Will China bring about the End of Modi?
In the Mood of the Nation Poll by India Today, Narendra Modi, with 72% of the respondents rating his performance as outstanding to good, seems set to secure a third prime ministerial term with nearly half the respondents terming him the best Prime Minister ever. So, can anything stop the Modi juggernaut? The answer, maybe China!
An extremely popular Indian Prime Minister, a rising profile on the international high table, an erudite and eloquent foreign minister, an assertive military posture, an extended series of mini confrontations with China, a government in denial of Chinese land grab and then 1962. George Santayana, famously wrote, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ This article argues that India under Modi is committing a grave error by repeating the mistakes committed by Nehru instead of learning from the same.
In a recent article on India’s false hopes of brokering peace with China, the noted columnist, Brahma Chellaney notes that China does not want peace and tranquility, but a “hot” frontier with India. There are multiple factors which favor an aggressive approach of China towards India, including an escalation in the form of a short-sharp confrontation with India coupled with a unilateral partial withdrawal and ceasefire just like in 1962 which will both serve to teach India a lesson and yet prevent an all out war and a possible nuclear showdown. Such a scenario could be the only factor that can bring the downfall of Modi in 2024.
Reams of commentary has been written about China’s hierarchical world view. A feature by Thayer and Friend (2018) in the Diplomat posits that In the political domain, China seeks the triumph of authoritarianism in international politics. In the past, China’s view of international relations was based on hierarchy and status. Today, this hierarchical perception remains. Chinese paternalism shapes Beijing’s relations with countries perceived as inferior, be it China’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea or its aggression against India in the Himalayas. China sees itself as the hegemon of Asia and, as a result, is sensitive to foreign influence in the region and quick to respond aggressively to territorial disputes with neighboring countries. China’s imperial ideology can be clearly seen in statements made by President Xi Jinping on the “Chinese Dream,” particularly his emphasis on “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The Chinese communist party mouthpiece i.e. Global Times repeatedly highlights India both as a deviant as well as an inferior power and it seems logical enough that from time to time China sees it necessary to put India in its place. The aggression in the Himalayas and the recent incursions in Tawang need to be seen in the same light.
What further emboldens China is Modi government’s increasingly confusing China policy. India has been loath to impose any real economic or diplomatic costs on China and has steadfastly refrained from naming and shaming China for its expansionist creep, even as Beijing has raked up the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council. The government still uses euphemisms to describe the military crisis: “unilateral change of status quo” for China’s aggression; “friction points” for captured areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquility” for rollback of the Chinese intrusions and military deployments while the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece regularly blames India for the aggression.
The soft-pedalling of Chinese aggression can have disastrous repercussions for India as China may be encouraged to attempt a more aggressive strategy to achieve multiple geopolitical objectives. Amid its ongoing tussle with United States, and President Xi’s desire to etch his name in Chinese history by reunifying Taiwan with mainland China, aggression against India may serve multiple ends. Firstly, a quick short war with unilateral ceasefire with a return to pre-war status quo will temper India’s seemingly belligerent behavior in China’s eyes and also serve as a caution to India against cozying up too much with United States through mechanisms like Quad. The recent ongoings in the Ukrainian war would further embolden China where beyond material relief, no major western power has come directly to the aid of Ukraine and India by continuing to defy western sanctions on Russian oil and refraining from criticizing Russian aggression, would also in turn may find it difficult to countenance western support in the face of Chinese aggression.
Secondly, a limited confrontation with India would also send a message to the United States that China is willing to use force to further its territorial claims and any interference in Taiwan would imply direct costs to the United States. The fact that United States or any other western power is unlikely to get involved in a limited confrontation between India and China will also send a message to regional allies like Japan and Australia and may sound the death knell for Quad. The template for such a conflict has already been tested in May-June 2020 wherein other than platitudes about peace and tranquility, no world power came to India’s aid.
Strategically, China may attempt a calibrated conflict or a larger border incursion right before the general elections in India due in May-June 2024. The timing has multiple benefits. Firstly, attacking when the Indian establishment including a large portion of the security establishment is pre-occupied with the elections would provide China with a strategic edge and secondly any early incursions will be played down by the Indian establishment as has been the trend under the current dispensation to not appear weak before the electorate. This again will allow China to prepare and proliferate without check. Thirdly a calibrated conflict with a humiliating outcome for India will decimate the strongman image of Prime Minister right before the elections leading to a likely defeat. A Modi defeat would likely usher in a period of coalition governments in India helmed by weak leadership which is more pliable towards accepting China’s hegemonic status in Asia.
While an ongoing cycle of low intensity conflict with China seems inevitable for the foreseeable future, a larger escalation can still be avoided. India will be well served by firstly abrogating the ‘Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question (2005)’ which was a direct outcome of the, ‘Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China (2003)’ under which India formally “recognized” the cartographically truncated Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” This recognition allowed China to advance its “salami slicing” strategy against India, including labelling Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet” and gradually increasing its incursions into Indian areas. That agreement has since been nullified by China’s open violation of its key provisions, including that, “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other.” China’s use of force to unilaterally change facts on the ground contravenes the agreement’s condition to “maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas” and work towards “the clarification of the Line of Actual Control.” Calling out China’s duplicity through the abrogation and unambiguously recognizing the land grabbed by China since 2020 and thus calling for restoration of status quo in multilateral forums will also give China a reason to pause fearing international condemnation and isolation much like Russia.
Secondly, India should increase the economic costs of aggression for China by cutting down on Chinese imports. India effectively underwrites China’s aggression by financing 11.5% of China overall trade surplus of $878 billion. This cannot be done overnight as Indian value chains have a large exposure with China but a gradual decoupling with a clear messaging that trade, and aggression cannot work together may work to temper China without aggravating the current situation.
Lastly, embracing the security aspect of Quad instead of obfuscating it under the guise of trade would serve to give China a reason for pause. Accepting new members like Vietnam and South Korea as well as France under the Quad+ format would help ring fence China much like what China has done over the years in the SAARC region. A Quad operating like a quasi-regional security alliance would also serve as a deterrent against an expansionist China.
In conclusion, there are three key takeaways from this article. Firstly, only when China’s sees real costs, both economic and military, will it brook restraint. Secondly, a bully like China cannot be stopped from a position of weakness but only from a position of strength. Thirdly, we should look to our past and learn from our mistakes to prepare for the future aka 1962.
Otherwise, China may well herald the end of the Modi-era.