The world is shaped by events and incidents. These change global narratives in the near and intermediate future. 2020 was dominated by a few major events. These include the COVID 19 pandemic, worsening US-China relations, Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy and aggressiveness, a desire of European nations to reassert themselves and US elections. India’s near region has witnessed increased interference by China in internal affairs of smaller countries, growing bonhomie between Pak and China and enhanced presence of global powers in the Indo-Pacific.
For India, apart from the pandemic, which hit its economy, it was Chinese intrusions into Ladakh which changed its outlook towards national security and compelled the government to reassess national security perceptions and funding. As far as Indo-Pak relations are concerned, they only moved downhill as Pak’s Kashmir’s policy continued to fail, while it faced the brunt of Indian cross-border military actions. Pakistan’s growing internal problems dominated the end of 2020 and these would remain its main concerns in 2021. It lost almost all allies, except China and Turkey, during 2020. A financially weak Pakistan, impacted by internal strife, would be desperate to switch internal attention to external threats. The best option would be to cry wolf on Indian false flag attack or ensure a major terrorist strike within Kashmir, compelling India to respond by force.
COVID 19 impacted economies globally, pushing many into recession and increasing unemployment. Groupings such as the EU placed internal barriers within themselves, limiting the movement of humans and medical stores, discarding the very premise of its creation. The world moved from globalization to isolation.
The pandemic also compelled nations to re-evaluate their supply chains. China, which till the pandemic, held the key to the global supply chain, was the biggest loser with nations pushing for moving their manufacturing out of China. India and ASEAN nations gained. Australia, India and Japan announced their Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, which is likely to be implemented in phases in 2021. This will involve these nations working together to broaden their supply chains, reducing dependency on China.
Economically resilient nations or groupings, who recover earliest, will dominate the future. China was amongst the first which claimed recovery from the pandemic, though Chinese figures can never be accepted as truthful. Inputs, on the contrary from China, display a shrinking economy, increased unemployment and failed loans. Multiple Chinese banks are under breaking point with unpaid loans mounting. Most nations, which signed the BRI are unable to repay, while Chinese investments in the BRI and CPEC have reduced with work moving slowly in many instances.
The pandemic enhanced nationalism as nations ensured that essential industries such as pharmaceuticals would first serve its domestic sector before supporting other nations. Medical diplomacy became the new global mantra. Support to weaker nations by the export of medical equipment, medicines and vaccines began to determine a nation’s global and regional standing. India outshined by providing support to over a hundred nations. India is currently in global demand for vaccines on account of being the world’s largest manufacturer. Nations, which were traditionally close to China are seeking Indian vaccines, displaying growing faith in Indian production. Indian soft power due to its vaccine diplomacy is on the rise.
For India, COVID has pushed back its dreams for a 5 trillion-dollar economy but simultaneously given a boost to Atmanirbhar Bharat. The government enhanced investments in the domestic industry and attempted to boost the economy with multiple incentives, the impact of which would be known during the current financial year. While there has been a recession, there is also a belief that the economy would soon be bouncing back with a vengeance.
US-China Relations and the Biden Administration
The US-China relationship soured throughout 2020, only worsening as the pandemic spread and impacted the US economy and national health. The US placed blocks on the export of high-technology equipment and semiconductors while restricting Chinese companies from accessing their financial markets. It specifically acted against Chinese telecommunications and semiconductor industries, hitting hard against Huawei, the main Chinese 5G company. It also sanctioned senior officials over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. Besides, Trump banned Chinese social media sites. China had limited options and responded by sanctioning US Congressional members, reciprocating the closure of its consulate and imposed export controls on the US. Towards the end of the year, Trump signed Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, which has irked China. Pompeo, just before the end of the Trump era, lifted self-imposed restrictions on the US-Taiwan relationship.
The incoming Biden administration may not be able to alter the existing US-China relations, based on growing security threats in the South China Sea (SCS) which China continues to project. The US would need to keep Chinese technology and military power suppressed if it seeks to continue dominating the globe. Competition between the two would continue in a few arenas in the coming years. These include trade and commerce, technology mainly involving 5G, semiconductors and Artificial Intelligence as also on aspects which China considers its internal affairs, including SCS, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
However, in certain fields, there would be dialogue. These include climate change and non-proliferation. This engagement would keep doors open for communication to ensure that there are no sudden actions which could lead to an escalation of tensions.
India is waiting to see how the new US administration views its relations with multiple nations. In the case of Pakistan, India would desire that the US views it from a terrorism perspective or Indian lens, rather than the Afghanistan prism, where it would seek Pak support for a withdrawal of forces and successful completion of talks. While India and the US will remain strategic allies, its strong anti-China military posture is essential to continue keeping China under pressure. The other aspects which concern India are US-Russia and US-Iran relations. Re-entering the JCPOA would open doors for Indo-Iran relations to flourish. If US-Russia relations continue to sour, India may find its weapon procurements from Russia coming under CAATSA, which could impede Indo-US ties. Further, if the US enhances pressure on Russia, it could result in closer Russia-China ties, which could impact India.
A Rising EU
The European Union (EU) has begun seeing the globe through an independent prism. Despite Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, urging early consultation on common concerns about China’s economic practices, the EU went ahead and signed a comprehensive agreement on investment with China. This would reward Beijing with preferential access to European markets despite its crushing dissent in regions extending from Hong Kong to Xinjiang and claims over forced labour in industry.
The EU claimed China has committed to ‘work towards’ ratification of international rules banning forced labour. The question remains whether this would address concerns over China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups, huge numbers of whom have been detained in camps. The deal is a symbolic victory for China and could make it harder to forge a Trans Atlantic unity on China. Doubts remain on whether the agreement will be ratified by the EU Council, which may possibly only happen by 2022.
In the coming years, the EU will seek to build a post-COVID-19 Europe which is autonomous politically and economically. It will renew its T Transatlantic relationship under Biden presidency but would not bank on American global leadership. The Trump administration’s bullying tactics have changed European outlook and hence it would seek a more independent role on the international stage.
India-EU ties are robust. Post Germany and France outlining their strategy for the Indo-Pacific, Netherlands followed suit. The three nation’s policies seek the EU to express itself strongly on developments in the SCS that violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. They also desire that the EU deepens ties with regional powers including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, and India as well as with Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam to counter Chinese hegemony.
Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy and aggressiveness, post the pandemic, led to it losing its soft power and ability to influence regions. It is currently in the trade or diplomatic wars with multiple nations. Its aggressiveness in the SCS has led to states on its periphery moving away from it and closer to India and the US. Demands for the Indo-Russian BrahMos missile are on the rise to counter a growing Chinese threat. India has enhanced defence ties with Vietnam and Indonesia, both facing Chinese pressures in the SCS. Western nations have begun crossing Chinese redlines at will. Demands for the inclusion of Taiwan in the WHO is on the rise. Global condemnation of its policies in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang display China losing its global clout.
Geopolitical tensions in the SCS and along the LAC, with India, have the potential to rupture into conflict if not managed effectively. Increased US presence in the SCS displays its determination to hold the Chinese at bay. With Germany, France, Netherlands and UK also planning to deploy their naval power in the Indo-Pacific, global concerns on Chinese hegemony are growing. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) involving Australia, India, Japan enhances challenges to China. China’s only hope is that its investments in the BRI and the US pulling back from its aggressive stance would provide it with the much-needed relief.
In South Asia, China has been attempting to influence the internal politics of nations where it has invested financially. It was openly interfering in Nepal until it was warned by the leadership to stay away. China being dumped by all political entities in Nepal was an insult on its power. Myanmar is bouncing back and pushing China to remove illegal security fences which it has constructed along the border. It is also renegotiating Chinese loans. Bangladesh cancelled the visit of the Chinese defence minister at the last minute. Indian Ocean island nations, Maldives and Seychelles have moved away from China. Sri Lanka has revived the stalled East Container Terminal project and it would be executed by a Japanese- Indian consortium, ignoring China.
Indian Security Concerns
India is facing hostility on both fronts, Northern and Western. Its belief that diplomacy and a coupled economy, despite trade imbalances, would ensure a peaceful northern border was shattered by Chinese intrusions. Added is the growing Chinese movement in the IOR. While the Chinese navy still does not possess a true-blue water capability, India cannot let its guard down. On northern front India has held the Chinese at bay and in a stalemate. For China, a stalemate is a sign of defeat. China has been forced to hold onto its positions through the winters for the first time in its history. It has limited choices. It cannot be seen to be backing down from its open confrontation policies as it would display a weakening in its stance and lower the image of the PLA.
Even if the northern border issue is resolved, such a resolution would be just temporary and could reoccur anytime. Chinese assertiveness and aggressiveness are here to stay. Hybrid warfare is ongoing, and India would need to be prepared. Logically, in a nuclear scenario, India should restructure its armed forces to adopt infusion of technology while catering for hybrid and grey zone warfare, with limited emphasis on convention operations. With growing threats, India may have to reassess its allocation for national security, shifting funds from other development heads towards defence. This will impact its economy and allocation of funds to other sectors including medical, social and infrastructure development. A difficult decision for any government.
With Pakistan, not much will change. Its internal problems and a failing economy would imply switching minds to external threats and India bashing is the only solution. Low-intensity conflict alongside cross LOC violations would continue. It can never risk an open conflict as it neither has reserves nor finances to support one.
The changing global narrative will impact India, in some ways positively, in others negatively. India needs to be diplomatically proactive to mould the environment in its favour. It would need to consider its outlook to foreign policy and reassess its strategic autonomous approach to determine how far would the nation be willing to go in enhancing ties with opposite global camps. National security threats would not recede in the coming years but, on the contrary, only increase in the future. Financial allocations for defence must be pragmatic and not based on the ability of diplomacy to handle one front. Indian forces modernization would need to concentrate on the infusion of technology and combating Grey Zone warfare.