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Reining in China’s Revisionism: A Realist Assessment

– Rakshit Mohan

Left: An AH-64 Apache attack helicopter of the Indian Air Force
Right: An armoured vehicle, T-90 tank of the Indian army during Yudh Abhyas exercises

Images Source: Wikimedia Commons


Foreign policy scholars will find it increasingly difficult to explain the unfolding geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific through the liberal theory of international relations. The two fundamental principles of the liberal theory have been contradicted time and again by the virulent and aggressive rise of China. First, increasing trade between countries was expected to lead to the minimisation of conflict and the development of peaceful relations based on notions of mutual gain. To the contrary, China has asserted itself aggressively against the United States, Japan, Australia, India and many other nations of the Indo-Pacific despite a consistent increase in the volume of bilateral trade. Second, the liberal theory of international relations stressed on the socialisation of systems due to enhanced mutual exchange. It was expected that the Chinese system of governance would become more similar to the Western system as a result of systemic socialization. It is evident now, however, that the Chinese hold their civilisational values and middle kingdom aspirations dearer than the values of transparency, openness, multilateralism and sovereign integrity of other countries.


With depreciating returns on employing the liberal theory of international relations to explain the muscle-flexing aggressive rise of China, analysts are looking for wisdom in the long-time contender of the liberal school, the realist school of international relations. Prof Mearsheimer, a prominent proponent of offensive realism, has consistently argued and maintained, “If China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.” In essence, “China’s rise is unlikely to be tranquil”. It is destined to intensify an intense security competition between China and other Indo-Pacific powers, including India.


The Indian realists have long viewed China as a strategic threat to India, cautioned policymakers about its iron brotherhood with Pakistan, and advocated a reordering of Indian force structure to bring about commensurate measures to deal with the Chinese threat. Late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh had asserted way back in 1998 that India must be prepared militarily to withstand and overcome the threat of China. The Realists have maintained the view that unless India becomes a formidable military power and a diplomatic force to reckon with, which they see as an extension of military prowess, China will continue to strong-arm India despite diplomatic conciliations from India’s end. The events unfolding on the Indo-China border in Galwan is a glaring testament heralding the succinctness of realist assessment.


Globally, as against India, China has unleashed its arsenal of offensive and aggressive manoeuvres. Its victims span across the Indo-Pacific and range from smaller neighbours like Vietnam and Taiwan to powerful economic and military powers like Japan, Australia and India. Recently, Australia has been a victim of a major state-based sophisticated cyber attack. Experts opine that the identity of the sophisticated state-based actor needs no guessing. China’s weaponization of tariffs and economic coercion came in the form of tariffs on Australian barley. Similarly, Chinese military posturing and persistent naval missions near Senkaku is an act of aggression against Japan. China has not even refrained from bullying Vietnam by sinking its fishing vessel in the South China Sea. Chinese incursions into Taiwanese airspace has become more of a habitual obstinacy than an exception. The brutal suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong through the new security law is yet another glaring testament to the fact that the rise of the Dragon will be bereft of peace. Therefore, the answer to the question of whether China’s rise can be peaceful is now clear. The answer is no.


The question that therefore arises is whether the aggression of the Chinese is driven solely by tactical objectives or if there is a strategic design to China’s aggression. Dr Raja Mohan believes that China is embroiled in a conflict on several international fronts predominantly because it now has the requisite military might and the political will to deploy its military might to achieve strategic objectives. China’s aggression is structural. China’s structural motives can be established by studying in detail examples of its aggression against India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, or any of its neighbours in the South China Sea. This article takes India’s example to demonstrate the point.


The structural conflict of national interest between India and China is an outcome of the civilizational understanding that China has of its neighbourhood and its middle kingdom aspirations. Given that expansionism is deeply entrenched in the Chinese civilization and China bases all its territorial and maritime claims on the notion of “historic rights”, the border issues are expected to keep simmering even in the best of diplomatic situations. Furthermore, the competition for influence over the South Asian neighbours of India like Nepal and Sri Lanka is also creating newer avenues for a structural competition between India and China. While a rules-based competition in itself is not a cause of worry, it is vitiated by the predatory nexus between China and Pakistan on the one hand and China’s illegal territorial claims on the other. Between India and China, tactical issues are often dealt with, resolved or swept under the carpet through deft diplomatic bargains from both the ends but the structural issues keep raising red flags.


China views an unsettled Line of Actual Control (LAC) and fluid notions of sovereignty over Himalayan territories as a potential strategic weapon to rein in the rise of India, which China sees as an irritant to its mission 2049. At this juncture in history, China is conscious of the potential that India holds as a competitor, but it is counting on the military and economic lead that it has over India. While China has already become an economic and military superpower, India has a lot of catching up to do. China then thinks it prudent to keep India busy with conflicts on the swathe of territory to India’s north. Keeping India busy with territorial disputes in the Himalayas serves two key purposes from the Chinese perspective.


First, India will have to deploy significant diplomatic and economic energy to maintain the status quo in the Himalayas. China’s economic weight and high-tech military infrastructure will aid it in matching India’s energy and expenditure penny by penny. Thus, while China is aware of the mutual high costs of engaging with India in the military domain, it is expecting to leash India’s economic development through its relentless aggressive attempt of capturing territory and out-spending India’s defensive military expenditure. It is a game of chickens that China expects India to lose.


The second reason is all the more important from China’s point of view. If China keeps India busy in the Himalayas, India is likely to retain its continental outlook towards security. China expects to tilt the debate between continental strategy and maritime strategy further in favour of a continental strategy by its brinkmanship in the Himalayas. In short, China is using the Indian system and security outlook to constrain India’s naval development. It is a cause of concern that the Indian Navy’s share of the defence budget has shrunk from 18% of the total budget in 2012-13 to 13.6% in 2019-20. Has India picked up the continental outlook snare?


Given the dictates of the international order, the only way to avoid picking China’s snare is to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Balance of power can be altered by two means – seeking cooperation from other Indo-Pacific powers and developing a strong military within.


For cooperation with Indo-Pacific powers like the US, Australia, Japan and others, India needs to fast-track its economic, diplomatic and military cooperation both bilaterally and multilaterally. India’s growing convergence with the US provides India with an unparalleled opportunity to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. While Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) has already been signed with the US, India and the US must realise the urgency of the situation and fast-track signing of a mutually beneficial Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Similarly, India, Japan and the US may have to jointly decide to include Australia as a permanent partner in the Malabar exercises by making good its worries about China. Australia and India must realise that China is expected to remain aggressive irrespective of Australia’s inclusion or exclusion in the prospective Quad naval exercises. While the first ministerial meeting of the Quad was a step in the right direction, regularisation of the Quad meetings at the ministerial level is needed. India will do well to utilise its strategic convergence with other Indo-Pacific powers.


While both means to alter a balance of power is effective, India should be prudent to place more trust in amassing military power from within because effective cooperation among the Quad democracies may take longer than expected to shape up.


For altering the balance of power from within, India needs to proactively amass air and sea power through defence modernisation and defence acquisition reforms. The foundational agreements with the US will expand India’s choice of weapon systems and will catalyse defence modernisation. Defence modernisation, despite the overwhelming continental threat, should not be forgetful of the potential of a strong navy and an effective maritime strategy. Structural contradictions between India and China cannot be swept under the diplomatic carpet for long because China’s middle kingdom aspirations have now begun to translate into action in Ladakh as in the South China Sea. As a result, the need for amassing military power in a goal-oriented and time-bound manner is compelling.


China’s strategy is counting on discordance and lack of coordination between the democracies. The democracies will do well to defy such expectations. One can only advise China to pay heed to Edward Luttwak’s prediction that China’s multi-directional aggression and internal autism will culminate into its fall. The debating democracies have time and again shown that, when pushed enough by a belligerent revisionist power, they can settle their debates and get their act together. Now is one such time for the democracies of the world.



Rakshit Mohan is an independent foreign policy analyst.

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