India and Australia could align strategic efforts to foil China’s attempts at throwing its weight around the eastern hemisphere
Indian and Chinese troops have remained locked in a tense standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since early May, following Chinese intrusions at multiple locations in Ladakh. The violent military clashes at Galwan Valley and the ongoing military stand-off is reshaping India’s China policy decisively, as Beijing’s intransigence serves to highlight President Xi Jinping’s determination to downsize India’s physical territory, material power, economic growth, regional influence and diplomatic clout in international politics. India’s policy is also gaining traction gradually, with restrictions on Chinese investment and technology, heightened Indian military presence in the Himalayan region, and trade incentives to reduce reliance on China in strategic sectors, even as the need for closer cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia is becoming self evident.
Despite many rounds of almost fruitless discussions between their field commanders, China’s continued refusal to accept the status quo ante along the disputed boundary in the Himalayas is an unmistakable sign of its perception of India as an adversary. Australia’s growing negative perception of China also emanates from Beijing’s aggressiveness towards Canberra. This has made China central to India-Australia relations, though this bilateral relationship has grown in a multidimensional manner over the past decade.
Recent tensions emanating from China’s aggressive policies in the South China Sea, stifling of democratic dissent in Hong Kong, open belligerence vis-a-vis Taiwan, growing influence in Australia’s political and academic circles, threats of economic retaliation amid Canberra’s demands for Beijing to be held accountable for covid-19, and, of course, aggression towards India have all combined to underscore why Australia should discard its long-held ambivalence over China.
Chinese hubris, partly a result of a seeming confusion in the democratic world, appears to be pushing India and Australia together. That is why Australia has been supportive of India in its military stand-off with China. The shared intent to counter China’s encroachment was evident when Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, recently met India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, and remarked that “Australia opposes any attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo (on the India-China border), which only serve to increase tension and the risk of instability.” O’Farrell also said that Australia was “deeply concerned” by Chinese action in the South China Sea that was “destabilising and could provoke escalation”. This statement led to a Twitter spat with China’s envoy to India, Sun Weidong, who blamed Australia for provoking unnecessary tensions.
This Twitter duel is reminiscent of Beijing’s so-called “wolf-warrior diplomacy” against perceived adversaries, including India and Australia. This diplomatic tool is part of a public information campaign, in accordance with which Chinese diplomats respond immediately to any perceived challenge of China’s interests, often by using the unconcealed fabrication of facts on social media. The intensity of these efforts by Beijing has increased, as China has been forced to defend itself on charges of concealing the origin and spread of coronavirus beyond its borders.
In March, the Chinese foreign ministry’s newly appointed deputy spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, alleged that the US military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. This was followed by false accusations in France and other attempts at scoring propaganda points. And after the Galwan tragedy, when India announced a slew of economic measures aimed at Chinese companies operating in India, the Chinese government and state media used hostile language to criticize India’s actions.
China keeps reminding Australia that it is not practical for Canberra to let ties with Beijing deteriorate, given its huge dependence on China for exports. However, Australia has already banned China’s major telecom company Huawei from participating in Australia’s 5G telecom network on cyber security concerns.
There is greater realization in Australia today of China’s strategic ability to manipulate democratic societies by creating dissent and discord through misinformation campaigns. It is, therefore, in India’s interests to strengthen bonds with Australia, so as to share knowledge on how Beijing undermines democratic institutions to advance its divisive agenda through information warfare and influence operations. New Delhi must also press Canberra to harden its digital wall against Beijing.
As proud democracies, India and Australia cannot afford to share a vision of a value-neutral global order that only benefits authoritarian China. Strategies are designed not only for outcomes that reflect the prevailing balance of power, but are framed by underlying beliefs and assumptions, too. On critical decisions relating to China, India’s policy has for too long tried to balance its security concerns and the economic opportunities offered by China. Post-Galwan, this counterproductive bifurcation is being re-evaluated, and rightly so.
The growing alignment between India and Australia is already reflected in closer defence cooperation. There has been a major uptick in the frequency and scale of joint military exercises in recent years, and India is likely to invite Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercise.
It is imperative for India and Australia to bring about a decisive and irreversible change in their China strategies. Having constantly undermined India’s core interests in territorial sovereignty and global counter-terrorism efforts, China has been expanding its maritime footprints in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Since neither India nor Australia views China’s military presence in their respective regions as acceptable, they will have to step up their intelligence, military and diplomatic engagements. Most middle-power democracies seem to have realized that an effective approach to counter China’s aggression can only be pursued in concert with others. Yet, it should not be a narrow set of policy positions, but a wider mix of economic, trade and military alignments. Both New Delhi and Canberra have complementary needs and capabilities that can be leveraged to advance their common pursuit of a rules-based order underpinned by democratic norms.
This commentary originally appeared in Live Mint.