New Delhi: Without seeking to dignify the militant nationalistic narrative in the general election campaign by naming the principal offenders, let this be said: There are serious limits to the geopolitical pressure that India can apply on Pakistan and China. On the other hand, geo-economics offers more freedom to contain neighbourhood troublemakers. Geo-economics is not the stuff of election campaigns. It may not win votes. But it works.

India is respected in the world not because it is a nuclear power, has the means to destroy satellites, or boasts of a large standing army. China has become the United States’ strategic competitor not by following the confrontational, Cold War path of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping recognized long ago that China’s salvation lay in following a socialistic approximation of the capitalist road which was further suitably Sinicized. That was Deng’s great revenge on Mao Zedong. On the second and last occasion that Mao rehabilitated Deng after the Cultural Revolution, he sneered that Deng was right thirty percent of the time and wrong for the remainder. When Deng put China on the near-capitalist road, he judged that Mao had been right thirty per cent of the time and wrong for the rest. Mao secured good relations with the United States when it needed a third actor in the Cold War. However, it was Deng’s brilliant geo-economics that made China the number two world power after the United States.

Atal Behari Vajpayee may be excused for thinking that India’s prestige lay in nuclear weapons. You cannot always shake off a worldview drummed into you since youth despite the later acquisition of liberalism, worldly-wisdom and statesmanship. India’s prestige was built on a bigger event than the Pokhran II test and preceded it by a few years: the unheralded 1991 reforms. Once India had a roadmap for economic growth it left behind every other country in the neighbourhood except China. It is instructive to ask why Pakistani terrorists struck Bombay in 2008. It was to hurt India economically. Why was a landmark Bombay hotel targeted? For the same reason.

It is no-gainsaid that India always has to be prepared geopolitically to combat Pakistani terrorism. But the window between low-threshold action and war, even nuclear war, is small. The effects of cross-border strikes by land or air should not be exaggerated. Pakistan has the means to strike back and neutralize any advantages India may assume. An escalation from the Indian side would obviously lead to competitive escalation from the other side which could swiftly get out of control. There is a tendency to belittle Pakistan’s deterrent. It may win a few votes but the reality is deadly. Miscalculations arise from an altered perception of reality. The moment Pakistan fears for its existence from India’s conventional weapons’ superiority, the nuclear response logic would be triggered. Going down that path for India is insane.

Optimizing geopolitical strength, India has to concentrate on dynamic geo-economic accumulation of power. Minus China and the Middle East sheikhdoms, Pakistan stares at bankruptcy. Military rule, military competition with India and state-sponsored terrorism against the eastern neighbour has brought Pakistan to ruin. Unless Pakistan changes structurally, it is doomed. India can do little directly to influence the process. But indirectly, geo-economically, a world of opportunities is available. The greater and faster India’s economic growth, the more pressure will be brought on Pakistan’s rulers to catch up -- or at least make an attempt to do so. And the greater the differential between the economic strengths of India and Pakistan, the more India would be assisted to convince world powers to penalize Pakistan for terrorism. As it is, Pakistani politicians charge India with increasing the burden of FATF on Pakistan. The scourge of Pakistan has to be handled intelligently and spread over several years. There is no silver bullet. Geopolitics and geo-economics have to go hand in hand.

China requires even more sophisticated handling. China is attacking India in two ways. Firstly, it uses Pakistan as a cat’s paw against India. Secondly, it has placed itself squarely in the path of India’s geopolitical and geo-economic rise. India’s object has to be to contain China insofar as it impedes India’s peaceful rise indirectly through Pakistan and directly. Refusing to bow to Chinese pressure, India has stayed away from BRI because its flagship project, the CPEC, traverses through Indian territory. Without India’s participation, BRI loses moral force in the South Asia region. It turns the spotlight even more on BRI leading poor partner countries to indebtedness. India’s non-participation gives life to the Pakistani opposition to CPEC centred on the same fears of a debt trap and Chinese colonization. Without firing a shot, India has made its point.

And rather than plead with China to facilitate India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group which Beijing will never permit, India has to use such levers as it possesses to curb Chinese expansion. From its knee-jerk responses, it is clear that China most fears Indian moves to exclude the country from its vast, open and growing market. At the first hint that Huawei and ZTE could face trouble in India, the Chinese ordered a major damage control with the media. Since the United States is determined to ban Huawei from 5G networks in the free world, it seeks for India to be on the side of the angels, so to speak. It is abundantly clear that Chinese companies owe their first loyalty to the Chinese government and the military and cannot be trusted to be purely commercial entities. India has to follow a different set of rules to allow them access to the Indian market.

The other area of leverage is trade. India suffers a considerable trade deficit with China. Public opinion has turned against China on account of China profiting from India while countering it via Pakistan and by itself. Pressure is growing on the Indian government to address the trade deficit with China. Last week, the Union commerce ministry said that the trade deficit with China was minimized by $10 billion in 2018-19 to $53 billion. But a de-aggregation of the data by an Indian newspaper revealed China’s sleight of hand. China is pushing exports to India through Hong Kong. When exports to India from China and Hong Kong are added, the trade deficit shows an increase for 2018-19. The Union commerce ministry claimed victory prematurely.

But the cloud has a silver lining. China is worried that India is worried about the trade deficit. That provides India a leverage far superior to anything geopolitics can provide. It may yet be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.