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.


With contributions from

Kanti Bajpai, Hoo Tiang Boon, Sujan Chinoy, Bill Emmott, Frédéric Grare, Suhasini Haidar, Quah Say Jye, Tsutomu Kikuchi, Chung Min Lee, Tanvi Madan,  Kishore Mahbubani, Kalpit A. Mankikar, Rana Mitter, C. Raja Mohan, Samir Saran Teresita Schaffer, Ayesha Siddiqa, Peter Varghese, Igor Yurgens

About the Book

In July 1971, US National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, made a secret visit to China to meet top Chinese leaders. This inaugurated a new phase not just in US-China relations but in contemporary history. That visit and the subsequent US-China relationship, including the US decision to invest in China’s economic rise and admit it into the World Trade Organisation, combined to firm up the foundations of China’s rise as a world power.

For more than four decades, the leadership of the two countries had a secretive pact, which worked well to each other’s benefit. The US helped power China’s economic growth in the hope that Beijing would turn a new political leaf and adopt Western practices (e.g. democracy). China grew economically and militarily, used its financial prowess to spread its influence across continents, as four generations of Chinese leaders built their nation at the expense of the US.

Half a century after Kissinger’s historic visit, the US and China are today engaged in a trade war bordering on a new Cold War. Washington is not openly talking about “de-coupling” from China, which has begun to challenge its global dominance, but it might very well be. China has already established itself as a dominant power across Eurasia. More worryingly, China is militarily and economically threatening its neighbours, including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia and India.

This collection of critical essays examines the impact, consequences and legacy of Kissinger’s first, door-opening visit to China and how it has shaped world order.

Books, China, Writing

A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China

China, Research, security, Writing

Communist Inc: The Pandemic and China’s World

Co-authored with Akhil Deo

The Communist Party of China will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding this July. This marks the first significant milestone in Chairman Xi’s “China Dream”, a project that will ostensibly culminate in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, with associated aspirations of China cementing its position as a global power. In our book, Pax Sinica, we had detailed three instruments that are crucial to these ambitions: Leadership over global institutions and processes, a conducive environment for achieving “discourse power”, and the construction of new international coalitions. China seeks to control global institutions and rule-making processes, grease and dominate the media and public sphere into a favourable disposition, and enter into perverse partnerships with other nations, described as a “loan for sovereignty” arrangement in one of its avatars.

The onset of the pandemic has made many of these strategies more visible, even as it highlighted the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for China.

China’s global dominance strategies

For the past decade or more, China has pursued a dual strategy of co-opting post-war institutions while simultaneously pursuing its own brand of multilateralism through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and an assortment of formal and informal fora, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Three approaches guide China’s strategy: Building global influence and prestige; shaping and/or altering key norms, standards, and processes; and creating the capacity to withstand pressure for selectively disregarding international rules.

The fruits of these efforts were visible amid the pandemic, most controversially at the WHO, which struggled to balance its commitment towards transparency and accountability, and its operational reliance on and systematic infiltration by China. Under cover of the pandemic, China has made more significant inroads as well. In April 2020, China was appointed to the influential United Nations Human Rights Council (HNRC) consultative group, which plays a crucial role in selecting global monitors for free speech, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances—the very rights that Beijing crushed in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

One aspect of this ploy of the Communist Party of China (that effectively and absolutely owns the country) that often goes unnoticed in India is China’s leadership in technology standard-setting organisations. Over the past decade, Beijing has improved its representation in, and submissions to, the technical committees and sub-committees of organisations like the International Organisation for Standardisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission. In March 2020, China’s Standardisation Administration published an innocuous document outlining the elements of a more ambitious strategy known as China Standards 2035. The 15-year blueprint will chart a pathway for China to dominate standards in emerging industries, giving it the ability to set the terms of international trade and even define the relationship between technology and society globally.

Augmenting China’s influence in international organisations and standard-setting bodies is its global media and narrative management strategy—an essential facet of “discourse power”

Augmenting China’s influence in international organisations and standard-setting bodies is its global media and narrative management strategy—an essential facet of “discourse power”. Chairman Xi alluded to this in a recent speech, calling for China’s media to develop an “international voice”. The research in our book highlighted what scholars called China’s policy of “borrowing a boat to go out into the ocean”. In other words, China’s use of paid inserts and large advertisements in newspapers allows it to propagate its narratives. Two recent reports provide insight into how significantly these efforts have evolved and intensified.

The first, by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, describes China’s use of bots and fake social media accounts to amplify its “wolf warrior” diplomats and their proxies online. While China has previously used these tactics in Taiwan and Hong Kong, such operations have taken on a global scope amid the pandemic. Beijing’s appetite for misinformation, exemplified famously by Zhao Lijian’s claim that the coronavirus originated outside China, only exacerbated the challenge. The second, from the International Federation of Journalists, posits that Beijing’s strategy of syndication appears to be paying off. Over the year, its inserts into local media, increasingly in vernacular, along with a more engaged diplomatic community, have bolstered its visibility in the developing world.

Beyond its media strategy, China continues to fund educational institutions through opaque means, sometimes with attached costs to academic freedom. The Communist Party also increasingly hosts foreign diplomats and security officials for training programmes on “information management” and sponsors ruling party politicians around the world to attend training sessions on party building and governance. In 2020, under pressure from Western scrutiny, Beijing rebranded its infamous Confucius Institutes and handed over operations to a ‘non government organisation’ defined by the party. However, the US and Europe aren’t necessarily the targets of its educational and cultural investments. A report from Aid Data in 2018 revealed that countries that are more aligned with China’s foreign policy receive the bulk of its largesse. While it is unclear yet what gains have accrued to Beijing from such initiatives, they represent a formidable institutionalised apparatus to export its ideology and political practices.

The Communist Party also increasingly hosts foreign diplomats and security officials for training programmes on “information management” and sponsors ruling party politicians around the world to attend training sessions on party building and governance

Backdoor entry into the EU

Finally, we had highlighted China’s strategy of building new coalitions and undermining existing ones. Nowhere was this more apparent than Europe, where Beijing’s 17 + 1 platform for engaging with Central and East European (CEE) nations had triggered concern about its “divide and rule” tactics. To some extent, China’s investments in the region have paid off— with countries like Greece and Hungary scuttling the EU’s efforts to criticise China’s violations of international law in the South China Sea and the passing of the national security law abuses in Hong Kong.

2020 dampened this momentum for China—and demonstrated that large powers can still secure their peripheries. Several East and Central European leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of investments and many were no-shows at the China-led forum. Many have also signed onto the US’s Clean Network Initiative, intended to prevent the entry of China’s 5G companies into key markets. The Baltic states, meanwhile, were more apprehensive about Russia than they were keen on Chinese investments.

Nevertheless, the 17 + 1 platform is but one instrument in China’s more global “perverse diplomacy” toolkit, and writing it off is premature. It marks a permanent presence that China now enjoys at the EU’s doorstep, one that the CEE can always leverage for better terms from Brussels. At the very least, China is now a voice in domestic EU debates.

China also hosts a web of high-level forums and summits in nearly every part of the world, including the Arab states, Africa, Latin America, and the ASEAN. Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy has won it praise in most of these geographies—especially in the face of Western absence and selfish acts of the past year. These forums augment and bolster various initiatives, ranging from China’s infrastructure investments to promoting its technology propositions. And its economic presence and investments are buying it diplomatic support as well. For instance, the support of African states has been crucial for China when its record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong was questioned in the UN in 2020 and 2019.

When looking at the pandemic in retrospect, Chinese leaders will likely see parallels to the 2008 financial crisis—one more milestone in the long decline of the West, and China’s rise. Beijing robustly managed the pandemic at home and stepped up to provide global public goods. To be sure, it faces new headwinds: Public opinion of China has plummeted in the West, the Biden administration is gearing up for great power competition, the EU has ‘frozen’ its latest investment deal with China, and institutions like the G7 are stepping up to offer alternatives to the BRI.

Public opinion of China has plummeted in the West, the Biden administration is gearing up for great power competition, the EU has ‘frozen’ its latest investment deal with China, and institutions like the G7 are stepping up to offer alternatives to the BRI

Elsewhere, the message from China over the past year is resilience and continuity. It remains committed to an alternative form of globalisation via the BRI. Its influence over international institutions will only grow, proportional to its wealth and power. Beijing’s media is increasingly savvy in projecting and protecting its core interests. Further, contrary to the perception that China is “friendless”, it can call upon nations to support it when it matters. And even when there is pushback, it is often haphazard. The recently announced “Build Back Better World”, while grand in intent, struggles with the contradictions within the group on their assessment of the Middle Kingdom. Key countries have chosen trade over security and valuations over values in their engagement with China.

The future of the Indo-China relationship 

Where does this leave India? Our book warned that Doklam was unlikely to be the last border confrontation between the two Asian powers. We argued that it opened a new tense period between India and China—an Asian Cold War. The Galwan Valley Clash confirmed the advent of a new era of high altitude faceoffs with possible ramifications in the oceans as well. This rift has only grown wider amid the pandemic. China’s belligerence in the Himalayas, and India’s restriction on Chinese technology platforms as well as its alignment with coalitions competing with China have all but cemented contestation. This will drive engagement in the years ahead.

New Delhi will confront a more fundamental dilemma: On the one hand, political tensions with China will remain high. But on the other, it is dependent on trade with China for its economic objectives—a dependence that will likely remain given the adverse economic consequences of the pandemic. Indeed, data published by Chinese customs officials revealed that trade with India boomed in 2021, even as Beijing appears to be consolidating its position in the Himalayas. How India resolves this contradiction and builds a security posture that accounts for this will indeed define the relationship.

New Delhi needs clarity of thought and a national consensus on China. In the coming days, it will have to take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook and engage in trade with the one that seeks to do it harm. Its economic engagement must be alive to this and its security considerations immune from these entanglements. It must realise that it cannot trade or talk its way into a better relationship with Beijing. These are important but essentially sideshows to the principal theatre of engagement. Deceit and political muscularity is the new grammar of the bilateral that China has proffered. With limited recourse available, the time for India’s legendary ambiguity is long past.

PAX SINICA: Implications for the Indian Dawn, by Samir Saran and Akhil Deo, is available here.


The simultaneous rise of India and China will define the 21st century.

At a book launch event in Delhi, Samir Saran and EAM Subrahmanyam Jaishankar discuss this new moment that will undoubtedly redefine the tenants and principles of the international order.

In their book, Pax Sinica: Implications for the Indian Dawn, Samir Saran and Akhil Deo analyse the key events and policies that have shaped the Asian Century since the elevation of General Secretary Xi Jinping. From the launch of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank to the unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s proposition presents a contested model of cooperation that is rearranging regional and sub-regional political alignments. India, amongst others, is responding to these developments to safeguard its own room to maneuver.

Soon after his elevation to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping rapidly consolidated power at home and expanded China’s influence in the international system. His desire to achieve the ‘China Dream’ by the middle of the century has seen him steadily erode the norm of ‘collective leadership’ at home and has made China’s presence across Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific more expansive. He has determinedly set about reshaping the world order for the benefit of his Communist Party.

Samir Saran and Akhil Deo offer a retrospective reading of how this came to be—tracing the key policy shifts that have come to define China in the Xi Jinping Era. From the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the Doklam standoff, they identify pivotal decisions and events that have shaped China’s engagement with the world—and how global powers, especially India, have responded to the Middle Kingdom’s rise.

Read here –

Books, China, Research, Writing

PAX SINICA: Implications for the Indian Dawn


Making China great again: Xi grabs power to resolve current contradictions, but could trigger new ones

“The superior man,” says the Analects of Confucius, “cannot be known in little matters but may be entrusted with great concerns.” As an ardent scholar of Confucianism, it appears that President Xi Jinping has taken this advice to heart. In March, Xi orchestrated the abolition of constitutional term limits for assuming presidency effectively making him the “chairman of everything” for life and entrusting him with the great concerns of party, military and state.

Xi’s consolidation of power likely has two objectives. The first is personal – Xi seeks to cement his legacy. Since Mao, no other Chinese leader has crafted such a cult personality. Having christened himself “Core Leader” at the 18th Party Congress in 2016, he has now firmly entrenched “Xi Jinping Thought” in the constitution, placing him on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

The second is great power ambitions. Xi has set very clear timelines for achieving the “China dream”; otherwise known as the “two centenaries” – “moderately well-off society” by 2021, and a “democratic, civilised, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049. By mid-century, Xi intends for China to become a “a mighty force” that would be an active “constructor of global peace, contributor to the development of global governance, and protector of international order.”

Xi is aware that China is at a critical juncture. He believes the time is right for China to reclaim its place in the world; and to supplant Western powers – especially America – as the leader of the international system. To view Xi’s power play as selfish dictatorial ambition, then, is superficial. Instead, it has more nuanced implications for China and the world.

First, Xi understands that the Communist Party requires a new social contract with its citizens. Over the past 30 years, China’s trailblazing economic growth has created a prosperous middle class and skilled professionals – many of whom now demand a better quality of life over high growth rates alone. Secure with his own position, Xi might be in a position to experiment with political reforms that could address this contradiction, and advance his “better life” agenda – including improving “deliberative democracy” by politically empowering local officials and creating new channels for public accountability.

Second, the pace of institutional reform will increase exponentially. As China becomes a global power, Xi understands that “going out” will require new standards for transparency, governance and performance in the economy if he is to sell “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to the rest of the world. Already, the National People’s Congress is assembling to consider enacting such reforms this year. Perfecting a unique blend of state control over industry and free markets will require painful and complex restructuring of administrative and economic institutions – and Xi wants an uninterrupted stint to see these reforms through.

Third, Xi has staked his legacy on the Belt and Road Initiative – the key instrument for his ambition of integrating Asia into a governance architecture that is more politically and economically cohesive than its sub-regions. The BRI must overcome several regional competitors to achieve its ultimate goal: creating new markets for high end Chinese goods in Europe. And Xi has made it clear that he is willing to use coercive statecraft to achieve this objective: ranging from Doklam-esque standoffs with India to “debt trap diplomacy” with smaller neighbours. With Xi at the helm, Asia must brace for a forcible attempt to reconstitute its geographical, political and cultural borders.

Fourth, Xi sees the reunification of democratic Taiwan with the mainland as a critical pre-condition towards achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Already, Taiwan is a souring flashpoint between the incumbent super power – America, which recently voted to increase government and civil society interaction with Taipei – and China’s rising ambition. Xi’s consolidation of political power, coupled with his agenda for institutional and functional modernisation of the army, and militarisation of the South China Sea point towards rising tensions on this front.

Finally, Xi faces the Putin paradox: massive concentration of power creates political losers; many of whom will often seek to exact violent revenge. Xi’s expansive anti-corruption drive, renewed political interference in companies, and rigid ideological control over public spaces have not all gone down well with China’s elites. At the same time, Xi will now also be seen as singularly responsible for policy failures – ranging from the economy to foreign affairs. Having amassed enormous power he must somehow craft a successful model for political transition when he does step down; or else face dire consequences for himself and for China’s stability.

Xi’s power grab will likely be a turning point in history. It brings stability at a time when China’s comprehensive national power is at its highest since ancient times; even as America and other Western democracies struggle to manage the international order they created. Simultaneously, China is a state and society in flux – high economic growth has created new political expectations and demands; and China must now shed its export led manufacturing strategy to embrace a new investment led model for the economy.

“Our mission is a call to action,” declared Xi at the 19th Party Congress, “let us get behind the strong leadership of the party and engage in a tenacious struggle.” If Xi can carry out his mission, he will not only oversee the arrival of China as a great power, but will also emerge as arguably the greatest leader China has ever known in modern history.

Source: Times of India, March 30, 2018. 

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