Taking that call
If the United States and China have a showdown on the South China Sea dispute, India should do the right thing.
New Delhi: President Donald Trump’s friendly and priority telephone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives powerful indication that Indo-US relations will grow under the new American administration. While not in the main directed against China, the Chinese leadership will conclude it so. The latest test by Pakistan of a nuclear missile with MIRVs of undeniable Chinese make is a significant indication of how paranoid China has become of growing India-US closeness. How should India handle China’s paranoia?
By staying calm and collected, and by doing more of the same. Which means investing more from the Indian side on long-term and sustainable friendship and partnership with the United States.
There are all the signs that the United States and China are headed for a showdown on the South China Sea dispute. Traditionally, US Presidents have approached foreign policy from a legal dimension. This has given moral weight to US foreign policy but it has not always brought success. In numerous crises during the Cold War, the moral argument lay with the United States; but lacking the legal basis, it did not intervene with force, thereby prolonging the misery of the Cold War by decades. This was not the case with the South China Sea dispute, in which the Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously ruled against China. The ruling thrilled the legal scholar that was Barack Obama, but Trump’s predecessor did not act on the ruling. Pronouncements from the Trump White House give all the indication that this could change.
How should India position itself in case hostilities break out over the South China Sea dispute? It cannot certainly take a nonaligned position. Non-alignment is passe. Non-alignment was not very moral in its time. Perhaps foreign policy cannot always be moral, and there are situations that compel the practice of realpolitik. Non-alignment was realpolitik as India practised it. The rest of it was pious doublespeak and humbug. Realpolitik now demands that India take the side of forces against China. This is the revenge for 1962 and for China’s propping up of Pakistan as a nuclear cat’s paw against India. This line of argument will shock some in the country who have preferred to cower before China than be bold when required. Well, so be it.
Will there be a price to pay for attempting to contain China and to roll back its illegal actions in the South China Sea? Undoubtedly so, but it would be far less than if India meekly surrenders to Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, and if China succeeds with encircling this country with hostile satellites. Almost certainly, China would instigate Pakistan to hostility against this country, but operational preparedness and hardened defences should prove adequate for that. At any rate, India does not have the luxury to sit out of the confrontation with China.
Indeed, regardless of whether or not the South China Sea dispute flares up, China has given notice to India of worsening ties between the two states, and India has to respond in kind. India’s essentially pacific intentions have no meaning or value. India has the strategic capacity to challenge Chinese hegemony, and Great Powers base decisions on a competitor’s capacity, not intentions. India, thus, is marked out by its growing strategic capacity, and it has to live the part. This is the iron rule of the strategic order, which India can only break to its disadvantage. If you are strong, you have to protect yourself and the weak. Also, you do what you say, and you do what you have to do.
There is an underlying order to the apparently disorderly world of today that most people do not see. The world order is still bound by some moral precepts. Scofflaws like China imagine their happy run will last forever. It won’t. Sooner or later, the balance of power will tilt against evil. China thought it was unchallengeable. It had begun to believe the United States had no stomach to end its illegality. China’s bluff has been called. If India is urged by the US to assist in the absolutely necessary containment of China, India should not hesitate to join. China is an unjust Great Power. The only way to make it just is to contain and democratize it.