New Delhi is walking into the China trap
Just when we thought India was getting its China policy on track, we have returned to the good old days of doing business with China. Discouraging government officials from attending a public event, “Thank You India”, being organized in New Delhi by Tibetans on 1 April 2018, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale reportedly wrote to the cabinet secretary that “the proposed period will be a very sensitive time in the context of India’s relations with China. Participation by senior leaders or government functionaries, either from the Central government or state governments, is not desirable, and should be discouraged.”
In the Maldives, New Delhi decided that asserting its interests would be tantamount to provoking the Chinese, so we have taken a step back, letting China roll all over us. And a think tank in Delhi has been asked to postpone an annual conference just because its deliberations may annoy the Chinese. China’s response too has been predictable. Its foreign minister, Wang Yi, has resorted to the usual clichés by suggesting that “the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other. If China and India are united, one plus one will not equal two but 11.”
Gokhale was in Beijing last month apparently to “reset” ties, which resulted in a calendar of government-level interactions potentially leading to a high-level visit from China. The idea is that last year’s Doklam crisis has put New Delhi in a precarious position and something significant needs to be done to assuage Chinese anger. So India has decided to go the extra mile and the Tibet issue, of course, has become the casualty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to go to Qingdao in China in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit meeting and New Delhi might be hoping to make this visit a success by acquiescing to Chinese sensitivities. It is also likely that India is trying to acknowledge the fact that China lifted its objections to the grey-listing of Pakistan with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on terror financing, by becoming conciliatory on Tibet.
This too is not new. In November 2007, India’s then cabinet secretary had also sent a note to all the ministers, advising them against attending a function organized by the Gandhi Peace Foundation on behalf of the Dalai Lama. Then, too, it was speculated that perhaps then prime minister Manmohan Singh wished to assuage the concerns of the Indian Communist parties, part of the ruling coalition, that Indian foreign policy was tilting towards Washington, in order to send the message that India wanted to preserve the upward trajectory in Sino-Indian ties. It was also suggested that the government wanted to thank China for the successful visit to that country of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi—during it, media reports suggested that China seemed to be taking a more favourable view of the US-India nuclear deal, then still being negotiated.
Whatever may have been the motivation, New Delhi’s behaviour then and now contravened India’s long-held position that the Dalai Lama is a not a mere political dissident but a spiritual leader widely revered in India. Indeed, India’s genuflection to Chinese concerns about the Dalai Lama are probably not even in India’s national interest. The Indian government’s position neither lived up to the ideals that India often claims it stands for nor did it clearly enhance India’s strategic interests vis-à-vis China. Such a supine foreign policy posture by a state that wants to be recognized as a major global power is not only foolhardy, but increasingly dangerous.
It is important for India to engage China but after dealing with the Doklam crisis so effectively, it doesn’t make sense to concede to China on every major issue. After all, India is not only signalling to China but also to its neighbours and the wider Indo-Pacific, where it claims it wants a larger strategic profile. The Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) heads of state were guests at the Republic Day parade and India has taken some baby steps towards the Quad (with the US, Japan and Australia) in an attempt to shape the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
So now to dramatically alter course with the Chinese underscores either a complete lack of conviction on India’s part or some diplomatic play which outsiders cannot fathom.
Is the foreign secretary putting down the Tibetans so that Chinese will talk to him nicely or is New Delhi working on some substantive outcomes during Modi’s visit in June? Or is it that the Bharatiya Janata Party does not want a conflagration with the Chinese before the next election in 2019? Or is it that despite their bombastic statements in the media, the generals are saying something serious to the government?
By ignoring the China threat over the last two decades, Indian policymakers have not only exacerbated the trust deficit with China but also made it virtually impossible to stand up to China even on issues which are vitally important to India. The power differential between the two has grown at an alarming rate. Sino-Indian relations, therefore, require deft management, but pandering to Chinese concerns, real and imagined, did not result in a change in Chinese behaviour in the past and won’t result in any sort of stabilization of Sino-Indian relations. It will only entrench Chinese positions at the cost of India. One hoped that India would learn from its mistakes, but, clearly, old habits die hard.
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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