Anticipating the Unintended #43 The China Question + Dispelling The Many Myths Of Our Readers Part #2

This newsletter is really a public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

Welcome to the mid-week edition in which we write essays on a public policy theme. The usual public policy review comes out on weekends.

We received many new queries from our readers after our last gyaan session with Prof Arthananda Ilyich Smith-Hayek (AISH). This wasn’t a surprise. People have a lot of time on their hands these days. When the clock is counting down the 30 seconds between episodes 3 and 4 of Snowpiercer on Netflix, they settle in for deep contemplation about the business of life. That’s when they come up with the kind of questions they have sent us. Soon, episode 4 starts, Nikki is murdered (happy belated spoiler alert to you) and life goes on.

A Word on the Conflict at the LAC

But before we get into them, there’s the other set of questions about India-China conflict at LAC in Ladakh. There’s dearth of information about the on-the-ground situation. There’s not a lot that you can take away from the official positions of both sides. The situation has escalated and India’s official statement yesterday suggested China had intruded into its territory.

We have written about the post-pandemic world order and two-level games in previous editions that partly explains the timing of this conflict. There are conjectures by talking heads all over but with such sketchy details we don’t have any framework on offer to understand this now.

Instead, we have these 5 questions.

Q1: Why is China flexing its muscles across so many fronts – Hong Kong, South China Sea, Vietnam, Philippines, India?

A1: Because it can, and it believes it can get away with it now. This is the privilege of the strong.

Q2: Why is it doing now? Everything that India has been doing on its side of LAC was going on for years.

A2: Because it must. Merely getting away with something isn’t the reason why a country will act on it. The timing is determined by its compulsions.

Q3: Why is it a must?

A3: This is where conjectures start. Distracting its people’s attention away from oncoming economic hardships, domestic political compulsions, regional assertion and showing India its place, global hegemonic ambitions, responding to a provocation or a combination of all of these – who knows?

Q4: How is this likely to play out now?

A4: At the tactical level, this might escalate a bit but is likely to settle down thereafter. The reason being that both sides are trying to downplay the opposite side’s role in the fight in their statements and conduct.

At the strategic level though, China has alienated India and Indians for a long, long time. India’s answers to questions on Huawei’s 5G, BRI, relationship with US-Australia-Japan-Taiwan, Indian Ocean presence, have all become clearer than before. Because this is a game of relative power, these countries are more likely to come together now despite their differing interests.

On the other hand, the risk is that GoI might choose to increase protectionism in the false belief that India can hurt China in the economic domain through tariffs.

Q5: What should we do?

A5: The PLA has encroached into our territory and insists it is theirs. That’s why the dispute. Generally, such disputes are resolved by an equivalent tactical action from the Indian side but this time maybe we waited for too long, perhaps for a decision to filter down from the top. It is difficult to push the Chinese back now from where they are. China has used this fait accompli strategy with many of its neighbours.

Our best bet is to use a combination of diplomatic, political, and military instruments to seek ex ante status on either side of LAC. Lt Gen Prakash Menon, a decorated officer, who has years of experience commanding forces on the LAC, has this advice in ThePrint:

The Narendra Modi government must take a political stand and stop underplaying the issue. Such a stand must be founded in the trust that the Indian military is not a pushover and can match the Chinese in escalation, which must necessarily be backed by political will. India must remind itself that military capability and valor cannot be a substitute for defective policy. China is a bully and when viewed in the larger global context, India must base its risk calculations on relative power and not get taken in by its absolute power. China has enough trouble of its own, and India has the capacity to weaken its capability for its primary problems in Taiwan and South China Sea. The main point is that the playbook is a mind game.

In the medium-term, we must pursue an Indo-Pacific alliance with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and Japan that have a common interest in keeping a rising and coercive China in check and that can act in tandem during a face-off with China. India needs to invest in what we call an Aggressive China Insurance Policy. The motive of this policy is simple: should PRC get aggressive with India, India should have readily available capacity to inflict significant pain to China in return. The insurance “premium” for this policy includes a variety of measures:

  1. Establish contacts with the key members of the World Uyghur Congress and other such organisations.
  2. Shift the focus of “Act East/Look East” to one country — Vietnam.
  3. Offer Trump deals that can deepen the US-India engagement.
  4. Sponsor studies that puncture the “Chinese Leaders Do No Wrong” narrative.

We have been caught off guard multiple times and it is necessary to improve our border surveillance infrastructure and intelligence. The lessons from Kargil haven’t been fully learnt. And the 21 years since Kargil have been split equally between UPA and NDA. Blaming army, past governments and Nehru will only help save face with the base. Nothing more.

Lastly, there’s only matsyanyaya in international relations. The long-term solution is economic growth and prosperity that translates to geopolitical and geoeconomic strengths. That’s how China got here in the first place.

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.