China, COVID-19, Research, security, Writing

India’s security choices during the COVID-19 pandemic

At the start of the 2020s, India has been confronted with a massive viral spread and a relentless People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on its borders. Last year, even as India was responding to the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, it had to mobilise its forces to counter Beijing’s invasion on the Himalayan heights. Both resulted in loss of lives and both show no signs of going away. While the virus is threatening to rise again in a ‘third wave,’ China has literally dug in at high altitudes in its quest to secure real estate and territory that it believes is crucial for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that provides access to a warm water port in the Arabian Sea, and that is critical to a larger project that seeks to reshape the geopolitical map of Asia. While the two nations have taken modest steps to disengage, military and diplomatic negotiations have not yielded substantive results.

In June 2021, reports emerged that China had been ramping up infrastructure along the Tibetan border. Following this, around 200,000 Indian soldiers have been deployed on the frontier, an increase of over 40 percent from 2020. For India, China poses a clear and present danger. To respond to an expansive and belligerent northern neighbour, it has to reorient its conception of its security as well as deployment of its political and diplomatic resources. This was not the case until very recently.

For India, China poses a clear and present danger. To respond to an expansive and belligerent northern neighbour, it has to reorient its conception of its security as well as deployment of its political and diplomatic resources.

Pakistan had been the major preoccupation since Independence in 1947. Its occupation of parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, its export of terror to India as a means of waging an asymmetric war, and its nuclear proliferation had positioned it as the main threat to India’s national security. For long, China had escaped critical scrutiny despite provocative actions. The Indian security establishment was not very vocal when China tested an atomic device during President R. Venkataraman’s state visit in May 1992 — clearly intended to send a message to India. Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes’ prophetic assertion at the turn of the century that China, not Pakistan, was India’s “potential threat No. 1” was not universally shared in the strategic community in New Delhi.

In their public speeches, Chinese leaders declared their preoccupation with the welfare of their people. They took great pains to position China as a responsible power that avoided international confrontation. In hindsight, they clearly succeeded. From the ‘returns seeking’ investors in the United States to the political leaders in Europe and Asia who wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, all bought into this masterly conduct of statecraft. For India, the urge to keep China in good humour was also implicated by the border conflict of 1962. Relations had thawed only a quarter-century later. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 paved the way for the Sino-Indian Bilateral Peace and Tranquility Accords inked in 1993 and 1996 to stabilise the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

From the ‘returns seeking’ investors in the United States to the political leaders in Europe and Asia who wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, all bought into this masterly conduct of statecraft.

With stability along the boundary, trade and cultural ties between the two nations began to flourish. The boundary pacts mandated that large numbers of troops would not be amassed along the border, and that there would be no attempts to alter the status quo unilaterally. The Indian establishment believed that the border accords would be “peace for our time.” This search for fool’s gold would lead to India curtailing its multilateral naval exercises and slowing down infrastructure development in critical sectors of the India-China border. Influential voices in the Manmohan Singh government (2004-2014) believed India’s security interests would be served if it did not upset China.

Pushback came only in 2013, when transgressions by Chinese forces in Depsang were diplomatically and militarily countered. Yet, here too there was much discussion and debate in the upper echelons of government. Greater clarity was to emerge in 2014 when India, under the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was at the receiving end of Chinese incursions in Ladakh even as a summit was under way with the visiting Xi Jinping. With two episodes in close succession, it would be fair to say that a change in India’s approach to its northern neighbour was thrust upon it.

The Indian establishment believed that the border accords would be “peace for our time.” This search for fool’s gold would lead to India curtailing its multilateral naval exercises and slowing down infrastructure development in critical sectors of the India-China border.

In recent years, India has been able to recalibrate its approach towards the Middle Kingdom even as the world order is changing. The US-India partnership has evolved rapidly. Washington has helped thwart moves by China to internationalise the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, enabled India’s entry into the international nuclear order and brought pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorism. The Quad grouping, where Japan and Australia join the duo to keep the Indo-Pacific region inclusive and open to all, is working on providing alternatives to the BRI and is seeking a number of resilient arrangements, including on technology supply chains. A Quad vaccine for all is on the anvil and other countries are looking to partner with the Quad on important global issues.

The ‘La Pérouse’ maritime exercises in the Bay of Bengal, with France joining the Quad members, and the Australia-France-India ministerial dialogue demonstrate that the idea and the ideals of ‘Quad Plus’ are gathering steam. The UK has floated the ‘Democracy 10,’ which includes the Quad countries, to tackle issues related to 5G and emerging technologies that may have a bearing on collective security. Whitehall’s recent assessment of its economic, security and diplomatic interests may see it engage more deeply with India in the Indo-Pacific. Old Europe is certainly finding a place at the core of India’s security calculations.

A testament to India’s recalibration is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s pitch, at the Raisina Dialogue 2021, to broaden cooperation. NATO views the rise of China as having huge security implications and assesses India as its partner. PM Modi’s historic Porto Summit with leaders of the EU and 27 EU member-states helped boost cooperation on terrorism and maritime security. The ‘connectivity partnership’ between the EU and India seeks to finance projects in other nations, offering an alternative to China’s BRI.

NATO views the rise of China as having huge security implications and assesses India as its partner.

Even as India strengthens and redirects its relationship with the old world, Russia remains the X factor. New Delhi’s strategic ties with Washington have become a sore point for the Kremlin. If two new poles emerge — the US and its partners and allies, and the Beijing-Moscow ‘axis ’ — India’s room for manoeuvre may be affected. India is alive to this possibility and is redoubling its efforts to work with Russia, its largest weapons supplier over the past decades. India has to convince President Putin that the bilateral relationship allows him greater latitude while dealing with his southern neighbour. Through back channels, India also has to work towards a reset between the US and Russia and to convince the EU that pushing Putin into Xi’s corner is dangerous and counterproductive. The recent Biden-Putin summit may have gone some way in making this a possibility.

A resurgent China, with its plan to establish regional hegemony in Asia even as it tries to split and dominate Europe, is Delhi’s biggest security challenge. The Indo-Pacific will define the future of the Asian Century. India has been astute in ensuring that its partners and fellow stakeholders from the Atlantic order work closely with it to navigate the choppy waters of the Indo-Pacific.


An abridged version of the above was published for the Lennart Meri Conference.

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