One of the most disquieting puzzles the Indian strategic community has been confronted with since 2020 are the sources of New Delhi’s underbalancing behaviour towards China. A lot has been written, not without reason, about the domestic political compulsions behind the BJP-led government’s chaotic China policy. And yet, does the answer to India’s underbalancing behaviour lay solely in domestic political considerations?
More so, how exactly should we characterise India’s underbalancing behaviour vis-à-vis the China threat? Does it amount to buckpassing (hoping someone else will deal with it), appeasement of the source of the threat itself (China), hiding from the threat altogether, or is it a combination of all these? Will going easy on China moderate China’s aggression? Or does New Delhi think that ignoring the China threat will make it disappear eventually?
India’s response to threat
To begin with, there is a growing consciousness within the government and the larger strategic community in India that China is a threat to India’s national security. There has been a clear shift of focus from the Line of Control (LoC) to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the consequent force redeployment has been considerable. There has also been some decisive effort to curtail India’s tech-coupling with China. And yet, there doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive assessment of the China threat, and an evaluation of potential Indian responses. What is missing is an unambiguous political commitment to meet the China threat. New Delhi’s China strategy is akin to closing one’s eyes and pretending it is dark around.
Needless to say, that the heart of the Indian approach is based on the belief that balancing China is fraught with risks. To begin with, it is neither possible nor desirable for India to actively man the entire LAC with China. Secondly, responding to China could potentially spread the fight, thereby creating more flashpoints on the LAC, something New Delhi wants to avoid. Thirdly, India’s underbalancing behaviour is also a result of the uncertain outcomes of a military escalation with a superior power.
And yet, there are also significant risks in the current strategy of underbalancing China. For one, given the absence of active Indian responses, a far more powerful China is likely to increase the tempo of its territorial pursuits. More so, underbalancing China also entails a lack of political clarity regarding the China threat and the articulation of redlines to meet that threat. This, in turn, leads to an uncertainty about what India’s friends and partners could or would do for India if there is a standoff with China.
There seems to be a strong strand of thinking in New Delhi that we should wait to build our capability to take on the China threat. But such a strategy of ‘threat postponement’ is based on misplaced optimism as China will continue to grow stronger than India. And by the time India catches up, if ever, it would be too late to take back the lost territory.
There may be some merit in the hypothesis that if there is no clear political articulation, China could exploit the policy confusion in New Delhi and keep probing the borders. But does unambiguous political articulation of the China threat and setting redlines by New Delhi help? Theoretically yes, but doing so is not without dangers.
The most important problem with clarity and articulation is an unavoidable commitment trap — if you do not follow through, your threats are hollow, thereby further emboldening China. But the most challenging part of articulating the source of threat and setting redlines is the danger of escalation. So New Delhi’s dilemma is this: while escalation is replete with uncertainty, non-escalation comes with slow but certain loss of territory.
In other words, while domestic political calculation might be prompting the government to insufficiently acknowledge the China threat, there are also other ‘understandable’ reasons behind the current strategy of underbalancing China. So, what indeed are New Delhi’s options in order to deal with the China threat?
One, potential strategy is calibrated escalation. New Delhi could employ a tit-for-tat strategy and consider occupying unmanned areas on the Chinese side. This is doable, but India must be prepared for similar actions from the Chinese side. Two, New Delhi could further raise the economic costs for China by reducing high tech Chinese imports in select areas. Three, it is perhaps an opportune moment for New Delhi to consider nuclear modernisation and perhaps even develop low yield weapons. Why not retest its thermonuclear weapons to strengthen its nuclear deterrence, thereby sending a message to Beijing?
Four, notwithstanding the accuracy of the argument that India’s growing strategic partnership with the U.S. is the reason behind China’s aggression, China’s aggression is indeed a good reason for New Delhi to strengthen its strategic partnership with the U.S. and the West. We must become more open and forthcoming about it. There must be more clarity on how India’s key strategic partnerships and defence agreements will come to its aid in the event of an escalatory situation with China. That Beijing will go easy on New Delhi if the latter goes slow with Washington is a dangerous expectation in the garb of a lazy argument. Underbalancing China has not helped, and it is now time to devise strategies to balance the China threat.
Happymon Jacob is the founder of Council for Strategic and Defence Research, and teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi