India could lead a middle-power response to China in the Asia-Pacific

The shock waves of China’s aggressive approach to Asian politics are finally being felt in New Delhi. Since early May, India and China have been locked in battles along their Himalayan border. During ongoing efforts to de-escalate the crisis, the two countries agreed to create buffer zones and suspend border patrols, which some Indian analysts say will undermine New Delhi’s territorial claims in the Ladakh region.

India has long tried to remain non-aligned in Asian geopolitics, despite growing ties with the United States. It has made significant concessions on Tibet and Taiwan and generally treads cautiously in the South China Sea. It has remained silent on Chinese actions in Xinjiang and largely quiet on Hong Kong.

New Delhi has also been careful not to offend Beijing’s sensitivities over its internal politics, sometimes even at the cost of about-turns: in 2016, for instance, prominent dissident leaders from China planned a conference in India to discuss the prospects for democracy in their country. New Delhi facilitated the conference at first, granting visas to the attendants. But following Beijing’s dismay over the event, the Indian government revoked the visas.

In the aftermath of the stand-off on the border, however, there is much soul-searching taking place in New Delhi. India is now rethinking its China policy and looking for ways to build deterrence, especially given the disparity in military and economic power between the two countries. And it now has an opportunity to do this by leading a middle-power response to China in the Asia-Pacific.

India is not the only country presently warding off aggression from Beijing in the region. Take the South China Sea: in early July, Vietnam and the Philippines expressed alarm over Chinese military drills near the Paracel Islands. A few days later, Malaysia said that China had intruded into its international waters as many as 89 times in the last four years.

Then, Japan released a white paper that accused China of “relentless” intrusions to “alter the status quo in the East China Sea”. Meanwhile, China’s relations with Australia have deteriorated, culminating in Beijing’s trade measures against Australia.

For years, the most obvious counterweight to Chinese influence in the region was the United States. But under US President Donald Trump, Washington has only added to the complications. The US has recently stood up to China on various issues: this month, Washington levied sanctions on Chinese officials over their government’s repressive action in Xinjiang. Then, Washington ended its preferential trade treatment of Hong Kong, following Beijing’s imposition of a national security law.

Yet, on the other hand, Trump has also proved to be a volatile and unreliable ally to countries in the region. Soon after becoming president, he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also cast doubt on his administration’s commitment to the defence of Japan and South Korea. This month, former US national security adviser John Bolton said that Trump cannot be counted on to support India in the event of a Chinese attack.

With elections this year and a battered economy following Covid-19, the US’ retreat is likely to continue. What Asia needs is a collective middle-power response as a balance against China. This is where India can play a role.

India has long steered clear of the geopolitical concerns of other countries in the region and played cautious. While New Delhi has stepped up bilateral military cooperation with countries like Vietnam, it has generally stayed silent on politically sensitive issues.

In 2016, for instance, when China refused to abide by an international tribunal ruling on its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines, India chose not to explicitly call out Beijing. But India must now speak out more vocally on the concerns of other countries in the Asia-Pacific – and back that with deeper cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, Australia and others.

India must similarly speak up for Hong Kong and Taiwan – both of which are integral to economic activity and stability in the entire region.

India should complement this shift in its foreign policy with a more open economic policy. Despite being among the largest economies in the world, India has had little leverage over China. While China is the largest source of imports to India, these imports account for less than 3 per cent of China’s total exports. By contrast, Vietnam – whose economy is less than a tenth of India’s – makes up a larger share of China’s exports pie.

Much of this is due to years of trade protectionism in India, which has curtailed the country’s influence in the region. India’s decision to sit out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was a missed opportunity. And New Delhi’s current unofficial boycott of economic ties with China in response to the recent tensions will also prove counterproductive.

The Asia-Pacific does not want a confrontation between the world’s two largest nations, but it does need a balance of power between competing alliances to deter mutual aggression. India should step up and fill the leadership vacuum in the region.

(c) 2020, South China Morning Post