considers itself operationally more capable than the PLAN, especially in the IOR.

The Changvi Naval Base. Photo: Google Maps

In 2018, nearly three decades after China had launched its ‘string of pearls’ gambit, India signed agreements with Singapore to provide the Indian Navy (IN) access to Changi naval base to refuel and replenish its platforms en route to the South China Sea, and with Indonesia for entry to Sabang port that is located at the entrance to the Malacca Strait, which is of critical importance to China.

The Strait is China’s strategic Achilles’ Heel – better known as its Malacca Dilemma – through which pass over 80% of Beijing’s oil and hydrocarbon imports from West Asia.

The same year India also secured access to Duqm port on Oman’s south-eastern seaboard that is ideally situated between two other Chinese strategic jewels: Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Makran coast and Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Located on the Arabian Sea, Gwadar is a major lynchpin in the under-development China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC that is amongst Beijing’s largest overseas projects, which aims to ultimately connect to China’s western Xinjiag region.

Source: Google maps

The CEPC envisages building some 2,390km of roads, crisscrossed by a network and oil and gas pipelines, and once imminently completed, it will ensure swift delivery of Beijing’s oil and gas requirements from West Asia that currently take sea tankers four to six weeks to transport.

But more importantly, Gwadar will neutralise China’s enfeebling Malacca Dilemma in addition to facilitating the PLAN’s ambitions in threatening the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) in the oil-rich Gulf region, frequented by all the world’s navies, including that of the US as well as commercial tankers. Pakistan is believed to have handed over Gwadar to China for 40 years, but little is known of their secretive arrangement.

The PLAN support base at Djibouti, on the other hand, is China’s first overseas military base built for around $600 million and commissioned exactly three years ago in August 2017. IN sources said the base is expected to significantly increase Chinese power projection capabilities in the IOR, besides dominating approaches to the critical Suez Canal waterway that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and is also a key waterway for naval and commercial traffic.

Thereafter, in mid-2018, India ratified an earlier 2015 agreement with Seychelles to jointly develop a naval base on the archipelago’s Assumption Island, in a bid to neutralise China’s commercial and political influence over the IOR republic. Under Beijing’s sway, the India agreement seriously floundered, but was eventually rescued after Seychelles President Danny Faurie visited Delhi and accepted India’s offering of a $100 million line of credit and a second Dornier-228 maritime reconnaissance aircraft to augment the island’s defence capabilities.

Also read: Exclusive: Details of Top Secret India-Seychelles Military Agreement Leaked Online

Subsequently, in early 2019 India appointed former army chief General Dalbir Suhag as its high commissioner to Seychelles, indicating the strategic importance Delhi attached to the IOR nation. This, however, was the first time in 38 years that an Indian army chief had been appointed to head a foreign mission, especially one of such maritime consequence, where most service officers concur, an Indian Navy officer would have been more apposite.

And, in 2016, Prime Minister Modi confirmed a tripartite agreement with Tehran and Kabul to develop Chabahar Port in south-eastern Iran on Makran coast adjoining the Gulf of Oman, as well as a 632-km-long rail link onwards to Zahedan to transport goods and assorted material to Afghanistan and further north-westwards to Central Asia.

The Chabahar port was once considered a gateway to golden opportunities for trade by India, Iran and Afghanistan with central Asian countries. Photo: Reuters

And while Chabahar, some 76 nautical miles or 140 km east of Gwadar, built in partnership with Iran’s state-owned Aria Bander was commissioned, in 2017, nearly 14 years after it was initiated, the related rail project to Zahedan appears to be imperilled following funding and project delays by India. According to recent news reports, China has emerged as the alternate  contender for the project as part of its  secret, under-negotiation 25-year strategic partnership agreement with Iran.

Under this reported $400 billion deal, China would commit itself to developing Iran’s crumbling infrastructure, eroded by decades of crippling US sanctions, manufacturing, transport and energy projects, including the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link.

In return, Tehran would assure continued oil and gas supplies to Beijing for 25 years, which analysts believe could eventually be transported to Gwadar and on to mainland China by the overland route being completed under the aegis of the aforementioned CEPC. Iran is already a part of China’s BRI and believes that the proposed deal with China would mitigate the chaos wreaked upon it by Washington’s unrelenting embargoes.

If India eventually loses this rail link contract, it would jeopardise its connectivity with Afghanistan but also to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on China’s and Pakistan’s periphery. Modi visited all five CARs during a single trip in 2015 to foster closer links as part of India’s extended ‘necklace of diamonds’ footprint. But regrettably, security officials told The Wire that many of Modi’s economic, commercial and security promises to the CARs remain stillborn, and so does the $1 billion credit line he had pledged to Mongolia in May 2015.

For India, it now seems that its pledges have become its problems.