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Why India must deter China on its own steam after the Tawang clash

With the Tawang clash in the background the Indian Air Force carried out a major exercise close to the Line of Actual Control

The unarmed clash between Indian and Chinese troops on December 9, is a sharp reminder that border tensions between the two neighbouring countries continue to simmer since May 2020, when troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded into Eastern Ladakh. The latest incident shows that though China is applying maximum pressure in eastern Ladakh, a flare up between Indian and Chinese troops is possible along any segment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian armed forces will therefore have to exercise utmost vigilance right across the land frontier between India and China and bolster deterrence both conventional and nuclear on a war footing. Ahead of the fracas in Tawang, the Indian Air Force (IAF) had to scramble fighter jets amid Chinese attempt to fly drones towards the LAC in the area, signalling that Beijing has the intent to needle India on the ground, air, and the sea in the Indian Ocean waters. Significantly, the latest round of turbulence follows the joint exercise between India and the United States in Uttarakhand, a state that borders China, though the battalion sized manoeuvres took place around 100 kilometres from the border.

How does India deter China from pursuing its aggressive wolf-warrior manoeuvres? A three-pronged approach may be useful, all intended to build military capability, expanding geopolitical influence and keeping the economy well-oiled.

First, India has to demonstrate that it remains unfazed by the latest provocation and remains fixated to the big picture—of confidently pursuing its rise as a civilizational state on its own steam. That would mean India deepening its commitment to the doctrine of strategic autonomy by clinically engaging with all relevant players on the global stage, so long as that engagement bolsters its military capabilities, muscles national power, and leads to its global rise.

Second, in order to calmly build its own capacities and deterrence under the Atmanirbhar Bharat doctrine, India has to pursue a multi-vectored engagement, focused on imbibing and developing cutting edge military and dual-use technology from four key players—Russia, France, the United States and Israel.  But these multiple engagements are possible only if India bonds separately with each of these players on a bilateral track, and does not hesitate to ruthlessly play one against the other if required, to maximise its own interests without losing control. In order to play this game of its rise with Indian rules, it is essential to avoid falling into any type of quasi-alliance trap with any pole in the rising multipolar world.

Indian security planners must be fully aware that global power has diffused among several key players with none possessing overwhelming influence including the United States. Clearly, the unipolar era that emerged after the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 is dead and buried. Countries big and small are recognising the limits of US power and the opportunity it affords of raising their power profile on the global stage, not afraid or tagging with rising new players.

Third, a mindless rush to seek refuge in the Indo-Pacific QUAD as a safe-haven to counter China will be disastrous. Except possibly for a brief period during the Trump administration, the US, the natural leader of the QUAD, does not have the political will to fight a war with Beijing and simply cannot be relied upon to come to India’s aid in case a war begins. Far from causing a fundamental rupture, the Biden administration is engaged in managing its relations with China tailored to its personal advantage, rather than ideologically locking horns with Beijing to unseat the Communist Party of China (CPC). Washington’s underlying reality of geo-economic reliance on China remains unchanged, despite several bouts of information war that the world’s biggest and second largest economy have been fighting for some time.

Nevertheless, the US, in recent years has revved up its military industrial complex big time, and has made a killing out of tensions between Taiwan and China and the war between the Ukraine and Russia. With the US defence industry ready to sell to India, there is no need for New Delhi to enter into a risky Quad-alliance. Instead, it can persist its engagement on the bilateral track with the US, pick and choose what it wants, and funnel it into the Atmanirbhar Bharat route, without endangering its sovereignty and losing control.

Finally, by maintaining its strategic autonomy and sticking to the principle of bilateralism, India would be successful in ramping up its relations simultaneously with Russia, which is not a lightweight in Eurasia. Already, by not joining the US- led campaign against Moscow on Ukraine, India has managed to buy Russian oil at bargain prices—a fact that has helped it bolter its energy security, control inflation, and maintain a healthy growth rate, at a time when other major economies are crumbling. Given India’s current military inventory, Russia is bound to remain a major player in ensuring India’s combat potential. On a geopolitical plain, after Washington’s exit, Russia and India have shared interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia—a resource rich region with which New Delhi shares deep civilizational and geo-cultural ties, including a common layering of Buddhism.

In framing its response to China, it is important to ingrain that ours is not an era of zero-sum games. In the multipolar world, it is important to engage with all the poles on a bilateral plain, with the clear-eyed, unflappable, and ardent commitment of powering India’s global rise, without yielding an inch of sovereignty.

Also Read: Days after Tawang clash, IAF sends a strong message to China with Northeast exercise