Though India has a peace treaty with China, the two countries have always jostled for advantage- whether at the border or on the world stage. With the Dragon determined to keep the Elephant off-balance, it is time for the latter to adopt a more muscular approach.
On paper, India and China are friendly neighbours, treaty-bound to avoid conflict. After all, ‘peaceful coexistence based on mutual respect’ and ‘non-interference in each other’s internal matters’ were principles that formed the basis of the Panchsheel Pact signed by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and China’s first Premier Zhou Enlai in 1954. That China has almost never abided by the spirit of the agreement has been underscored yet again by the events over the last three weeks. Though the Chinese leadership continues to make all the right noises, the situation on the ground at the border remains tense.
The armed forces of the two countries have even come to blows over a historic border dispute that refuses to die down. It is a miracle that no shots were fired. The Narendra Modi government will be hoping for a quick return to the status quo, although the Chinese Communist Party could use the situation to shore up domestic support. Its propaganda machine has already swung into high-gear, blaming India for the standoff, warning that the confrontation could quickly turn into a full-blown conflict.
Never meant to be friends
Historically, India has always tended to scramble for peace after a spike in tensions at the border, given the misplaced belief of its leaders that China – like India – desired peace. The illusion was utterly shattered when Chinese forces attacked Indian positions along the border in the winter of 1962, taking India by surprise. As a result of several ‘Confidence Building Measures’ (CBMs) extended to China throughout the 1990s, India shied away from building roads along the border while China continued to add airbases and a network of roads crisscrossing Tibet, allowing it to rapidly deploy troops whenever necessary. In seeking to address this imbalance, India has now provoked the Dragon, aiming to deter it from boosting its military presence in the region. While diplomatic parleys on both the military and diplomatic levels have resulted in de-escalation, for the time being, no long term solution to the problem is in sight.
It clearly serves China’s interests to keep tensions simmering.
From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, Chinese leaders have always taken the magnanimity of Indian leaders as a sign of weakness. Historians say that Nehru even declined an offer from the US in 1950 for a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The reason for this historic blunder: To integrate China into the global mainstream. In contrast, China has shown scant regard for Indian sensitivities on issues ranging from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to Aksai Chin. What is particularly ironic is that the very country India helped facilitate into the United Nations is now denying it a place in the UNSC.
To set the record straight, the Chinese were never in favor of basing the Panchsheel Pact on the somewhat altruistic principles of non-alignment which were at odds with the emerging global order of the 1950s. They barely agreed to add the so-called five principles of peaceful coexistence to the treaty’s preamble on India’s insistence. China’s domestic problems were far from over at the time and it was more interested in a trade agreement than anything else. Today, China enjoys a staggering edge over India both in terms of the bilateral trade balance and military prowess. Given a chance, it would wrest Arunachal Pradesh from India and fulfill a long-cherished ambition.
Watch: Could China-India border dispute trigger a military conflict?
A more muscular China policy
That’s not to say that the Chinese do not play nice when the situation calls for it, pact or not. Case in point: The China-Japan Friendship Treaty signed in 1978 has fared much better with relations between the two World War-II era foes reaching new heights in recent years. Trade ties have particularly blossomed with China accounting for 23% of Japan’s imports. Though tensions over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands continue to simmer, China has largely refrained from an overt show of force against the Japanese, unlike India.
This is despite the untold misery ordinary Chinese suffered at the hands of invading Japanese forces at the height of WW II. It could just be a matter of political expediency with Xi’s political future at stake in the post-COVID era. However, the combined might of the US and Japanese navies – along with those of China’s immediate neighbours like Vietnam and Indonesia – is likely also a factor in Xi’s strategic calculus.
Carrot and Stick approach
The Modi-led BJP government is perhaps India’s best chance in decades to show its resolve in defending its territorial integrity while continuing to do business with China. The Modi-Doval-Jaishankhar combination certainly has the gumption as well as the diplomatic finesse to temper China’s expansionism. The move to continue building roads connecting Indian border outputs with bases inland has clearly not gone unnoticed in Beijing which is now making conciliatory remarks. Hopefully, this is a prelude to an eventual withdrawal of its forces from Indian territory. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement, too, could have played a part in Beijing’s sudden change of heart. The time is ripe for India to set the terms for a new engagement with China.
If it fails to come to the negotiating table, India would be well within its rights to strengthen ties with Taiwan, increase political engagement with the Tibetan leadership in exile and approve the long-overdue sale of Brahmos cruise missiles to China’s traditional foes like Vietnam. The strategy of appeasement has clearly run its course. Without China’s backing, Pakistan will cease to be an irritant for India as well. By pushing the right levers, India might even be able to get China to discontinue CPEC projects in PoK. For all their posturing, the Chinese know that access to India’s vast market could be crucial for their plans to rebuild their own economy.
It’s time for India to draw inspiration from Chanakya rather than be overawed by the “all flash no bang” tactics of Sun Tzu.