The logic of India’s response to China
Amid the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam area in the Sikkim sector, national security adviser Ajit Doval’s visit to China has come and gone. Nothing much has changed on the ground. Beijing continues to harangue and wage its psychological warfare, sometimes by reminding India of 1962 and sometimes by suggesting that countermeasures from Beijing would be unavoidable if the Narendra Modi government continues to ignore the Chinese warnings. Chinese officials even went to the extent of informing a visiting Indian media delegation that Bhutan has conveyed to Beijing through diplomatic channels that the area of the standoff is not its territory though, of course, no evidence for this claim was provided. Thimphu later denied these claims.
China is also provoking India by asking what New Delhi would do if it “enters” Kalapani region in Uttarakhand or at some place in Kashmir. This is the first time that the issue of Kashmir has been raked up by China at the official level. “The Indian side has also many tri-junctions. What if we use the same excuse and enter the Kalapani region between China, India and Nepal or even into the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan,” Wang Wenli, deputy director general of the boundary and ocean affairs of China’s ministry of foreign affairs, said.
This comes after minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj’s assertion in Parliament a few days back that war was not a solution and India would resolve the border standoff with China through dialogue. But she also made it clear that India’s reasonableness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. “Just because we want to have friendly relations with our neighbours, they shouldn’t cross the line. India always wanted smooth relations with China. But the alignment of boundaries involving India, China and Bhutan has to always be finalized in consultation with all three countries,” she said, underscoring New Delhi’s resolve not to be cowed down by Beijing’s relentless high-pitched campaign.
This crisis between China and India is different from other such episodes in the past but what makes it unique in recent memory is New Delhi’s determination so far not to concede the standoff on China’s terms. Beijing has tried everything. It has used its media to bully India; it has threatened India officially; it has used colonial era records selectively; it has tried to rally world public opinion. But India has not budged.
And that, in essence, foreshadows the future of the global order. Underlying all this petulance about boundaries and territories, behind all this façade of sovereignty, the Sino-India standoff in Doklam is about whether the future of Asia will be one with China as the dominant actor, dictating the terms of acceptable behaviour to other nations or whether the future of Asia will be a multipolar one in the real sense of the term. India has decided to stand its ground because there is far too much at stake in responding to Chinese bullying.
China talks of a multipolar world order, but in reality, it has always desired a unipolar Asia. Its assertiveness in staking its maritime territorial claims in recent years might have convinced it that there is no real opposition to it in the region and beyond. The West is too preoccupied with its own internal challenges to pose any serious problems in China’s way. And the regional states are too weak to do anything about Chinese belligerence.
The Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) turned out to be a paper tiger when it came to the crunch. China’s divide and rule policy has fractured any sense of unity in South-East Asia. A rather weak and ineffective negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea was recently adopted by Asean under Chinese pressure, reflecting the challenges being faced by the larger Indo-Pacific at a time when the US remains distracted and lacks a clear Asia policy under Donald Trump.
And so, India remains the last nation standing, a stumbling block in China’s drive for domination of the Indo-Pacific. Already, the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has made China central to the evolving global economic order. Even when nations realize the folly of their joining this mega connectivity initiative, they see no real alternative.
New Delhi is the sole major power that has decided to publicly oppose Xi Jinping’s vanity project. The other major power centres remain constrained in their policy responses to China. Japan has domestic political and legal constraints despite Shinzo Abe’s proactive foreign policy. Australia’s economic future is so deeply intertwined with China’s that its elites are today having to debate the choice between the US and China.
The Modi government, in contrast, has been robust in its response to China’s rise. It quickly realized that China remains determined to pursue a unilateral foreign policy and Indian interests will suffer if New Delhi does not make a change in its foreign policy behaviour. While a section of the Indian elites continues to believe that India can shape Chinese behaviour by its policies, policymakers have been confronting the consequences of China’s growing capabilities in multiple ways. Though a tad late, New Delhi has been focusing on building its border infrastructure and has been active in trying to reach out to other like-minded powers in the region such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam to shape a favourable balance of power in the region.
The Doklam standoff, therefore, comes at an inflection point in India’s relations with China. For India, there is only one option: standing up to China resolutely to protect its core interests. Otherwise, it will have to acquiesce in shaping a China-centric Indo-Pacific. And for most Indians, that clearly is not an option even worth thinking about.
Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College London.
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