The Cold War between China and the United States is being ‘fought’ at multiple fronts—in the South China Sea, in Afghanistan, in parts of the Middle East, in eastern Europe, across the Pacific and in various ‘economic theatres’ (i.e. trade war). But the ‘warmest’ front of this Cold War, however, remains the stand-off between India and China—which has resulted in loss of more than 1,000 Km/Sq of Indian land.
Clearly, India has no response to China in Ladakh. Or in Sikkim. Or Arunachal Pradesh. The shutting down of a few dozen apps (e.g. TikTok) and restrictions on Chinese companies, cannot be considered a commensurate response to loss of actual land area and death of uniformed soldiers.
So, what ‘real’ options does India have against China? Well, the answer (sadly for India) is hard to ascertain. Can India opt to reclaim its territory through conventional war? No; China is far superior in its military and technological capabilities. Can India negotiate a return of its land? Does not seem likely; even after dozens of rounds of talk, there has been no meaningful breakthrough.
Can India call its ‘allies’ to its military aid? Not really; if it could, it would have done so by now. Can India participate in the Pacific theatres to cause troubles for China? No; India is having trouble holding on to its own territory and waters. Dabbling in the Pacific seems like empty rhetoric of an ill-found ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy.
So, what can India do? The most plausible option, if India can muster the courage for it, is to choke the Malacca Straits, which forms a critical bottleneck in China’s oil supply and trade routes. Will India be foolish enough to do this, thereby tempting further aggression from China? Unlikely.
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Still, cognisant of the risks in Malacca Straits, China has already started to look for alternative routes; some other way to access the Indian Ocean for trade and oil supply lines. This, for now, includes two options: 1) CPEC, through Pakistan, which forms the most convenient access route to the Indian Ocean; and 2) The Thai Canal, cutting through Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, the narrowest point of the Malay peninsula, which would open a second sea route from China to the Indian Ocean.
This Thai Canal, or Kra Canal, would allow the Chinese navy to quickly move ships between its newly constructed bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, sidestepping more than 700 miles around Malaysia, through the Malacca Strait. And for this, China has offered Thailand up to $30 billion to dig the canal.
These two routes, once functional, would kill the (already dying) Indo-Pacific dreams of curtailing China and its Belt and Road Initiative in the region. By extension, it would also serve as a final nail in the Indian coffin of portraying itself as a counterweight to China in this region.
The ill-conceived idea of ‘Indo-Pacific’, built upon India’s promise to counter China in this region, dates back to 2018. Specifically, on May 30, 2018, the United States Defence Secretary of the time (Jim Mattis) announced that Pentagon’s Pacific Command was being renamed as ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, giving India a larger role in the Pacific theatre, in pursuit of containing and countering China.
This was a significant policy shift in Washington. It symbolised that Delhi had convinced the Pentagon that it could serve as a counterweight to China in the Pacific theatre, while also destabilising China’s economic interest across the region—in particular the CPEC project.
At the time, no one knew whether India would deliver on its promise. Could it really act as a counterweight to China in this region? Would it be able to help the United States ‘contain’ China and its growing power? India certainly claimed that it could. That was the very reason for its de-linking with South Asia and introduction in the Pacific theatre.
However, the past year or so has exposed India’s bluff. As China infiltrated through the borders of Indian-held Ladakh, claiming important vantage points in Pangong Lake and the Galwan Valley, there has been no real resistance or counter from India. Not even a peep. In fact, the one time that India tried some adventurism, it lost 20 of its soldiers, without winning an inch of land back from China.
According to available reports (including those from India), the Chinese walked into Ladakh with virtually no resistance from the Indian Army and since then have refused to entertain discussion on returning the territory. Not just that, emboldened by Chinese actions, Nepal also claimed territory within Indian boundary and the Eastern areas of Nagaland et al are also shunning the grip of Indian State.
Bangladesh has signed commitments with China for inclusion in the BRI. Sri Lanka has leased its Colombo port to China. Myanmar is being supported by China. Iran has signed a long-term strategic deal with China. Taliban are willing to talk to China, as and when they form a government in Afghanistan. China has continued to expand their influence (and military presence) across the Indian Ocean (including Gwadar), with no real challenge or interference from India.
All attempts by India to involve its coalition partners from the Quad (i.e. United States, Australia and Japan) have fallen on deaf ears. Except for a few token statements by the Australian Prime Minister, Japan and Australia do not seem to have any desire to enter into a conflict with China or its growing influence across the region.
So, in the circumstances, what happened to the whole idea of Indo-Pacific? Serious policy circles, in Washington and across the globe, are asking what benefit can India provide in the Pacific (against the Chinese) if they cannot even retrieve their own (claimed) territory from China? If its forces cannot face the Chinese military in Ladakh, can India really be expected to send warships to the South China Sea? Or into the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean? Can it curtail or hinder the CPEC route, when it is having trouble keeping the Chinese at bay in Sikkim?
And if India cannot stand up to China—especially now, when the United States needs it the most—what is the purpose of having an ‘Indo’ Pacific strategy? In the circumstances, India is a mere liability for the United States. Not only can it not counter China, it may help destroy the myth of powerful Western alliances in the region.
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India’s bluff has been called. And without firing so much as one bullet, China has put India back in the box that it belongs: a developing nation in South Asia. Not a regional player in the Indo-Pacific.
This demise of the Indo-Pacific dream is a staggering loss of face for India on the international stage. And coupled with recent developments in Afghanistan, India might find itself back where it started: as Pakistan’s jingoistic neighbour, who is at daggers drawn with the new global power in this region.
Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared in The Nation under the title, “Indian failure in the Indo-Pacific” and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.