Ask most security analysts, political observers, international relations experts or even your average layperson on the street, and they’d say India’s biggest security threat is Pakistan. After all we’ve shared a long and fraught history since Partition, fought four wars with them and endured terror attacks emanating from their soil. Unsurprisingly, much of Indian foreign policy and defence strategy has been oriented vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Unfortunately, India’s preoccupation with Pakistan could cost us since it has meant we have neglected other hostile neighbours, particularly China. The result is events such as the ongoing Sino-India border standoff, in which China has been calling for the independence of Sikkim. Another negative fallout is that the India-Pakistan conflict has literally hyphenated the two nations, bringing them on the same level as one another.
Our policymakers have not seen China as India’s “peer” (unlike Pakistan). Thus, India hasn’t really tried to balance out China even in South Asia.
Now, both these factors have clear disadvantages for India. Firstly, the “internationalisation” of the Indo-Pak conflict has put the two states as “equal players” on many international forums, almost to the extent where analysts of global politics take the names of these two countries in same breath. Despite being a smaller state than India, in almost every aspect, Pakistan has had the audacity to look India eye to eye. Much of this owes to the fact that India has traditionally punched “below its weight” while Pakistan has done the opposite.
The second problem is much bigger. Because India has been so engrossed in dealing with Pakistan, China’s growing power goes “unchecked”. There is a deeper problem behind this—our policymakers have not seen China as India’s “peer” (unlike Pakistan). Thus, India hasn’t really tried to balance out China even in South Asia. That is evident in the fact that China has much deeper economic ties with most of India’s immediate neighbours than India does.
If one goes back in history, the journeys of India and China as independent nation states started around the same time. While India won independence in 1947, the Chinese followed suit in 1949. Yet today, China is miles ahead of India today in terms of its growth story. China’s “great leap” laid the foundations of the strong and powerful state that it is today, both militarily as well as economically.
China of today is a “rising power” in international system with one of the largest economies in the world. The sheer size of the Chinese market is huge, while Chinese products continue to flood international markets. Such economic clout shifts the balance of power towards China. The economy is one of the factors acting as a ‘deterrent’ between two states in conflict. With the sheer size of the Chinese economy, the ‘deterrent’ power of China simultaneously goes up. India, having a huge consumer market for Chinese goods, has also got a deterrence power of its own. It’s argued that there can’t be a full scale Indo-China war because both sides would be losing hugely financially, but political disputes over borders may yet take precedence.
The time has come to re-orient our defence policies. Pak-centric policies won’t do much good to India in the longer run.
Indian policymakers need to also understand the fact China and Pakistan are all-weather friends. This complicates matters considerably. Yes, India does have international allies but how much can they be relied on? In 1962, when the Indo-China war happened, the then Soviet Union didn’t come in support of India openly against China, despite being India’s all-weather friend then.
Surely, the India of today is a much bigger power than the India of 1962. India’s capabilities have increased but so have China’s. India is a nuclear power state now but again, so is China. It’s high time India develops home-grown defence technologies to reduce the fiscal burden of imports.
To sum up, the time has come to re-orient our defence policies. Pak-centric policies won’t do much good to India in the longer run. Once India engages to maintain balance of power vis-à-vis China, it would emerge as a much stronger power than it is today. Such a feat will take time and patience but if India succeeds, its influence will grow both in its immediate as well as extended neighbourhood. It will also stymie China’s march towards becoming a regional hegemon.