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Why India-US Bond Doesn’t Worry China – And What Delhi Must Do Now

‘India can still retrieve its position if New Delhi takes some very hard decisions,’ Ashley J Tellis recently said.

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Opinion
4 min read
Image of India, US, China maps used for representation.
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The months-long border crisis represents a “failure” of Indian strategy towards China, which broadly assumed that economic interdependence and open lines of communication would allow New Delhi to manage bilateral differences, according to a prominent South Asia expert.

Besides, India’s growing relations with the United States haven’t made China run in fear, because in the end, it is an “empty threat”. Beijing believes India is wedded to the concept of “strategic autonomy” and will not make the leap of faith to create an anti-China front with the US.

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‘No Coherent Strategy To Get India Out Of The Rut’

Ashley J Tellis, who holds the Tata chair for strategic affairs at the Carnegie Endowment, further said that India “risks losing the broader strategic competition (with China) but the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.” India can still retrieve its position if New Delhi takes “some very hard decisions.”

But the Indian government is struggling, and as yet there is no “coherent strategy to get India out of the rut it finds itself in,” he said recently at a Stanford University webinar organised by Arzan Tarapore, a South Asia research scholar. It was titled, “Is India Losing?”

Can India Successfully Get China To Return To Status Quo Ante?

Tellis’s words carry weight in Washington even if they have ruffled a few feathers in India. As one of the foremost experts on India-US relations and a key architect of the civil nuclear deal, which helped transform bilateral relations, Tellis has been a long-term supporter of stronger ties. But his optimistic tone on India, especially since 2014 when Narendra Modi first became prime minister, has turned cautionary, even pessimistic because of BJP’s illiberal turn on social and religious issues.

But Tellis did say that if India could successfully get China to return to the status quo ante, it would be “a major boost to India’s fortunes.”

The fact that India has stood up to China with “quiet resolution” should not be underestimated, because many Southeast Asian states “sort of folded” before Chinese might.

How China Reads India And Its Growing Ties With US

The India-China border crisis is the toughest foreign policy challenge facing Modi who invested time and effort in building a personal relationship with President Xi Jinping, only to be faced with China’s notorious salami slicing tactics and territory grab.

Despite growing economic relations and Modi directing Indian diplomacy from the very top, when push came to shove, the Chinese were “brutal” in defending their interests, Tellis said. “And they did so without regard to India’s equities, even without regard to the loss of life that they inflicted on India.”

This goes beyond the failure of Indian deterrence, beyond the failure of intelligence gathering and processing and to “the heart of Indian strategy vis-à-vis China, and that is really the most disconcerting dimension of this whole affair,” Tellis said.

An even more critical insight from Tellis came when he talked about how China reads India and its growing relations with the United States. Closer India-US relations neither worry Beijing, nor do serve as a threat in any meaningful way.

Beijing believes that India’s penchant for strategic autonomy will prevent New Delhi from “making that bridge towards a new relationship” with the US, no matter what pressures India faces in its neighbourhood. In the Chinese mind, India will “engage in a dalliance” with the US and with other Indo-Pacific partners but it will “never cut loose from its deep-seated moorings for independence,” Tellis said.

“From a Chinese point of view, the Indian threat at the end of the day is an empty threat,” he said. The Chinese have read India in a particular way, watching New Delhi’s behaviour over the decades.

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India-China Border Crisis: The Winter Will Determine Costs To Both Sides

As for China’s latest incursions, China gambled it could spring a surprise on India, achieve its tactical objectives and occupy Indian-claimed territory. China also gambled that India wouldn’t launch a major military operation to eject it – all of which proved to be true.

Even though India had significant military advantages in the region, it was slow in bringing troops forward, making Chinese occupation a fait accompli.

But India acted “artfully” in late August 2020 by occupying areas on the south bank of the Pangong Tso, and creating some bargaining leverage. The winter will determine costs to both sides and “who cries uncle first”.

India has the advantage of long experience having defended Siachen glacier for years while China has none, Tellis said.

What Would Really Hurt China?

As for imposing real economic punishment on China, the matter hinges on the costs India itself is willing to pay. Banning Chinese apps is “symbolic,” he said, because it denies the Chinese only “notional Indian data which would come available down the line.” Indian moves to bar China from government procurement are more serious.

What would actually hurt China is if Indian companies were to stop using Chinese cloud services. “That would be a phenomenal penalty on China because China benefits and profits greatly from the cloud services that Indian manufacturers and service providers use,” Tellis explained.

“If India is willing to put more meaningful things on the table as things it’s willing to risk, it could still pull these chestnuts out of the fire.”

Tellis also noted that despite the border situation, Modi has not suffered any “political reverses” which makes him the real “Teflon” prime minister. Modi has “no interest” in actually going to war with China.

“If India gets into a major China war, it’s going to need friends. Already this crisis has shown how dependent India is on the United States for intelligence, even for equipment,” he said.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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