Even as disengagement begins in Pangong Tso, Eastern Ladakh, it is important to reconsider the nature of diplomatic options India has relied on to resolve the on-going border stand-off with China, and uncover what this tells us about the shifts in India’s foreign policy.
Usually, when a military response has been impracticable, India has ratcheted up diplomatic pressure. This has frequently been seen in response to Pakistan’s use of cross-border terrorism post-1998. For instance, India has been leading the charge for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism at the United Nations. But similar international support to stigmatise Chinese aggression has strangely not been sought. External Affairs Minister (EAM), S. Jaishankar’s speech at the 13th All India Conference of China Studies is instructive. It was almost entirely bilateral in tenor (focusing on mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests), and there was almost no effort to signal to audiences beyond India and China; no mention in particular of values, or democracy.
This is puzzling for three reasons. First, aggression and territorial conquest violate perhaps the most basic norm of world politics in state sovereignty. Convincing relevant third-parties, such as key Western or Indo-Pacific allies, of the magnitude of the transgression therefore should not be difficult (think sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea in 2014). Second, contra popular belief, China cares deeply about its self-image as a non-belligerent. This is why it invests so heavily in “image management” and has frequently used economic incentives to attract other states (think about Xi’s recent speech at Davos). When India justified its nuclear tests in 1998 by highlighting China’s threat to its national security, Beijing was far more perturbed by its framing as an aggressor than the elevated risks of such nuclear proliferation. Considering this, it would really hate to lose face and be outed as a bully. In fact, even after the 1962 War, the Chinese expended significant diplomatic capital to convince the Colombo Powers that they were only acting in self-defence. Third, in light of the outbreak of COVID-19, China’s global reputation is already at an all-time low (as per polling by Pew Research Centre), perhaps since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
So, why hasn’t India rallied key major powers around its cause against China in a manner that would cause the latter to lose face? It has certainly preferred this strategy with Pakistan, arguably to great effect. There may be a few possible explanations. Most glaringly, by trying to build international pressure on the Chinese, there may be concerns that the Modi regime’s domestic reputation as a government with an assertive foreign policy that is unafraid to project force and power could be hurt. This concern may of course equally apply to audience logics in Beijing. With Pakistan, India enjoys military predominance. In relation to China, India is the materially weaker power. Using diplomatic pressure could be seen as a sign of weakness and of India’s inability to militarily deter the PLA.
Another reason may relate to the limits of collective action in international relations. What if India’s diplomatic efforts simply went unheeded? This would burst the bubble of pretence that India has de facto alliances and reveal its efforts at external balancing a mirage. This could lead to the isolation of a weak-looking India with China more antagonised. While the QUAD as a counterweight to Chinese hegemony has received much rhetorical fanfare, serious doubts with respect to its practical utility remain. Virtual summits and naval exercises are not substitutes for direct and consistent diplomatic pressure from global leaders. Fearing isolation, even the dogmatic Mao Zedong reoriented his foreign policy towards peaceful coexistence in the early 1950s. Although the recently concluded EU-China investment deal has shown the limits of collective action against Chinese belligerence, EU leaders at least raised muted objections to China’s record on human rights. No concerns were expressed on China’s lack of respect for the sovereignty of its neighbours, who are also European partners (this should mean status-quo on a disputed border). The US’ abdication of global leadership under the Trump regime has been damaging on this front. The Biden administration will need time to repair America’s global reputation.
Finally, it is not clear if India has overcome its abiding reluctance to involve other powers in its bilateral affairs because alliances usually accompany curtailments of sovereignty. It is entirely possible that India continues to view China as an unavoidable partner in the “rise of Asia”, and therefore wishes to develop this relationship independent of any outside help. Minister Jaishankar, in his aforementioned speech, underscored that China’s “salience in the global order [was] self-evident; and recent decades if anything [had] only heightened that prominence”.
While these factors could be preventing India’s pursuit of a diplomatic offensive so far, New Delhi might want to rethink its position. A major cycle of normative change is underway. Old rules are being renegotiated to fit current realities, especially to manage the threats generated by China’s rise. At this moment, India needs to resurrect the norm of territorial sovereignty as the fundament of any future regional order in the Indo-Pacific. Let us remember that the potential threat of Chinese aggression affects many more Indo-Pacific states such as Taiwan, Australia, Japan, ASEAN, Nepal, and Bhutan, and other major Western powers who have stakes in the region. Can these states not rally together and commit to collective action against transgressors of territorial sovereignty? Not only would this serve their self-interest, postcolonial histories should make them especially suited to appreciate the significance of this norm. Moreover, India does not have good military options against Chinese faits accomplis on the border in the short-to-medium term. Neither do other Indo-Pacific states in isolation. If they are able to forge a consensus-driven grouping that can agree on a common minimum program to collectively bargain with China, this may be their best alternative. Other wider concerns such as the weaponisation of interdependence on trade or water can also be added to the mandate of such a grouping.
It is time for China’s neighbours in the Indo-Pacific to view their security as part of a wider regional security net and appreciate the role that collective sanction, soft balancing, and stigma can have on restraining Chinese behaviour as a great power. Following on, India’s efforts towards region-building should focus on the creation of institutions that can enable such collective bargaining, and also help reduce regional dependence on China (in order to limit its coercive options); a type of institutional hedging. Before an Asian NATO, the Indo-Pacific needs its own rules-based order with territorial sovereignty at its heart.
The writer is reading for a DPhil in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford. He would like to thank Professor Kate Sullivan de Estrada for her comments