India Is Not Pumping The Brakes Hard Enough On China

Why Wang Yi was hopeful of India joining hands with China even as the disputed border in Ladakh is live. By Bharat Karnad.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar meet in New Delhi, on March 25, 2022. (Photograph:&nbsp;@DrSJaishankar/Twitter)</p></div>
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar meet in New Delhi, on March 25, 2022. (Photograph: @DrSJaishankar/Twitter)

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, having joined with Pakistan in berating India on Kashmir at the conclave of foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation called by Islamabad, which he attended as an observer, breezed into New Delhi for a pow-wow with the Indian government. Wang appeared confident that he’d be able to convince the Narendra Modi regime to overlook that little matter of the Chinese annexing some 1,000 square kilometres of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh, and secondarily, to firm up Sino-Indian solidarity on Ukraine owing to “similar if not identical” views. “If China and India spoke with one voice,” he told the press, “the whole world will listen. If China and India joined hands, the whole world will pay attention.”

India Is Not Pumping The Brakes Hard Enough On China

Errors In Strategy And Thinking

Rather than using the God-sent opportunity to pay Beijing back in the same coin and use Wang’s OIC provocation as a prompt for slinging the highly-merited charges of “genocide” of Uyghur Muslims by China and thereby establishing an equivalence between the Chinese Foreign Minister’s raking up the mistreatment of Kashmiri Muslims and New Delhi’s siding with the Uyghurs for use as negotiating leverage in the future, the Ministry of External Affairs, as expected fluffed it. “We reject the uncalled reference to India”, the MEA spokesman whimpered before pointing out the obvious that Kashmir was a domestic Indian issue and Wang had no business bringing it up.

Is the Narendra Modi regime under the impression that this slight tap on the wrist is going to make the hardboiled straight shooters at Zhongnanhai rear up in fear of what New Delhi might do next?

Apparently, it is not just the MEA that believes this Indian non-response will have a salutary effect on the Chinese. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh too thinks the Modi government did right by not even acknowledging Wang’s straight right to India’s chin. Ram Madhav, who is a member of the central executive council of the RSS and a former national general secretary of the BJP, in an op-ed, not only failed to notice the missed chance of hitting back at China, he congratulated Jaishankar & Co. for sticking by neutrality on Ukraine and on insisting that normal relations will only be on the basis of restoration of the status quo ante in eastern Ladakh. He explained such policies as being “as much about principles as about interests”.

This proved, once again, that neither the Indian government nor the ideologues of the party in power have the faintest idea about “principles” – which, incidentally, are distinguished by their absence in international affairs, and even less about “national interests”. If the Modi regime and the BJP were wise about the world, they would have throttled the unhindered flow of Chinese consumer goods to India at the first sign of Chinese hostilities on the Galwan in 2020.

<div class="paragraphs"><p> Swadeshi Jagran Manch activists protesting  outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, on June 17, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)</p></div>

Swadeshi Jagran Manch activists protesting outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, on June 17, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

The Modi government, perhaps, realising the foreign policy boo-boo it had made with Wang belatedly appears to have leaked the story about an airborne “insertion” exercise involving 600 paratroopers in the Siliguri Corridor being timed to coincide with the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit but to send what message? In 1958, a Chinese military delegation visited Ambala to observe a military exercise that featured waves of attacking aircraft paving the way for Indian infantry. Unimpressed, the Chinese delegation head while referring to the display of airborne firepower as impressive, asked the Indian army chief in attendance if aircraft would be available for ground operations in the mountains? Four years later, the Chinese supplied the answer.

What China’s ‘Three Point-Approach’ Asks Of India

To get back to Wang, why was he hopeful of India joining hands with China considering the disputed border in Ladakh is live with 1 lakh troops on either side of the Line of Actual Control and the possibility of military hostilities at any time?

Apparently, for two reasons. The Chinese government believed that owing to the fairly relentless pressure from the United States and the West to side against Russia in the Ukrainian crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sufficiently softened to welcome this Wang overture, confident New Delhi would perceive the situation the way it does – of two Asian powers standing with Russia being better than only one of them doing so and then exclusively facing the sanctions music for supporting Moscow. Wang also likely believed that as in the past, the Indian government could be bamboozled into compromising on its stated position on the border in Ladakh by vague promises of peace but, as always, on Chinese terms, which Wang, this time around, revealed as his “three point-approach”.

This approach is:

  • Negotiating with “a long term vision” without the border dispute colouring India’s attitude;

  • A “China-India-plus” initiative for joint projects in South Asia – which is a plea to not hinder Beijing’s realisation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of its larger Belt and Road Initiative; and

  • Cooperating with each other in multilateral fora.

The first point requires India to forget about the Chinese grab of a vast expanse of Indian territory.

The second is an attempt to dilute opposition to CPEC and permit the Western Provinces of China—Tibet, and Xinjiang in particular—to have all-year, all-weather access to the warm water port of Gwadar on the Baluch coast, thus lessening the pressure on Chinese trade that otherwise has to negotiate the Indian-controlled Malacca bottleneck.

The third makes a virtue of necessity because without a commonality of views and of policies on multilateral issues (trade, climate, etc.) the two countries would find themselves unable adequately to resist the U.S. and the West, which seem intent on obtaining progress at the expense of India’s and China’s national interests.

Fortunately, Jaishankar and Modi’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, despite Wang’s sweet-talking the latter (“China does not pursue the so-called ‘unipolar Asia’ and respects India’s traditional role in the region”), held their ground at least for once.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Foreign Minister-level bilateral talks between India and China, in New Delhi, on March 25, 2022. (Photograph:&nbsp;@DrSJaishankar/Twitter)</p></div>

Foreign Minister-level bilateral talks between India and China, in New Delhi, on March 25, 2022. (Photograph: @DrSJaishankar/Twitter)

Switching From Wang To Lavrov

The question is, with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov visiting New Delhi later this week, will the Indian government be deft enough to keep relations with Russia on track (setting up a rupee-rouble payments track, etc.), but point out the need for urgency by President Vladimir Putin to somehow bring closure to his mismanaged military invasion in Ukraine before it takes a toll, among other things, on India and Indian relations with Russia? At the same time, India needs to remind Lavrov about just how slippery and opportunistic China is as a strategic partner and why the long-term threat it poses to both countries should not be forgotten or underplayed for any reason.

Bharat Karnad is Distinguished Fellow, United Service Institution of India, and Emeritus Professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. He is the author, most recently, of ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.