Sunday, April 18

Will India Side With the West Against China? A Test May Be at Hand.

For years, the United States and its allies have tried to persuade India to become a closer military and economic partner in confronting China’s ambitions, painting it as a chance for the world’s largest democracy to counterbalance the largest autocracy.

This week, the idea of such a confrontation became more real as Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed in the worst violence on the countries’ border in 45 years, leaving 20 Indian troops dead and causing an unknown number of Chinese casualties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly reveled in the prospect of a more muscular role for India in the region and the world. But analysts say the new tensions with China will be the starkest test yet of whether India is ready — or truly willing — to jostle with a rising power bent on expanding its interests and territory.

With China facing new scrutiny and criticism over the coronavirus pandemic, Indian officials have recently seemed emboldened, taking steps that made Western diplomats feel that their goal of an India closer to the West was starting to be realized. And some believe the friction with China will push India even further in that direction.

Indian political figures went on the offensive after the pandemic began, criticizing China’s authoritarian system and its lack of transparency as the coronavirus spread beyond the city of Wuhan, where it is widely thought to have begun.

Vijay Gokhale, who recently retired as India’s foreign secretary and is still close to the government, wrote a lengthy opinion piece this month in which he blasted China’s handling of the pandemic. “The shortcomings of the regime,” he wrote, “will further fuel a debate on the superiority of the Chinese model as an alternative to democracy. Will this form the ideological underpinning for the birth of a new Cold War?”

The pandemic also gave Mr. Modi a chance to tap his country’s giant pharmaceutical industry to strengthen diplomatic ties. Diplomats stationed in India say that in the early days of the crisis, he and his foreign minister were “constantly working the phones” to offer countries help with medicines.

One Western diplomat felt that the coronavirus crisis had made India more eager to build stronger relationships to help it deal with China, and that diplomacy with India was going more smoothly than ever before.

“Everyone is more willing, privately, to talk about what to do with China in a post-Covid world,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The ways that China has influenced that world order can now more easily be discussed as we are all trying to figure out what the new world order is.

“India represents one path,” the diplomat added, “and China represents another.”

More immediately, India faces the prospect of an escalation at the border, where China had been building up its forces before the violence this week. On Wednesday, Mr. Modi broke his silence to promise a tough response.

Some see China’s buildup on the border as a calculated effort to keep India’s aspirations in check.

“China doesn’t particularly want India to succeed,” said Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. “A weaker India will do less strategically in its own neighborhood, allowing China to step in more; and it will engage less in places like East Africa or in regional institutions, posing little challenge to China.”

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