Continuing decades of pressure on India’s borders, China has recently upped the ante on the high plateau of Ladakh, a remote part of the disputed Kashmir region that is mostly Shiite Muslim and Buddhist, now under direct control from New Delhi. Reports are that China is building out an airbase to accommodate more combat aircraft, increasing tensions between the two countries that date to the Dalai Lama’s exile to India in 1959 and the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
Contemporaneously, and while the world’s attention is directed at the coronavirus, Hong Kong, a trading center connecting East and West with the rule of law, is now the target of increased hostility from the Mainland.
A strategic response to counteract China is called for, and it must be led by the United States; no other country has the resources and influence.
Much of the world is at a loss about how to contain China’s increasingly deceitful and aggressive behavior. The Chinese government’s deceptions over COVID-19 are an assault on the planet Earth. The sins of the country’s leadership are legion: willfully and knowingly withholding information about the spreading deadly disease, claiming falsely that it could not be transmitted among people, persecuting those of the medical profession who gave warning, permitting international flights in and out of Wuhan that seeded the world, hoarding vital PPE supplies to profit from the chaos, and then exporting faulty equipment, while pretending to act like the fire brigade.
Antipathy toward the Chinese Communist Party will be a driving force in the United States, Europe, and Japan as multinational companies restructure their supply chains and moderate their direct investment in China. But this will take time, and the West and Japan will also feel the economic pain of contracting markets. There is also the question of whether or not this commercial realignment will be enough to moderate China’s increasingly aggressive behavior. Naval tensions and militarization of the South China Sea are well known, as is the suppression of China’s own Muslim Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority.
While stricken by COVID-19, countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East that need Chinese money for development will downplay resentment and sideline themselves.
China has several Achilles’ heels. Being hated by some of your own people is not a win/win approach to governance. Denying human rights has not been a successful long-term strategy, as the collapse of monarchies, and fascist and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, has shown. The forces of technology and aspirations of youth can cross borders — being difficult for the Politburo to subdue over time. And the one-child policy imposed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s is resulting in a weaker social safety net to support senior citizens.
A strategic response to counteract China is called for, and it must be led by the United States; no other country has the resources and influence. Eventually, Europe may similarly engage, but it is politically fragmented and has a history of favoring trade and investment over being a security partner with regard to the developing world.
The United States cannot go it alone. It needs a partner with moral authority, as well as economic and military scale. India is already a success story in American foreign policy over several decades. The strategic necessities that bind us, as I have written in these pages, are fear of China, vulnerability to Islamist jihad, and the scope for trade and investment in a country that has increasingly adopted free market principles and is now the world’s fifth largest economy.
India’s moral authority is derived from its independence struggle to throw off the British Raj through Satyagraha, or passive civil resistance. Led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and others of the freedom movement, India’s attainment of independence also gave impetus to other decolonization in Southeast Asia and Africa. Even today, a capitalist India has a moral platform, a voice borne of struggle for human rights. Who better to reach out to the Chinese people?
The United States is seen in some quarters as the heir, successor, and assignee of the British Empire after World War II, maintaining a rules-based order and freedom of the seas. For India to accept this and partner with the United States suggests a realistic view of threat definition. While not a peer of China in a conventional conflict, India is nonetheless ranked fourth in global military strength by some estimates. India could be more imposing — if partnered with the United States.
The U.S. and India already conduct extensive military exercises, and naval logistics cooperation and the sharing of intelligence and encryption platforms are in place. What is needed is a highly visible game-changer to deter China, focusing on the electronic battlefield of the future. Indeed, there is already a race between the United States and China in technologies like 5G development, Artificial Intelligence, lasers and space platforms, the use of unmanned vehicles, and electronic warfare to destroy or immobilize strategic infrastructure. A nuclear power with lunar aspirations, and software development and IT probably second only to Silicon Valley, India has the scientific establishment and human resources to undertake a joint venture with the United States, as guardians of outer space for a more secure world.
The United States has experience in containing formidable countries; it won the Cold War without firing a shot, in part by outspending the Soviet Union on defense. Similarly, the United States and India may limit China’s aspirations by outcompeting China in electronic technology for defense.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago in international banking. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago.