India getting too close to US for China’s comfort

Equidistance, independent foreign policy key to mending ties with China


October 6, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

India getting too close to US for China’s comfort

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo: PIB)

Despite attempts by Indian government to lower tensions with China, the relations remain on the boil and Chinese incursions into Indian territory continue blatantly. Beijing is upset, if not worried, about India’s increasing proximity to the United States and its new role similar to Japan and South Korea, traditional US allies in Asia. To mend ties with the giant northern neighbour, India needs to revisit the extent to which it can ally with US in an openly anti-China coalition.

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Yesterday, chief of Indian Air Force Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari told a press conference that the IAF was fully ready for a two-front war, saying he was aware of the close relationship between China and Pakistan and the ongoing buildup of forces and infrastructure by China all along its border with India, but added that there was nothing to worry about as the Indian forces are fully geared up to face any eventuality, including a simultaneous conflict with the two nations. A few days earlier, on a visit to Ladakh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had also said that Indian forces were fully ready to face any threat from China or Pakistan.

However, the statements made by the military top brass do come across more for domestic consumption to please the political bosses and to boost the morale of the Indian troops rather than a realistic appraisal of the challenges that India faces.

Realistically speaking, over the past three decades as India has struggled in weapons acquisition for all its armed forces, China has forged so far ahead that it is now second only to the United States in most elements of military and economic power. Just take the capabilities of the air forces of the two countries. China has 3260 aircraft in its air force, including 1200 fighters and 571 attack aircraft, both of which are crucial in maintaining air superiority in any conflict. Indian Air Force has 2119 aircraft of which fighters are 542 and attack aircraft 130.

The large gap is evident in almost every aspect of not only the two air forces but also the navies and even the armies, with the sole exception being an Indian superiority in the number of tanks as the Indian Army has 4730 tanks while the People’s Liberation Army of China has 3205 tanks. But even this numerical advantage is of little consequence in case of an Indo-Chinese conflict as the area where tanks can be deployed and used effectively is highly restricted in the mountainous border that separates the two nations.

China also has far more missiles of all kinds than India, including nuclear tipped ones. And it outspends India in terms of defence budget by almost 1:3 as India’s total spending this year is USD 73.6 billion as against China’s USD 178.2 billion.

With India struggling to keep pace with China, if one adds Pakistan to the conflict, which would be logical for a two-front war, Indian troops would be far outnumbered and outgunned than the two rivals. Needless to say, that if one adds the far superior infrastructure that China has built all along the border as well as Chinese prowess in use of artificial intelligence and other advanced warfare elements, India would be hard pressed to stand up to the Chinese for any reasonable period of time.

India is not China’s main concern

Despite its numerical, financial as well as technological superiority, a full-blown conflict between India and China is highly unlikely. China has been making incursions in Indian territory all along the border, right from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, not because it wants a serious military conflict, but more as a reminder to India that maintaining a poor relationship with a neighbour is a poor policy for anyone, especially for two large nations to adopt.

Aware of its military superiority, China is unlikely to be especially worried about India, it looks much more likely that Beijing is really bothered about India’s growing proximity with the United States, over the past two decades, but especially since the arrival of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister seven years ago.

Indeed, while the relationship between New Delhi and Washington DC began thawing about two decades ago, with the signing of India-US Nuclear Agreement, by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, India was still very selective in the extent to which it would go in terms of relationship with the US, especially with a view not to upset the long-standing friendly ties with Russia and to keep the balanced relationship with China.

However, Modi has entirely recast the relationship, especially swayed by the utterances of fellow extreme right wing former President Donald Trump who won the election to the office barely 18 months after Modi. Over the past seven years, Modi has cast aside all the red lines set by previous governments, including former BJP government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. Not only has India bought numerous weapon systems from the US, notably the Super Hercules and Globemaster, both heavy lift aircraft, but has also signed in on most US initiatives, all of which are aimed at ring fencing China, rather than addressing specific Indian concerns.

Hence, not only is India now conducting regular naval exercises with US and its Asian allies, it has also joined the Quad, another anti-China alliance mounted by the US, with Japan and Australia being the two other members of the four-nation grouping. India has also signed logistics deal with the US that allows US aircraft and also warships to use Indian bases and get fuel as well as other material. India signed this deal, LEMOA, in total secrecy in 2016.

Though on paper the deal is a balanced one, the footprint of Indian military presence beyond its borders or shores is minuscule and over the past decade, Asia has indeed become the pivot of the world’s largest navy, the US Navy. Thus, it is evident that LEMOA will serve the purposes of the US far more than whatever India could need in several decades to come. Though the US had been pushing India for several years to sign the deal, the UPA government had resisted the pressure.

This deal and other steps taken by the Indian government that indicated a growing cosiness with the US and indeed an alarming rise in the similitude of the Indian foreign policy and the US policy towards China were obviously not lost on Beijing. To make its irritation known to Delhi, it has dramatically upped the ante with India since 2017 and a series of border incursions, some far more serious and long-lasting than others, have taken place.

The first such incident was in mid-2017, just a few months after the LEMOA deal between India and the US, in Doklam plateau, which is a trilateral border area involving Bhutan besides India and China. The stand-off continued for several months and ultimately forced Modi to go to Xiamen in China for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping to make peace.

It was only after this meeting, that China agreed to a ‘peace’ deal of sorts, ending a 73-day stalemate between the two forces in Doklam. Though Jinping agreed to pull the Chinese troops back, the so-called deal has never been fully implemented by China as even four years later, China continues to not only occupy the contested land but has also built a lot of infrastructure there.

Since Doklam, China has consistently needled India, by making incursions in Arunachal, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Ladakh, each time agreeing to pull back, but never fulfilling its end of the deal and as a result, over the past seven years China has come to occupy thousands of sqkm of Indian territory and which it does not seem to be in a rush to vacate.

While it is being increasingly aggressive towards India, China is not seeking a war and is extremely unlikely to start one on its own. But these incursions as well as the buildup of its military might on the border is set to continue as long as India does not pull back a little in its ties with the US.

Ultimately, India has to understand that whatever be the motives of the US, India can rely only to an extent on the US and the capacity of the US to help out India in case of such incursions is extremely limited, almost nil. While it is not certain if India and China can any day be close friends, but one thing is never going to change that both the countries will be neighbours forever. And Modi needs to realise that smartness lies in mending fences with the neighbour rather than banking on a distant, and often fair-weather ally who has always put its own priorities at the base of any relationship. Modi should learn lessons from the US and put long-term Indian interests at the top of his priorities when cosying up to foreign leaders.



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