The month of May 2021 has had an ominous ring to it for India and her relationship with China. On the one hand, in the last week of May, the Daily Mail, a London tabloid, broke a story about the path-breaking research done by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen on the origins of the Covid-19 “Wuhan virus”. They provided hard evidence to argue that the virus had “no credible ancestor” and was created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
If true then India’s current political, economic and health crisis because of Covid-19 can be argued to have been engineered at least indirectly by the Chinese. That the present ruling dispensation in India shot itself in the foot as a result of this engineering is another story by itself!
On the other hand, in next-door Sri Lanka, on May 20, 2021, their parliament passed the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill that effectively turns some 660 acres of reclaimed land on Colombo’s waterfront into sovereign Chinese territory. This territory lies right in front of the Taj and ITC hotels on Colombo’s waterfront. When I last visited Colombo in 2018, I could see her waterfront’s skyline silhouetted by giant cranes. This brings the PLAN or Chinese Navy to a secure, sovereign base within 290 km of mainland India. This acquisition follows the earlier acquisition of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka by the Chinese and where PLAN submarines regularly drop anchor.
So while these monumental events were happening that gravely affected India’s national security what was the government focussing its energies on? It was busy fighting Twitter and spending all its energy on removing the Chief Secretary of West Bengal so as to hinder the state’s ability to recover from the election-induced Covid-19 spread and the recovery from the effects of cyclone Yaas. Was it more important than to figure out and calibrate our response to the two developments concerning the Chinese?
There are whispers from open source intelligence sources that Chinese patrols regularly intrude into Arunachal Pradesh, mark their presence and then go back. They know that India’s retaliation in the Galwan Valley last summer was tactical and not strategic. They continue to validate their assessments with these intrusions.
Undoubtedly, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was in Washington at the same time as the two events were unfolding and undoubtedly, these must have been the main item on his menu for talks with Secretary of State Blinken. However, there is only that much that the US can do to help us.
More importantly, only a strong economy and a cohesive polity can face the upfront and real threat from China. No amount of soirees in Mahabalipuram and Wuhan are going to deflect the Chinese from their long-standing goal of humbling India into submitting to their overlordship.
What do we need to do to face up to this existential threat?
The first thing is to rescue the economy from the disastrous economic policies pursued over the last few years. The most pernicious policy has been to constantly raise taxes on crude oil. While this has undoubtedly sustained a trend increase in GST realisations, it has singularly induced cost-push inflation and dried up demand already suffering from the uncertainty of the Covid-19 impact. We are entering an era of stagflation last witnessed in the early 1970s during the heyday of Indira Gandhi. It required the political will of a crafty Narasimha Rao many years later to get us out of the state of political and economic autarky that ensued from those days. We are returning to it today.
The second thing is to repair the embittered relationship between the ruling party and the Opposition. In Westminster-style democracy, the Opposition is always a part of the establishment, not an enemy within. Only an economically strong India and a united polity can face the Chinese challenge. Only then will our allies like the US and Japan stretch that extra bit to help us out of our current morass..
Malhotra is the author of Red Fear: The China Threat