US State Dept On China: What India Should Watch Out For and Learn

India must train a “new generation of public servants in diverse fields” including diplomacy & military affairs...”

5 min read
Hindi Female

Even as the United States prepares for a new administration under a vastly different President, the bureaucracy is engaged in putting out important policy papers on China and other threats. The State Department’s Elements of the China Challenge is one such, forthrightly noting that it is meant to be a long term policy formulation, immune to the short term politics of elections and bureaucratic turf wars. That may or may not happen. But it’s a laudable intention, and a fascinating attempt to clearly understand the threat that emanates from China, together with some solid recommendations.

Since the report is public, reluctant bureaucracies can hardly pretend it doesn’t exist, and brush it under the carpet. There’s much to learn here for India.

The question however is the willingness to absorb the underlying precept of the paper: that if you don’t understand your enemy, you’re destined to fail even before you start.

Understanding China

Why we need to understand the People’s Republic of China should be obvious. More than 6 months after Galwan, we’re still not clear as to why Beijing decided to attack us in the first place. Various theories have been advanced, including its ire at the revocation of Article 370 – though why a change of status that doesn’t move the LAC an inch should bother China is unclear – or that China has simply become aggressive across all its borders including in the South China Sea.

The answer, according to the paper, is core ideology.

Just as the US’s foreign policy – and internal politics – runs on ‘inalienable rights’, which is central to the US Declaration of Independence, so does China’s present course – set on its determination to reset the international order so that it places itself at the centre.

A lot of that is evident in almost all speeches of the leadership. It’s not hidden in the least.

But its still difficult to absorb in full, which is why it is the most important foreign policy failure of the US (and India) since there remained a conviction (in both countries) that Chinese behaviour could actually be ‘shaped’ by diplomacy. Well, it can’t. Time to accept that and move on.


Beijing’s Ruthless Advance

Even given the possibility of some exaggeration – remember the CIA claims on Soviet power which were actually hollow by the 1980s – the paper makes for a startling read.

From Beijing’s ruthless repression of internal dissent to the sustained technology theft from the US, estimated at USD 600 billion annually, and almost equal to the Pentagon’s entire budget. Then is the reality that “By 2022, China and Taiwan are set to house 70 percent of global capacity for integrated-circuit fabrication, including virtually all cutting- edge production, which is vital to the digital economy, advanced weapons systems, aerospace, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics”, and other key areas.

There’s much more, including the fact that 130 Chinese companies listed on the US stock market, have a combined valuation of about USD 1 trillion, and the fact that many of these are directly linked to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) war effort.

There is the more well-known facts of the extent of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that sits across continents, the Confucius Institutes that propel and fund propaganda, and the more intrusive Thousand Talents program, that targets university professors and students alike.

Remember the case of the Harvard University Professor who was detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for sharing his research with China for good money. An audit by India of Chinese money going into out universities and think tanks, might be a worthwhile if unsurprising exercise.


Nuclear & Missile Proliferation ‘Re-Starts’

Eulogies of Chinese military prowess have already been detailed by the Department of Defence, in its Annual Report to Congress on the PLA, including plans for the Indo-Pacific, buttressed by 99 year leases of strategic ports like Australia’s Port Darwin. But here’s something India has to take note of.

The paper observes that the belief that the ‘one bright spot’ in bilateral relations was China’s adherence to non-proliferation commitments made in 2000, is flawed.

At that time, Beijing had agreed not to transfer technology for nuclear capable missiles (500 kg warheads to a distance of 300 km), a type which it had transferred to Pakistan, along with allied capabilities between 1987 and 1999. In fact, Pakistan recently fired this very same missile called the Ghaznavi in June 2020, as tensions climbed on Kashmir. India ignored it, but it seems that the proliferation partnership that led to that, has restarted. That’s the US line. In Delhi, experts will say that it never stopped to begin with. The only difference being that Pakistani proliferations rings, such as the one where 5 Pakistanis were detained early this year for proliferation activities, may also have a reverse benefit for China.


All of this is of concern to India, and needs urgent assessment, but through the lens of what is India’s own threat prioritisation. It’s vital to note that we don’t have the financial bandwidth to oppose everything. Nor can we build a ‘world class’ military that the paper recommends.

But Delhi can ponder on how the US proposes to again emerge as the leader in pushing for a ‘Free and open Indo-Pacific’ and its recommended ‘reevaluation’ and ‘strengthening’ of alliances and partnerships for the desired delivery.

Such a re-evaluation will inevitably result in a ‘do more’ tirade from Washington, something it has always done in times of crisis, but this time directed more at Asia than Europe.

Ramping Up Our Own Policy

A final recommendation is worth copy-pasting into our own policy planning; that is, to train a “new generation of public servants in diverse fields” including diplomacy and military affairs...”and public- policy thinkers who not only attain fluency in Chinese…but who also in the languages” cultures and histories of other “strategic competitors, friends, and potential friends”.

For instance, a deep analysis of why Nepal or Sri Lanka welcomed China in, and in what ways that can be countered needs more than just a ‘daily briefing’ approach. In other words, the bureaucrats cannot be expected to do it all.

You need to hone expertise across our universities and schools. Now that’s a ten year project worth taking up that should not be left entirely to the Education Ministry.

Meanwhile, it’s time to get started on understanding a country that we thought we could befriend. Hopefully, that won’t take a decade.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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