Dragon by the Tail: India Must Rethink its Strategic Policy to Counter China’s Push for Regional Influence
- To send a strong message to China, India should have an offensive strategy. It must join the U.S. military's freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.
China and India have been at odds. Last year, skirmishes broke out between Indian and Chinese forces near Ladakh killing 20 Indians and 43 Chinese soldiers. In 2017, both armies had a standoff near Dokolam after Indian forces halted the expansion of a Chinese road. However, none of these instances lead to war.
With China advancing in South Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), India must rethink its China strategy. But before we look at the security implications of these projects, we must understand China.
China and Xi Jinping
To understand China’s desires, we must look at the philosophy of President Xi Jinping. Elizabeth Economy’s new book, “The Third Revolution,” outlines the core tenets of Xi’s teachings. He wants to “rejuvenate the Chinese state.” He wants China to rise up and claim its rightful role on the world stage.
He, like many Chinese, resented the 1839-49 period. During this decade, China suffered at the hands of imperialist powers such as the British and French. Most notably, Britain’s introduction of opium wreaked havoc on China’s population. The Chinese fought several unsuccessful wars against the British, which led to the “unequal treaties.” In these treaties, China gave away much of its sovereignty to imperialist powers leading to utter humiliation.
To make up for China’s humiliation, Xi has aggressively expanded China’s influence. The hallmark of Xi’s foreign policy is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This project has severe security ramifications for India.
BRI and CPEC
The Council on Foreign Relations vividly explains the details of BRI and CPEC. The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s way of recreating the Silk Road. In ancient times, the Silk Road was a series of trade routes that connected China to European kingdoms. Through these routes, goods, ideas, and cultures were exchanged.
To recreate the Silk Road, China is sponsoring infrastructure projects around the globe. They are building ports in Sri Lanka and railroads in Iran to connect China to the world. However, this comes at a heavy price. China essentially uses debt traps to entice countries to join BRI. China provides countries like Sri Lanka and Kenya loans to build such projects, yet in the long run, these countries are unable to pay up. This puts many nations at the mercy of the Chinese government.
The picture below shows the scope of the BRI. If completed China will gain a significant amount of economic and political power. Any of these ports could easily become naval bases for the Chinese military disrupting U.S. military operations.
CPEC is a part of the BRI. China has pledged $62 billion to boost Pakistan’s infrastructure. China wants to transform Pakistan by investing billions in Pakistan’s railways, ports, and roads. China is also building hydroelectric dams, power plants, and water treatment systems to boost Pakistan’s energy needs. While these projects seem benevolent, Pakistan will be unable to pay off its debt to China. This will allow China to maintain a large economic presence near the Indian border.
India’s Security and Strategy
China’s foreign policy in South Asia poses a severe threat to India’s security. China’s investment in ports near Karachi and Gwadar is a perfect naval base for the Chinese military (PLA). Pakistan cannot repay its debts to China and so will cede to military concessions.
A naval base in any of these ports will allow the PLA to intrude on India’s sovereign waters by disrupting trade. This would give the PLA a big naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The same thing can be said for Sri Lanka. The Chinese government has sponsored a new port in Hambantota, which will likely be used as a naval base. With a naval base in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, China will effectively surround India on both sides and disrupt maritime operations.
Historically speaking, India has never projected power abroad. This is because India has always had to protect itself from foreign invaders. But now times are different, India no longer stands alone against its enemies. Through the QUAD, India is working with its allies to push back Chinese influence.
With allies on its side, India must use this as an opportunity to establish its overseas presence. If India wants to disrupt China’s maritime ambitions, it must open naval bases in the Indian Ocean near the nation of Maldives or around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These bases could potentially disrupt China’s BRI initiative in the region. Additionally, India should also conduct military drills with the QUAD in the Indian Ocean as a way of intimidating China.
More importantly, India should have an offensive strategy. Unlike the U.S., India rarely launches offensive military strikes. The Indian military defends itself from Pakistan’s incursions in Kashmir by launching cross-border attacks. To send a strong message to China, India must join the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. They must send ships to join the QUAD’s patrols in the Pacific. This offensive action will surprise China because they are the one’s usually poking India around.
At the same time, India must modernize its army. The 2019 standoff with Pakistan exposed India’s aging technology. The Indian Air Force was still using Soviet MiGs against Pakistan’s formidable fleet of F-16s. The New York Times estimates that nearly 68% of the Indian army’s weapons are “vintage.” India must modernize its military by purchasing the latest hardware from American or Russian suppliers. Their soldiers must be equipped with the right tools to fight China’s modern force.
By having a modern military and developing an offensive defense strategy, India can maintain an effective bulwark against China’s expansion. India must work closely with its allies to push back BRI from its area of influence. If India does not take proper steps to clamp down on China’s push, it risks being conquered by another foreign power.
Rohan Kumar is a senior at UC Riverside studying International Affairs. His focus is on Russian foreign policy and South Asian security affairs. He aspires to join the U.S. State Department. In his free time, he watches European soccer (football) and reads the Economist.