There’s really no lack of Hollywood-style drama these days. It was apparent recently when an anonymous policy paper on China called ‘The Longer Telegram’ emerged from within the US (retired) officialdom. That’s a calculated reference to an 8,000-word telegram by then American Charge d’ Affairs George Kennan in 1946, which became the basis for the policy of containment of the Soviet Union for more than four decades. This one could last about that long, if it is followed in full. It might not. Some aspects will stick in the gullets of those who were suckled by the ‘Soviet threat’.
Kennan’s paper was published anonymously in Foreign Affairs in 1947 and created a sensation. This one has been published by the Atlantic Council, and is likely to be equally central in setting the stage for US policy on China for this decade at the very least. Take a copy of this and keep it safe. It’s going to be important.
It gets even more interesting. In his first week in the White House, President Joe Biden may already have followed some of its central precepts. Then there is what the paper says, or doesn’t say, on India, even as our own erudite Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar delivered his own limited ‘‘strategy’’ against China. One is a tome; the other a diplomatic wish list.
Jaishankar’s line in the sand
First, Jaishankar’s ‘propositions’ on how to stabilise a relationship gone bad are, in all fairness, not a strategy — though the Narendra Modi government badly needs one — but a message to Beijing.
It calls for (a) adhering to all previous agreements in their entirety, which is an invitation to walk back to agreements that China has completely abandoned; (b) recognising that unilateral change of status quo/LAC is ‘entirely unacceptable’, which seems to have happened in Depsang; (c) that a peaceful border is the basis for the relationship to proceed; (d) recognition of ‘multi-polar Asia’ where India is seen as a pole; (e) acknowledging that sensitivity to each other’s interests cannot be one-sided; (f) recognising that each will pursue their own aspirations and that it ‘cannot be ignored’; (g) managing ‘divergences and differences’; and (h) as ‘civilisational states’, both countries to take the long view.
It will depend on just how ‘long’ that is. Chinese President Xi Jinping is going to be there at the helm for a very long time indeed; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not quite so much. In sum, what the foreign minister spelt out is that while ties are ‘exceptionally strained’, there is room to bring it back on track. Now weigh all this against the precepts of the anonymous US strategy.
The long view of the ‘Longer Telegram’
First, the writer is not just someone who knows China. A former senior government official, the author is also not afraid to point out US deficiencies. Consider this; “The principal US interest has often been how a particular announcement might sound to the US domestic body politic, rather than the effectiveness…in changing Beijing’s political mindset and associated policy behavior”. Sounds familiar?
Then there is the unequivocal call for an operational strategy, so close to the hearts of those who have been calling for this in Delhi for years. Just labelling a document a National Security Strategy doesn’t make it so — as was the case with the landmark 2017 National Security Strategy, which called out China as a threat for the first time, but was then eroded steadily from within.
This US strategy is so designed to be followed in full and for the long term, or not at all. No halfsies here. Most importantly, the paper warns that there is no time to lose. The strategy has to be implemented, very quickly, within the next six months. Because the gap between the US and China is likely to reduce in the 2020 decade, and serious conflict will likely arise from that. This means Delhi has to get ready to decide whether it wants to take sides in what could be a war in the South China Sea or Taiwan.
… and then what’s to be done
The core suggestion is to not even attempt to isolate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was the Donald Trump administration’s strategy of sorts. With nearly everyone, including Xi Jinping’s first cousin — 91 million members actually — being CCP members, any such thrust to isolate will unify, not divide. The core idea is to separate Xi from the party, rather than the party from the State. Much like Pakistan’s extended Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a Chinese ‘president for life’ too will face resentments, especially when he battles ‘corruption’ publicly while his family and inner circle amass untold wealth.
Xi Jinping’s detractors (apparently many) see him as going too fast, rash in taking on the US and large parts of the world, and have watched with dismay the thrust to change the world in China’s image. All is not well, with the worst-case scenario being a sagging economy and massive unemployment, or a humiliation of an unsuccessful war. That could lead to a political putsch. Whether or not India wants to be the one to administer that slap in the face is open to question, even if it forces a ‘return to status quo’.
India, the US and ‘pan-allied’ strategies
Then we enter the operational aspects. The paper calls for an unprecedented ‘pan-allied’ strategy marching goose step to defeat China. That grouping doesn’t include India, which is listed as a ‘significant other’ together with Nigeria, Singapore, and Indonesia. It won’t please Delhi much, but then we are not seen as having the military or economic weight to stall Beijing. That’s to be done with a revived Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) so as to be able to jinx China’s current status as ‘the world’s indispensable economy’.
But Delhi has a role. It is to be persuaded to give up reservations on a full-fledged Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) that includes Australia, Japan and the US. Before celebrating that status, understand that this is under the subheading of “strategic competition” defined as where “interests at stake are important (but) neither existential nor critical in nature”. In such cases, use of military force is not envisaged as it would where ‘ally interests’ are involved. In other words, Quad is to be used to spook China, but not much else.
Don’t cross the red line
There’s worse. The strategy paper very correctly calls for clear ‘red lines’ to be enunciated, such as an attack against sovereign territories of Japan or Taiwan, which would be met with all available force including tools of deterrence. The paper argues that ambiguity in stating these has led to China slowly pushing the envelope.
“Chinese leaders respect strength and are contemptuous of weakness. They respect consistency and are contemptuous of vacillation. China does not believe in strategic vacuums.” Was Depsang and other parts of Ladakh seen as a vacuum? Because there is an expectation that China will continue to be hostile to Japan and India, but any ‘large scale economic or military belligerence’ against critical strategic partners like India would be met with strong diplomacy, etc., rather than military force. That’s not surprising since India is not a treaty partner. But then, unless it’s a definite error, the paper also has certain ‘treaty partners’ in the same category. The US has 47 treaty allies; presumably, Europe, Japan, and Australia are on the top of the heap. The rest can just hang in there.
Last, the paper is embedded in harsh reality. It suggests the US to make up with Russia “whether it likes it or not”. A China that happily ignores its western border is one that can concentrate forces in the east. Delhi has been trying to get US policymakers to understand this for years without success.
It seems Washington is now listening, though not to Delhi. President Biden’s call to his Russian counterpart was not all sweetness and light, but it did agree to extend arms control treaties and aim for ‘strategic stability’. A clearer signal of following the path of this anonymous strategy paper was Biden’s call to Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga where he not only reiterated ‘unwavering commitment’ to the defence of Japan (including Senkaku islands), but also reaffirmed the US’ ‘extended deterrence’. That’s a nice thick red line.
For Delhi, the US strategy underlines the background against which our own strategic ‘propositions’ have to be weighed.
First, this decade will see a China that, through Xi Jinping and his coterie, sees itself as almost equal to the US. That’s not the kind of power that will respect any boundaries, unresolved or otherwise. Nor is it likely to see India as a ‘pole’ in Asia. Second, that very rise presages certain conflicts. Whether that is good for India or not is a matter of pressing consideration. Third, this is as clear a statement as ever of the limits of US commitment to be a ‘balancer’ in this part of the world. This raises the question of some limited bandwagoning with China as it continues its onward march, now taking much of Europe along after a critical investment agreement.
For India, China still remains the ‘largest source of critical items’. That could actually be the ‘long view’ if current border tensions were amicably dealt with first. The problem is that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian flatly refused to link the border issue with development of bilateral relations, a statement that falls neatly into Jaishankar’s ‘unacceptable’ criteria, as it should. Alternative to bandwagoning, it may be time for India to deliver a light blow, leaving the actual punch to better-armed friends. That should be done in the full knowledge that there’s no one behind you other than a very valiant Indian Army. But then we always knew that, any number of US strategies notwithstanding.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
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