India's approach towards China remains hobbled by low self-esteem and a subaltern mindset
Barely eight months after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India trip, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will shortly make a return visit to China. China’s intrusion into Chumar—one of its biggest incursions ever—coincided with Xi’s arrival, representing his birthday gift for Modi, who turned 64 on that day. Given that Beijing has only hardened its border stance and taken other unfriendly actions, why is Modi paying a return visit so soon after Xi’s trip?
Normally, a return visit to any country should be undertaken only after preparatory work indicates the trip could tangibly advance the bilateral relationship. Modi’s trip, however, holds little prospect for achieving a more balanced and stable relationship or making progress on resolving land and water disputes and correcting an increasingly lopsided trade relationship. Given the limited time, no real groundwork has been done to ensure that the visit yields enduring results.
Beijing has only been queering the pitch for Modi’s visit. Its reaction to Modi’s Arunachal Pradesh tour in February to open two development projects was unparalleled. Over two days, China fulminated against India, with the Indian ambassador being summarily summoned, the Chinese vice-foreign minister speaking scathingly, and the Chinese foreign ministry posting a condemnatory press release on its website.
Worse still, Beijing, in a little-noticed action, used this occasion to escalate its stance on Arunachal. The Chinese vice-foreign minister brusquely told the Indian ambassador that the Modi visit undermined “China’s territorial sovereignty, right and interests" and that it “violates the consensus to appropriately handle the border issue". In other words, Beijing claimed that Arunachal was no longer just a disputed territory but China’s sovereign territory and contrived a “consensus" against an Indian leader visiting that north-eastern state.
Actually, China’s creep began in 2006 when, for the first time, it claimed Arunachal as South Tibet. It has since cooked up Tibetan names for invented subdivisions of Arunachal to draw attention to the state’s purported Tibetan identity, even though the Dalai Lama has publicly said that Arunachal historically was not part of Tibet. In its 20 February admonition to India, Beijing alleged the “so-called Arunachal Pradesh" was established largely in the “three areas of China’s Tibet—Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul" and claimed these “had always been Chinese territory".
What was India’s reaction to Beijing’s serially grating statements on Arunachal, including accusing Modi of breaching an ostensible “consensus"? Conspicuous silence. Modi’s government, however, went ahead and scheduled its maiden round of border talks with China in New Delhi in March, instead of postponing it. Emboldened, Beijing mounted pressure on two fronts—just before and after the border talks, intruding Chinese forces had face-offs with Indian troops in Ladakh’s Depsang plateau; and, without cause, China raked up the Arunachal issue again.
In April, Beijing claimed it is an “undeniable fact" that there is a “huge dispute" over Arunachal. The undeniable fact is actually the converse: that the “huge dispute" is really about Tibet since all Chinese claims flow from that. Tibet remains at the core of the India-China divide.
Consider yet another hostile action: Chinese intelligence, playing an active role, got nine insurgent groups from India’s north-east to recently meet in Myanmar and form a united front. And just before hosting Modi, Xi has travelled to Pakistan where he signed agreements valued at $28 billion and unveiled the development of a Kashgar-Gwadar land corridor to the Indian Ocean that will challenge India in its own maritime backyard.
Yet, mum’s the word for India. It would seem that safeguarding Modi’s visit has trumped the strategic imperative to respond diplomatically to China’s antagonistic actions. These actions cannot but embarrass Modi, who is still courting Beijing.
For example, how is India planning to respond to China’s stapled-visa policy towards Arunachal residents? Not in kind, such as by introducing stapled visas for the Tibetan plateau’s Han settlers, but by bestowing a reward: e-visa on arrival for Chinese nationals. Such an overture, even if continuing the Indian tradition since 1949 of going overboard to befriend China, signals that India remains hobbled by low self-esteem and a subaltern mindset.
A resurgent India would shine a spotlight on the core dispute by slowly reopening the Tibet issue and reclaiming its lost leverage. After all, China has trampled on its pledge to respect Tibet’s autonomy. Yet, without inviting any reprisal, China continues to squeeze a defensive India. The fact that India does not take its claim to Aksai Chin or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir seriously encourages China to enlarge its strategic footprint in the Pakistani part of Kashmir and to step up incursions into Ladakh from the Chinese-occupied portion of Kashmir.
In the absence of goal-oriented statecraft, Indian diplomacy has long been shaped by personalities at the helm. Their propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure has been legendary, as India has ignored the sound advice of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s famous foreign minister: “By no means show too much zeal." Zeal, especially in the form of diplomatic surprises and unilateral gestures, is a trademark of the Modi foreign policy. Indeed, Modi is going to China because he gratuitously told Xi he would pay a return visit before completing his first year in office. With such a schmaltzy approach, can India stand up for its interests and make China walk its talk?
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.