US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in India recently ostensibly to discuss Afghanistan and China. Both the US and India find themselves on the losing side in Afghanistan so what was there for two losers to discuss? China is more interesting. China’s rapid rise has stunned the US. The US is determined to stymie China, but can it?
In a last-ditch effort of its China-containment strategy, it has roped in India in a militar y scheme called Quad, which also comprises Japan and Australia. Policy makers in India since Atal Behari Vajpayee became PM have been enamoured of the US. It could be that in 1998 when the BJP came to power it really didn’t have a fructified foreign policy. It was the heyday of the US then, and the BJP desperately wanted to latch onto it.
But why blame the BJP alone? Manmohan Singh as PM was even more fascinated by the US. Times change but countries’ policies remain the same. The US is no longer the hyperpower it once was. It is still a superpower, but a receding one. China is the ascendant superpower. Everywhere one looks – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen – the US is in retreat.
Everywhere one looks – South Asia, Africa – the Chinese seem to be gaining power. The momentum then is squarely with the Chinese. India has a much smaller navy than either the US or China. The China-containment strategy of the Quad goes somewhat like this.
The Australians sit out because they are insignificant. The US mounts a challenge by sea against China. Japan supports the US. The Indians take the Chinese by land and air. Disengagement is happening along the line of actual control between China and India. Supporters of the Quad quite possibly feel that it is the pressure exerted by it that is making the Chinese talk and disengage.
In their fanciful world, they also believe that because of the fear of the Quad, the Chinese will talk to the Taliban (and the Taliban’s sponsor and China’s iron brother Pakistan) to desist from launching a jihad in Kashmir. So India’s membership of the Quad is paying all-round dividends.
But think for a second what China wants. It’s still a middleincome country and its economy has leaps and bounds to grow. If history is a predictor of the future, those leaps and bounds will happen. The US has recognized that squarely and feels that if it does not stop China now, it will never be able to do so. In other words, the US wants war.
Not too much store needs to be put into the Quad. China’s navy is now arguably stronger than America’s. China’s navy will fight near its shore – at full strength – whereas the US will have to travel to China from far. Supply chains would be much more onerous for the Americans to maintain than for the Chinese.
This means that in all likelihood the Chinese will defeat the Americans in a sea war. The Americans would rely upon the Indians to take China on in a land war. It is inconceivable that if India and China engage in war, the Pakistanis would not enter the war to support the Chinese. India would now be faced with its nightmare scenario – a two-front war against the Chinese and the Pakistanis.
India would be able to make Pakistan come to heel, but in just the same manner, China could deliver a crushing blow to India. The entire purpose of the Quad would be blown apart. China could very well emerge triumphant against both the Americans and the Indians.
Policy makers who have planned the Quad and who are making their respective countries participate in it must have planned for this emerging scenario. China for sure too must have weighed the strengths and weaknesses of the Quad. If there is no war against China, China will grow along its merry way. The US is not going anywhere anytime soon.
A duopoly of power – say the G2 – seems to be emerging in the world. But if China wins a war against the Quad, both the US and India could be demoralized beyond repair. China would emerge as the world’s sole superpower – a hyperpower – that will dictate most of the happenings of the world. Overreach has led to many disasters in the past.
If Hitler had not invaded the Soviet Union, all of us could very well have been speaking German today. Today German is consigned to pretty much Germany alone. The world’s lingua franca has become English and power has passed into the hands of the Americans. As Indian policymakers talk to China to disengage along the LAC, they must not be under any delusions of grandeur about the Quad.
For sure the Quad is a sensitive subject for the Chinese. They could lose against the Americans and the Indians. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have decimated American ground forces but they have left its sea and air power mostly intact. America has bases near China to supply its navy. And the Indian army is a strong force as well, although how strong it is one doesn’t know for India hasn’t fought a real war since 1971.
The Indian army is experienced in counterinsurgency but it remains to be seen how it will shape up against a formal force like the Chinese. Mercifully, for India, the Chinese too haven’t fought a real war for decades. So it really could be a slugfest between the two Asian giants. It might be best for India to call off its membership of the Quad, in return for the Chinese promising to keep the Taliban and the Pakistanis under control.
(The writer is an expert on energy and contributes regularly to publications in India and overseas)