The current Indo-China relationship has been evolving rapidly in recent years. As India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, states, the relationship is at crossroads with repercussions for the entire world. In such a context, three significant fault-lines become important in the relationship viz. differing interpretations of the border and ensuing crisis, increasing salience of the Indian Ocean, and the scope and possibility of the Asian Century.
The Border Crisis
The crux of the issue at hand is the Chinese aggression into the Indian side of the LAC and unilaterally changing the status quo. The intensity of which was exemplified by the Galwan clash.
The border disputes are not new, and the matters also had generated attention in 2013 – Depsang Plains, 2014 – Chumar in and Doklam in 2017.
The current intrusion is attributed to the Indian improvement in border infrastructure on its side of the LAC that has created insecurity in the Middle Kingdom. This has been exacerbated by internal issues in China (slowdown of the ‘Chinese economic miracle’, pandemic and the threat of global isolation), which has forced the Chinese leadership to take a stronger stand. Further, the increasing convergence of Indo-US interests as seen in the Quad virtual summit and the proposal for an expanded G7 has not sat easily with the Chinese leadership. Lastly, such dominance at the border fits in with the ‘Five Fingers’ Chinese strategy, which sees Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as integral parts of the Chinese sphere of influence.
The present scenario marks the beginning of the decline of the present border dispute. Disengagement has taken place at two locations – the North bank of the Pangong lake and the Kailash range at the south of Pangong. However, Depsang, Gogra-Hot Springs, and Demchok areas are still contentious. The Indian objective is de-escalation and disengagement with the restoration of the status quo ante.
Past instances of border clashes have precipitated the following three-pronged Indian response, especially post 1962 war. India focused on the creation of border infrastructure and governance through the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (which was wound up in 1968) in border areas. It concluded treaties with Nepal and Bhutan. And lastly, India recognised Tibet as an integral part of China.
However, the present border quandary has occurred in a changed global and bilateral context and warrants an evolved response. Former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Roy has suggested a roadmap for the objective of ‘mutual and equal security. All border disputes must be resolved mutually without either side using or threatening to use force. Both sides must respect the LAC and jointly check and determine segments of LAC where interpretations differ. Clarification, confirmation and common understanding must be expedited. Practising self-restraint, avoiding escalation of differences, keeping open channels of communication and undertaking confidence-building measures like joint military exercises should be encouraged. These measures would lead to a steady enhancement of mutual trust and political commitment against the backdrop of bilateral and regional understanding.
The Indian Ocean
For more than a decade ago, Alfred T Mahan had stated that the destiny of the twenty-first century would be decided on the waters of the Indian Ocean. The words are more true now than ever before.
The Quad, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Commission all point to the expanding significance of the region. The Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific and their impact on Indian geostrategy are the defining features of international relations today.
All these together have enhanced the ‘Malacca Dilemma’. The Chinese fear that foreign powers would come through the Malacca Strait to contain it and block the Strait to severe the connection between the Indian Ocean and the ‘China Seas’ (Angela Schottenhammer), arresting Chinese trade with the world.
This has driven the Chinese impetus to dominate not just the ‘China Seas’ but the oceans beyond it. The Chinese strategy has been to carefully develop port sites at Djibouti, Gwadar, Hambantota, Sittwe and Seychelles through its ‘debt trap diplomacy’ – thereby encircling India in a ‘string of pearls. It has also carried out maritime surveys, ocean mapping, HADR activities and naval exercises etc. The importance of the Indian Ocean to China can also be seen in its vision of the ‘Maritime Silk Road Project’ – which is at par with the Belt and Road Initiative. Not being a littoral state has not hindered its increasing footprint.
Former diplomat KM Panikkar states that the Indian Ocean must remain India’s Ocean. The virtual summit of Quad; presence at IORA, IOC, INSTC; development of the port at Chabahar; naval exercises (Malabar), forging diplomatic relationships with the Vanilla Islands all signify that India has come out of its continental mindset and will play a pivotal role in the Indian Ocean (Harsh V Pant). Considering the relationship comprehensively, former NSA, MK Narayanan, cautions that now is not the time to front-end any belligerent grouping that might be perceived as anti-China, but the time to be truly non-aligned, especially in the Indian Ocean.
The Asian Century
The change in the Chinese perception of Asia combined with its hegemonic ambitions has raised the question of transforming the Asian century into a Chinese century.
In 1988, the meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping brought to fore the centrality of Indo-China cooperation to realise the ‘Asian Century’ dream. The opening up of China in 1980 and India in 1990 and the successful example of the ASEAN experiment (nationalism tempered by regionalism) facilitated the dream.
As C. Raja Mohan suggests, today, there is a perceptible shift in the Chinese strategy. For Deng Xiaoping, peace on frontiers and cooperation with the rest of the world were the preconditions for modernising China. However, for Xi Xingping, the focus is to get China’s neighbours to acquiesce to Beijing’s regional primacy. He states that instead of facilitating, the phenomenal rise of China has created the very conditions of the demise of the Asian Century.
However, it will be challenging for the Middle Kingdom to unilaterally impose a Chinese century on Asia. Asian nationalism is deeply entrenched. This can be seen in the struggle of Asian countries against imperial powers, their refusal to accept diktats from Cold War superpowers and the presence of regional identities like the ASEAN, Central Asia, West Asia etc. Even though there is a power differential between the two Asian giants in the realist sense, India is strong enough to exact a cost from Beijing (C. Raja Mohan).
Indian Foreign Policy Evolution vis-à-vis China
It must be borne in mind that while there are divergences in the interests and aspirations of China and India, there is a common cause on development, economic issues and certain multilateral fora. The relationship has the duality of cooperation and competition. Even though there is a power struggle in play within Asia, India and China find common ground against the western liberal dominance (S. Jaishankar, ‘The India Way’).
The above fault lines show aspects of the novel ‘wolf-warrior’ stance of Chinese foreign policy, leading many to question if the ‘peaceful development’ phase of China has given way to new-age bellicosity. As suggested by India’s External Affairs Minister at the July 2021 Indo China meet, ‘mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests’ are key to repairing the relationship.
Shivshankar Menon, a former NSA and diplomat, in his book ‘Choices: the Making of India’s Foreign Policy’ advocates quiet diplomacy with a strong military posture. To navigate the choppy waters of the Indo-China relationship, he underscores the importance of keeping the public rhetoric calm and steady, displaying strength but giving the adversary a way out.
The Indo-China relationship is Janus-faced. It has great significance and potential to transform the world order. It also has to manage the divergences and disagreements of both the Asian giants. Thus, the Indian foreign policy has to simultaneously learn from the past and evolve for the future to preserve and promote its interests and visions.
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