India’s foreign policy in 2020 faced two principal challenges, one particular to India and the other affecting the international community as a whole: China’s aggression in Ladakh and the Wuhan-origin pandemic. China’s pressures on the border have been an enduring feature of our bilateral ties. China has used the unsettled border to keep India off-balance, shaping India’s strategy of maintaining “peace and tranquility” and CBMs to avoid armed clashes. India has been pressing for a border settlement, with clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that China agreed to and then reneged on its commitment. Alongside, India agreed to separate the border issue from progress in ties in other areas, especially economic, including working together on international platforms where our respective positions can be mutually reinforcing.
File photo of PM Narendra Modi with Donald Trump.File photo of Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and with Xi Jinping.
This Indian strategy virtually collapsed in 2020 with China’s decision to unilaterally change the LAC in Ladakh. China has violated all the previous border management agreements (1993, 1996, 2005, 2012, 2013), effectively rendering them void for the future. So is the case with the core principles of the 2005 agreement on the guiding principles and parameters for settling the border. The value of the Special Representative (SR) mechanism which had already become less a vehicle for a settlement of the border on a political basis and more a mechanism to maintain a high-level dialogue to handle the overall relationship has been eroded.
China’s aggression has also politically devalued the pluri-lateral platforms on which India and China are together, such as the Russia-India-China (RIC) dialogue, BRICS and SCO. The gap between how China and India relate to each other bilaterally and on a wider pluri-lateral platform has widened. Lack of confidence in China bilaterally cannot but affect India’s approach to China regionally and internationally. If China can violate bilateral agreements to its advantage, it can do so equally with regard to multilateral understandings, especially as China has become more unilateralist in its thinking with its growing power. India has henceforth to consider very seriously to what extent through group cooperation it facilitates the achievement of China’s hegemonic ambitions. The power gap between China and its RIC, BRICS, SCO partners has grown to the point that it does not need these groups to promote its goals for which it has already established timelines. It can do so on its own with its economic and financial power through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and so on. China is now the biggest trade partner of most countries, and has developed constituencies all over the globe. Its equation with Russia has changed, to China’s advantage, with Russia needing China more than the reverse. Russia’s Western options have been circumscribed by US and European hostility, compelling it to turn towards China as a counterweight, even as China confronts the US, reaches out to Europe and takes advantage of Russia’s weakened position even in Europe.
The changed Russia-China equation has implications for India, and this has surfaced more openly in the recent critical comments by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad. Russia is effectively questioning the strategic legitimacy of these two geopolitical constructs whose main purpose is to circumscribe China’s ambitions, particularly maritime. China has for centuries not been a naval power, but today it is expanding its naval capacities at a pace no country has done before. The purpose obviously is to make its power felt in the maritime space, hitherto occupied preponderantly by the US in Asia. This presents a challenge to the countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The ASEAN countries, despite being victims of China’s maritime expansionism, lack the political will to counter China, which leaves the US, Japan, Australia and India, the non-ASEAN powers, to create a defensive ring against China’s expansionist polices.
Russia is a Pacific power but with limited naval capacities; it is also not seen as a threatening power in the region. Its economic penetration of the region is relatively limited. Russia is in no position to counter China’s maritime encroachments into the Indian Ocean, be it in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan. In this context, Russia’s objections to the Indo-Pacific and Quad construct do not seem valid from India’s point of view. To suggest that the US is trapping India into anti-Chinese games is not factual. India has genuine concerns about China’s conduct at the bilateral and regional levels, including its undermining of India’s ties with its close neighbours. It is constantly boosting Pakistan’s hostile capacities vis-à-vis India. Why Russia should ignore the massing of 50,000 Chinese troops in Ladakh to browbeat India is not clear. Russia’s larger concerns about India’s political and security shift towards the US affecting the depth of India-Russia traditional ties are understandable. Russia is no doubt concerned about the dilution of the SCO project as a vehicle for Asian security and stability. If so, it is China’s conduct that needs restraining, not the defences against it. Why we have not been able to establish better understanding with Russia on the China dimension of the threat we face is not clear. Russia has enough understanding of geopolitics and its own experience of China to appreciate India’s concerns. Unfortunately, we have seen public contestation between the two sides on the legitimacy and the future of the Indo-Pacific paradigm and the Quad. A more intensive dialogue with Russia on this issue is necessary to bridge the developing gap.
Despite its intensive provocation, India has continued to engage China in a dialogue, hoping to resolve the standoff peacefully, but at the same time by mirror deployments it has signalled to China that it is ready to defend itself. Some economic costs on China have been imposed, and more will follow as the standoff proceeds. India has now made it clear in various official statements that the earlier policy of separating the border issue from the overall relationship is no longer workable, as it was predicated on China adhering to the many signed border agreements and maintaining tranquility on the border. India’s demand for the restoration of the status quo ante will not be met by the Chinese as it will mean a military and political setback for President Xi Jinping. Such restoration does not serve India’s interests either beyond the short-term need to disengage and avoid an armed clash as it leaves the LAC unclear as before and will allow China to continue its salami slicing policies as in the past and create an incident as might suit its strategy of exerting control India’s foreign policy choices. From now on India’s foreign policy decisions in all domains—political, military, security, economic, technological, digital—will have the China factor in mind. The working relationship of the past based on some modicum of trust has been deeply vitiated.
2020 has brought to an end the Trump era in US and international politics. All eyes are turned towards the Biden presidency and the degree of continuity and change in US policies that we may see. India, despite the ravages of the Wuhan virus in the US and its own battle with this Chinese infestation at home, managed to maintain progress in bilateral ties. President Donald Trump visited India in February 2020, just before lockdowns began. Remarkably, India and the US physically held a further round of their 2+2 Dialogue (Foreign and Defence Ministers on both sides together) and signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, which, with China sitting on the border, sent a message of its own. This agreement gives India access to high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts and data exchange. The US has by all accounts been very supportive of specific India’s needs in view of China’s aggression in Ladakh.
While Brazilian President Bolsanaro was chief guest at R-Day 2020, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a virtual event with Nepal’s PM K.P. Sharma Oli, the outbreak of the pandemic compelled a resort to a virtual format for summit meetings. In March India held a virtual meeting with SAARC leaders and PM Modi participated in a G20 virtual summit in the same month. Other virtual summits in which India participated were NAM, SCO, ASEAN, East Asia Summit and BRICS. PM Modi held altogether 17 virtual summits with the leaders of Australia, European Union, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, A virtual summit meeting with Russia could not be held.
The Wuhan pandemic saw India taking the opportunity to project itself as the pharmacy of the world in view of its capacity to produce vaccines on a massive scale. India commercially supplied at the initial stages of the health crisis 560 million tablets of Hydrochloroquine and 53.3 metric tonnes of active pharmaceutical ingredient of HCQ to 82 countries, besides 154 million units of paracetamol and 1605 metric tonnes of API to 96 countries to counter the virus, gaining a lot of international goodwill as a result. India took up in various forums the issue of availability of vaccines at affordable prices to developing countries, a vital need at the time of this massive pandemic that has disrupted normal life across the world.
The writer is former Foreign Secretary. The views expressed are personal.