Global Corona crisis will end, although the virus may remain a source of the dangerous disease for quite some time, as per the information provided by the World Health Organisation.
It is palpable that the Indo-Pacific region will be the battlefield of ferocious competition between the United States and China for influence peddling, resulting in various forms of Cold Confrontation. It is also predictable that India will not be part of any military alliance, bilateral or multilateral, either to contain China or to restrain the United States. India’s Strategic partnership with the United States will unquestionably endure, and so will its several other strategic partnerships.
Nevertheless, the global economic slump, upsurge in political nationalism, persistent mutual mistrust between nations, and efforts by all nations to be as self-reliant as possible in critical areas of economic prerequisites and public health will be the signature scenario of the post-pandemic world order.
The greatest critical challenge to Indian foreign policy will originate from China in the very near future. First, China’s economic recovery is faster than that of many advanced countries, including the United States. China’s economic influence around the world was already mounting in the pre-Corona pandemic era, and concurrently the US influence was dwindling. The same setting will fast-track in the immediate post-pandemic world. The World Bank and IMF have given ample indications that the global, American, and European economic growth will be negative in 2020, and the economic recovery rate in 2021 will be the highest in China, followed by that of India.
Notwithstanding the current anti-China sentiment, the global community is not going to unite against China and punish it due to the preponderant impression that China is responsible for the Corona pandemic. Many countries may actually look up to China for sustaining their own economic activities. Moreover, globalization is not going to take a 180 degrees turn suddenly. Nor will multi-level international connectivity disappear due to the prevalent sentiment against China.
China, of course, may not be able to lead the world the way the US could for decades. After all, the US is definitely going to erect barriers to the expansion of Chinese power and influence. Yet, China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific region will rather augment and not contract in the near future.
India has to do firm strategic analysis about how best to deal with a China that will be more authoritative and forceful in Indo-Pacific affairs in the near future and the backdrop of diminished US influence in the region. Successive US administrations’ inability to rein in the North Korean nuclear program, thwart Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and America’s reduced economic leverage in trade and investment relations with the regional countries will prove politically costly for that country. In defiance of the US policies and to make the US look powerless, China will further boost its ties with Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
China’s footprints in South Asia will also swell. Washington will most likely abandon Afghanistan. Pakistan will be more emboldened to create troubles employing terrorist networks. Smaller countries in South Asia may become political pawns of Beijing or vent their grievances against India, drawing strength from probable support or even encouragement from China.
Since China’s economy will grow further as per the forecast, financially battered oil-producing countries will be too eager to sell oil to cash-rich China. By implication, China’s forays into the waters of the Indian Ocean will rise in frequency.
In such scenarios, what should be India’s approach to protect and promote its interests in the region and manage its relations with China? The first step in this direction should be making a sophisticated and clinical analysis of Chinese regional goals and ambitions and, of course, its perception of India.
China has a set of grievances against India:
A. India has been uncooperative in negotiations leading to establishing the largest regional free trade arrangement, the RCEP.
B. India strongly opposes the most important connectivity initiative of China—the Belt and Road Initiative.
C. India has teamed up with the US, Japan, and Australia by forming an informal grouping of countries to contain China.
D. India has forged very close defense and strategic ties with the United States to inhibit Chinese engagements with the rest of the world.
E. Indian netizens have been making vitriolic statements blaming China for the Corona Virus pandemic.
F. India has unilaterally altered the status quo of Jammu and Kashmir without being sensitive towards China’s border concerns.
India, too, has a series of complaints to make against Chinese policies:
1. China has not only slow-pedaled resolution of the border disputes but also has increased the frequency of its bellicose behavior along the un-demarcated border regions.
2. China is utterly insensitive towards the terrorism concerns of India and rather openly defends Pakistan-sponsored terrorist activities in the United Nations and other forums.
3. Chinese encouragement and support inspire Pakistan to saber-rattle its nuclear weapons and use terror networks as tools of statecraft.
4. While India seriously seeks closer trade and investment ties with China, Beijing does little to address India’s concerns over the large and persistent trade deficit.
5. China happens to be the only major power that stands against India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
6. China is responsible for blocking India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
7. China’s economic strategy in India’s neighborhood is to contain Indian businesses and investments by hook or by crook.
The Sino-Indian mutual perceptions or misperceptions can assuredly be resolved through more frequent exchanges of high-level visits, and unfailing dialogues at multiple levels in the policymaking communities. Some political and strategic divergences between the two countries are structural, and some are solvable.
The solvable ones need prioritization. It will perhaps be useful for the two sides to deploy an adequate number of experts in various fields to jointly explore ways and means of making the two countries partners in development. The experts may be tasked with the job of visualization of scenarios where India and China can be best of friends and then try to determine the road map to reach that goal. The teams of experts can assess the benefits of the best-case scenario in the relationship and the costs of the worst-case scenario where the two countries resort to war. They may also scan the costs and benefits of current incongruities, dilemmas, apprehensions, misgivings, and ambivalences in the relationship.
The future peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific will largely be contingent on how China-India relations evolve in the post-pandemic era. And thus, such cerebral exercises can be a wholesome endeavor to create an acceptable set of conditions that can serve the best interests of China and India, and, of course, the Indo-Pacific region.