India’s embattled government cannot draw much comfort from US President Joe Biden’s promise (or was it a threat?) to lead an alliance of global democracies against the world’s autocracies, with specific reference to the challenge that Comm-unist China presents.
But then, does the government at all feel embattled? Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcements, bland when not boastful, suggest that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Evidence to the contrary can be brushed aside, as Mr Modi has told us that “neither have they (the Chinese) intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them”. Why then the defensive rhetoric, the emphasis on security in a region that we are flattered to note has been dubbed the “Indo-Pacific”? Why, too, the “Quad”, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with the United States, Japan and Australia which everyone, the Chinese especially, see as countering Beijing?
True, “20 of our jawans were martyred” in hand-to-hand combat with the People’s Liberation Army in eastern Ladakh. But we can gloat over the revelation that “those who dared Bharat Mata, they were taught a lesson”.
Were they? Mr Modi has no doubts. India is so mighty “that no one can eye even one inch of our land”. It’s the Chinese who should quake in their boots for “India’s armed forces have the capability to move into multiple sectors at one go”. It would be interesting to hear what defence officials have to say about that. Or diplomatists. Or the external affairs minister, with his experience of Beijing where he represented India from 2009 to 2013.
Far from indulging in braggadocio or inviting ridicule, Mr Biden used his first official overseas trip to mobilise support against his country’s two main perceived adversaries. Problems with Russia revive the Cold War postures that were briefly laid to rest during Mikhail Gorbachev’s time. But China, whose all-powerful ruling Communist Party is celebrating its centenary next month and which has now sent three astronauts into orbit to become the only country to own and run its own space station, is seen as the real threat of the future. Of course, China rejects the view of North Atlantic Treaty Organi-sation leaders that its rise presents “systemic challenges” for the world. When Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, levelled that charge in Brussels, China promptly accused Nato of “slandering” its “peaceful development”. Being committed to a “defensive” defence policy, China did “not present ‘systematic challenges’ to anyone” but would “not sit by and do nothing if ‘systematic challenges’ come closer to us”.
Echoes of the arguments that preceded the first Opium War (1839–1842) between Qing China and Britain can be heard all over again. Then, the British reported that the Chinese hoped there would be “much talkee-talkee” before “fightee-fightee”. This time round it’s the West that appears to be sending pacific smoke signals even while the defiant talk gets louder.
The main reason why there might not be any serious friction after all lies in the disclosure that in the last few weeks, top Chinese and US trade and treasury officials have engaged in a series of virtual chats on the business of doing business. China has invested substantially in British companies as well as public utilities. The US, the European Union and Japan are among China’s biggest trade partners, with exports and imports totalling more than $1,660 billion. Neither side will easily risk that.
India can expect even less sympathy (and no support!) from Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose collective trade with China jumped last year to $731.9 billion, making Asean China’s largest trading partner for the first time while China remained Asean’s largest trading partner for the 12th successive year.
Vietnamese or Filipino grievances in the South China Sea or Malaysia’s complaint about Chinese military aircraft intruding into its Exclusive Economic Zone are not likely to be vigorously or collectively pursued when trade registers seven per cent growth.
China has also redefined aid to make it an integral feature of about 60 developing countries that can expect $500 billion from Beijing over the next few years, while President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative could mobilise $1 trillion of Chinese state financing. Conventional aid plays only a marginal role in China’s commerce-is-development vision of growth as articulated by Justin Yifu Lin, a former World Bank chief economist and author of the book Going Beyond Aid. More than 100 countries have joined BRI projects, of which there were more than 2,600 costing $3.7 trillion in mid-2020. Beijing says that the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously affected about 20 per cent of them.
The G-7 representatives whom Mr Biden met in England at the start of his European mission enthusiastically supported his Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, an alternative to the BRI, and promised to “collectively catalyse hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment”. While China’s focus is on big-ticket projects in traditional infrastructure — like Sri Lanka’s $1.4 billion Hambantota Port — Mr Biden’s plan will focus on climate, health and health security, digital technology, gender equity and equality. That doesn’t suggest direct competition. But the commitment to “rally the world’s democracies to meet the challenges” of dictatorship, human rights abuse and forced labour identifies the target easily enough.
These are worthy aims in keeping with the lofty vision of the nation whose Marshall Plan rescued Europe from the ravages of World War II. But they are not of as much gripping interest in war-torn Yemen or famine-stricken Somalia as the BRI’s promised ports, highways, airports and dams. Whether or not the promises will be kept is another matter but the hope generates at least initial support.
Various factors make India the odd man out in this contest for hearts and minds. It cannot promise lavish help like the BRI or B3W. It doesn’t brandish an ideological banner like the United States. So far as anyone knows, the dispute is only over territory, and rocky, inhospitable, uninhabited terrain at that. And if India’s Prime Minister is to be believed, there is no aggression either.
So, what are we fighting about? And why do we need the Quad?