India and NATO~II

No doubt, India has not been sitting idle all this while. Besides QUAD, which is a formal strategic ‘partnership’, India has been forging strategic bilateral ‘partnerships’ with littoral democracies that are similarly under threat by an openly aggressive China, such as Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Mauritius, Seychelles, Malaysia etc.

India and NATO~II


No doubt, India has not been sitting idle all this while. Besides QUAD, which is a formal strategic ‘partnership’, India has been forging strategic bilateral ‘partnerships’ with littoral democracies that are similarly under threat by an openly aggressive China, such as Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Mauritius, Seychelles, Malaysia etc. But none of these bilateral defence partnerships is a formal military alliance. In the event of a war with China, it is anybody’s guess if they will actively support India or merely support resolutions backing ‘poor’ India in the UN.

And join the loud chorus condemning Big Brother China and whole-heartedly extending strong “moral” support to “peaceful, democratic India”. Historically, China has always been the dominant power in Asia, or so it perceives itself to be. European major powers are different. When not at war, they have maintained peace through a ‘balance of power’. For centuries, these powers ~ Great Britain, Prussia, France, Spain, Italy, Russia etc. have learnt to live with one another after prolonged armed conflicts had exhausted them, both materially and emotionally.

This went on for centuries, till the end of World War II. In the 20th century, the rise of the trans-Atlantic USA and the appearance of small and medium powers in Europe, and the spread of democracy induced European powers to unite and protect themselves against autocracy. The destructive power of modern technology, especially atomic and nuclear power, acted as a great catalyst for peace. NATO was born. China was an altogether different story in Asia. For two thousand years, it was the Middle Kingdom ruled by Emperors and independent warlords in the outlying provinces. Since the dominant Yellow Race comprised the biggest Empire in Asia, it was surrounded by small kingdoms and races that bought their survival and existence through tributes to the Asian overlord. Largely unchallenged, and aided by geography, the Chinese Empire did not force their hegemony on their neighbours, including maritime countries.


As India was hardly a unified nation till the advent of the British in the 19th century, the concept of ‘balance of power’ in Asia amongst various nations has been somewhat alien to Indian strategic thinking. In the 21st century however, Asia is like it was never before. The Chinese Empire is a modern nation united, or shall we say unified, by a central Communist tyranny. India meanwhile is a united, powerful nation through the magic of its modern Constitution and the marvelous British legacy of strategic dimension in its foreign policy.

The existing order dictates a replication of the ‘balance of power’ in Asia, something that is proving to be anathema to Chinese communists. After decades of economic rivalry, democratic India has outpaced the ‘command’ economy of a Communist state. It is a modern marvel, something that our giant neighbour finds hard to stomach. History repeats itself, the European story now repeating in Asia. It is to maintain peace ~ a ‘balance of power’ in Asia between the two major powers.

But the concept is not acceptable to the Chinese, used as they are historically to receive tributes from its small Asian neighbours. The concept is missing from the Chinese political lexicon. As a consequence, India is at the receiving end, facing an existential threat. Lenin, the founder of the Communist movement when confronted with a similar insurmountable challenge famously asked: What is to be done? A time has come when India needs to ask itself the same question. Looking to the current geo-political scenario, apply for NATO membership, so to say. Or, more accurately, re-apply. By definition, India is not eligible. It is not an Atlantic power.

Believe it or not, it first applied, so to say, for admission in 1962, as revealed recently in declassified official documents made public by the then Indian Ambassador to US, B.K. Nehru. The Chinese had suddenly attacked India without provocation and rapidly advanced right up to the Assam valley. There was panic in New Delhi and Prime Minister Nehru sent an SOS to the US President for immediate air cover. He offered to the Americans to let US pilots fly Indian aircraft and bomb the advancing Chinese troops all along the border in the Eastern sector. But equally suddenly, the Chinese announced a ceasefire and halted its advance. Incidentally, the US was the military leader of NATO then as it is now. Though India is vastly superior today in terms of military strength and capability, the question survives if India can take on the Chinese on its own. The border dispute remains unresolved.

The two opposing armies remain in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in the disputed Northern land border for three years plus. There is an altogether new dimension to Chinese expansionism, and that is extending its maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. It has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea. This is happening for the first time in the 21st century, after it has developed the world’s largest Naval force. It has started laying claims to numerous uninhabited islands. It is developing AI (artificial islands) faster than the other AI (artificial intelligence) for the PLA to own these.

All credit to Indian diplomacy to organize QUAD to counter the growing maritime Chinese threat. With the US as the senior ‘partner’, the other two are friendly Asian democracies under similar threat ~ Japan and Australia. But India is the only QUAD nation sharing a long land border with China, the other three are under maritime threat. The next question arises, what is the nature of the longterm threat? As of now, the Chinese are a continuing threat to our Eastern border. The concern should be about the Chinese long-term strategy in the Eastern sector, coveting a mountainous terrain where, in the famous (or infamous) words of late Krishna Menon, former Defence Minister, “not a blade of grass grows”. It could be just feigning, looking at the current overall Chinese behaviour.

They are currently focusing their attention on Taiwan, with their unprovoked brinkmanship in the Taiwan Strait. As the Chinese, somewhat uncharacteristically, are openly threatening to use force to take over Taiwan, the Strait will become a Chinese lake, affecting India’s growing trade with its East Asian friends. According to India’s former Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, the loss of the Taiwan Strait will severely affect half of India’s trade flow to the East. It will disrupt supply chains in India’s key export sectors such as pharma and electronics. Disruption in submarine cables will affect the flow of data between India and the Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, Taiwan is in a very unenviable position.

A vibrant democracy, the Chinese have relentlessly pressurized an overwhelming number of UN members to de-recognize it in terms of its self-proclaimed ‘One China’ policy, i.e. Beijing. The only major power halfrecognizing it is the US. In the event of an attack on Taiwan, US policy is strategically ambiguous. India appears to have no policy in such an eventuality. This is disturbing for a nation that will be most adversely impacted. In the memorable words of Mr Gokhale, India’s “hope” that the Chinese will not use force is akin to the policy of the ostrich in burying its head deep in the sand. As Galbraith put it memorably, the tragedy of India in 1962 was that some Indian ruling politicians had raised “hope” to the level of strategy

ASHOK KAPUR The writer is a retired IAS officer