Tuesday, March 5, 2024

India emulating China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy with Canada, sans the warfare

New Delhi’s decision to ask Canada to reduce its number of diplomats in India by over 40 is the latest in the downward spiral of India-Canada relations. There is now a danger that India’s words and actions are going well past the point of serving its long-term interests.

Whatever the truth of the multiple allegations hurled at each other by India and Canada, the fact is that as the emerging power, an Asian one and a developing country still, the former cannot and must not lose sight of the fact that global institutional structures and narratives are still not entirely in its favour. In this global balance, India is still a distant third to the West comprising the US and its allies in pole position followed by China.

The US is a global power with global considerations to take into account and it has much deeper defence and intelligence ties in the Five Eyes arrangement which includes Canada than it does with India. It will naturally be less than fully enthusiastic in backing India even if many in this country now seem to count American support as a given in India’s global ambitions. This is the reality India faces, its foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s attempts to paint the picture otherwise notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, the Chinese appear to have given up the old Deng Xiaoping maxim of ‘hiding one’s capacities, biding one’s time’ if their words and actions in the last few years are any indication. China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy has been facing blowback from both the West and non-West and questions are now common about whether China underestimated the resistance it would face and/or overestimated its own abilities.

It will not do for India to follow the Chinese path when it does not have the diplomatic capacity – whether in numbers of diplomats or their skill sets (foreign languages or local knowledge, for example) – across large swathes of the globe like the Chinese do. It is foolish to get into a prolonged diplomatic spat with a major economy like Canada, if India does not have the means to sell its message across the globe and put the Canadians under pressure everywhere. This is what the Chinese did when they launched their disinformation campaign against the US following the outbreak of the Covid pandemic when they claimed that the virus had originated in and leaked out of a US military facility. 

China had a global media reach through state-run television and radio and the use of multiple social media platforms as well as the ability to communicate in multiple languages across especially the developing world to do so. India has nothing of the sort – Doordarshan’s international channel is hardly visible, All India Radio has limited foreign language broadcasting and followers of Indian official media presence on platforms like X or Facebook are far fewer than those of their Chinese counterparts.

The only place where Indian media is effective, where the Indian government’s narratives hold uncontested sway, is in India itself. The particular virulence of the Indian response to Canada’s charges must, therefore, have more to do with domestic considerations than with any long-term thinking or effort of putting the Canadians or other Westerners in their place. It is impossible to understand, otherwise, why the Indian government’s representatives have been willing to run down not just the Canadian government but that country’s liberal democratic traditions. That is not an approach that will win many hearts in other democracies, especially when questions of democratic back-sliding in India are picking up pace in Western-dominated global media. What is worse, this Indian approach is also exactly of a piece with Beijing’s own approach. However, the Communist Party of China is also fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy seeing itself in an existential struggle with democratic political systems everywhere. Is that how the Indian government sees itself vis-à-vis the West?

Is India making the mistake the Chinese have made of believing that it has the power to have its way even if it is still behind the West in both material capacities and soft power influence? Today, the pushback against the Chinese is at unprecedented levels. But even so, the attractiveness of China’s markets is enough to temper American, European, or Japanese attempts to completely cut themselves off. India is surely not yet in the same economic league as China and being forewarned by their experiences with the larger Asian power, the West might be more circumspect in dealings with India and less tolerant of what it perceives as Indian bad behaviour.

It is time, therefore, for India’s wolf warriors to tamp down their public posturing and to deal with the Canadians behind closed doors if the Indian government is not to be misunderstood as pursuing the domestic or electoral interests of the ruling party above national interests.

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