The Nehurvian legacy in international relations still haunts India. So deep-seated was the self-induced fear of aligning with one bloc or the other all through the Cold War years that long after it ended in the emergence of a unipolar world, we were left holding the can, finding ourselves stranded without any gains to show for our so-called neutrality. Actually, the tilt towards the vanquished Soviet Union had cost us the goodwill of the lone super power. However in the intervening period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the slow but steady rise of China, we failed to re-calibrate our relations with the world. Whatever the complexion of the regime in New Delhi, the central concern of the Foreign Office mandarins was not to be seen making common cause with the dominant western group. For, the entire polity seemed to have internalised behaviour which privileged the so-called independent line in foreign affairs, even if it ill-served the larger national interest. This folly is yet again in stark relief as China knocks on our door, incrementally slimy-slicing territory. The militarily and economically stronger northern neighbour had all along cast an evil eye on India. And for years the western nations were keen for India to partner them, including in joint military exercises to resist the Chinese expansionism but we held back. Even when China terrorised smaller nations such as Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, etc, we refused to take the hint. We somehow hoped the Dragon will remain benign for us. It was clear for years that it had devised a policy of encirclement of India. The latest development further advances the same strategic agenda. A country like the Islamic Republic of Iran embracing a godless China in order to neutralise the crippling effect of the US sanctions should not have surprised anyone. Ever since President Xi Jinping visited Iran in 2016, closer China-Iran ties were on the cards. The crippling effect of the US sanctions caused the ruling Ayatollahs to ignore the continuing Chinese repression of the million-plus Uighur-Muslims to virtually hand over its strategic assets to China in exchange for oil. As a result, we have lost whatever leverage we had with Iran. The direct fallout of the China-Iran agreement is the loss of the strategically important Chabahar port project. Under the 2003 agreement, India built the Chabahar port. It offered access for Indian goods to Afghanistan since Pakistan had blocked the land route. Also, the port was strategically important for trade with Russia and Central Asia. The agreement envisaged the construction of a rail link between Chabahar and Zahedan, a town bordering Afghanistan. The rail project was delayed due to various factors, including funding problems, but following the US sanctions India had put the project in cold storage, fearing the ire of Washington. China has now stepped in to fill the breach, signing a 25-year agreement to build Iranian infrastructure, including the above rail line, in exchange of relatively cheap Iranian crude oil. It is a win-win situation for both nations. India’s strategic route to Afghanistan and Central Asia virtually passes into the Chinese hands, causing a strategic loss. China has now got a foothold in the strategic Hormuz Straits, connecting the Gulf with the Arabian Sea through which a fifth of the global crude oil trade passes annually.
India is left with no option but to join the western alliance building up against China’s expansionism. Participating with Japan, Australia and the US, the Quad, in the annual naval exercises should no longer embarrass the Foreign Office. Maritime exercises in the Bay of Bengal by the Quad with Singapore too joining in should become a regular annual feature. India has to shed its reticence in teaming up with other nations in strategic military cooperation. China has bared its fangs. It is out to ‘teach India a lesson,’ in order to stop it from emerging as an alternative model of democratic growth and prosperity in Asia. Meanwhile, the US statement on Monday warning China against its ‘completely unlawful’ claims in the South China Sea indicates a growing realisation in the western capitals that China needs to be stopped from bullying its neighbours. This is the first time that the US has specifically named China as an aggressor which could face military resistance if it persisted on the belligerent path. India should make common cause with the democratic world to try and tame the Dragon before it further torments the world.