A new low has been reached in the simmering United States (US)-China discord with the Donald Trump administration forcing the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, and Beijing vowing to retaliate at what it described as an “unprecedented escalation”.
The foreign ministry in Beijing announced on July 22 that China planned to “react with firm countermeasures” if the Trump administration did not “revoke this erroneous decision.”
This unexpected US decision to raise the diplomatic heat on China comes in the wake of a US carrier strike group led by the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz exercising with warships of the Indian Navy’s eastern fleet on July 20 in the Indian Ocean.
While this has been described as a routine “passex” (basic naval exercises when warships of two navies pass by each other in the oceans), the subtext points to a subtle demonstration of US-India partnership even as India and China are engaged in a slow disengagement process — which now appears to have hit a roadblock — after the Galwan incident.
As is now well-recognised, the altercation at Galwan in the Ladakh region of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops ambushed and killed 20 Indian soldiers, marked a different low point in the bilateral relationship between India and China.
The template that framed Sino-Indian relations since 1993 and ensured an extended period of guarded “peace and stability” is no longer valid. Delhi is now exploring a new level of diplomatic mediation with layered military messaging.
The immediate objective for India is a return to the pre-Galwan status quo along LAC. It appears that PLA is unlikely to withdraw from the locations it has occupied and fortified in a swift and consensual manner.
In reviewing other options, Delhi has revived certain naval/maritime possibilities and these include the likelihood of inviting Australia to join the India-US-Japan trilateral Malabar naval exercises towards the end of the year. This points to reviving the Quad — a group of four nations that came under one umbrella for the first time in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami.
It may be recalled that when India had mounted a Quad-plus Singapore five-nation naval exercise in 2007, China bristled at what it considered to be a latent threat. Delhi, then, chose to placate Beijing’s concerns by reverting to a bilateral Malabar with the US.
The abiding anxiety for China is what is referred to as the Malacca dilemma. This refers to Beijing’s perceived vulnerability in the Indo-Pacific given its enormous dependence on unimpeded merchant shipping, which is predicated on the freedom of the oceans and the sea-lines of communication.
One strand of this dependence is illustrated by the fact that in 2019, China imported an average of 10.1 million barrels of crude oil per day and most of this passes through the Malacca Strait.
The vulnerability-leverage matrix can be suitably calibrated depending on the prevailing geopolitical context and Beijing is sensitive to this factor.
Consequently, Beijing has been seeking to mitigate this dilemma in various ways and an ambitious China-Iran strategic partnership is the latest initiative.
It envisions a $400-billion Chinese investment in return for long-term hydrocarbon supplies and access to the Chabahar port. Along with Gwadar in Pakistan, this maritime connectivity and access, while ostensibly being part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative project, will enhance Beijing’s footprint in a strategic location near the Persian Gulf.
In summary, the Indian Ocean is being differently animated by China and the US in the main. India has to evolve a short-term and long-term maritime orientation that will enable Delhi to protect and advance core national interests.
This is where the presence of the USS Nimitz offers an insight into the suasive nature of the naval capability and the spectrum of options it can provide in managing the relationship with a bellicose China.
The US, in recent days, has upped the ante against China in relation to the South China Sea (SCS), and termed Beijing’s actions as “unlawful” and reiterated its commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
It is instructive that the USS Nimitz carried out a freedom of navigation patrol in the SCS before exercising with the Indian Navy and Beijing would be reading the tea leaves carefully.
Astute application of military/naval capability can enhance diplomatic efficacy and India needs to acquire the requisite material capability and the partnership with the US has been useful. In an innovative use of naval platforms, the US-supplied P-8I maritime recce aircraft have been deployed along LAC for surveillance and points to maximising limited assets in unexpected exigencies.
India’s predicament is resource allocation for the military when the GDP is expected to shrink dramatically due to Covid-19. A focused strategic dialogue with the US and other Indo-Pacific nations that share both anxiety about China’s bellicosity, and an aspiration to realise a rule-based maritime order, may offer some policy options that could be pursued both individually and collectively.
For now, how Beijing will “retaliate” against the US whether in relation to the Houston consulate, or the joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, will offer some cues about the nature of the India-China relationship in its post-Galwan phase.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi