Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
Dr N. Janardhan
Indian politicians of the old were of different mettle. Months before the war with China, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru undermined the importance of Aksai Chin on the Indo-China border, an area claimed by India, but controlled by China.“It is a territory where not even a blade of grass grows, about 17,000 feet high. Ladakh is a useless uninhabitable land,” he said.
Mahavir Tyagi, a member of the upper house of parliament, responded by pointing to his bald head: “There is not a single strand of hair on this head. Shall I surrender my head to the enemy?”
A war and nearly 60 years later, the ‘bald’ patch of land is still a matter of dispute as the soldiers of the tech-savvy and nuclear-powered countries fought a primitive and barbaric battle, using sticks and stones. While the killings, which could have been a result of ‘last-mile disconnectivity’ in de-escalation communication, should not be undermined, it should also not be allowed to negatively impact future ties.
While jingoism rings loud on both sides, middle ground is a rare commodity. As an Indian in the Gulf and a keen follower of China’s rise, I have leeway to objectively discuss the larger geostrategic connotations, rather than just local geographic issues.
Over the decades, ‘Chindia’ has had a complex multi-layered relationship involving cooperation, competition and confrontation. As the economic power centre shifted from the West to East during the last two decades, instead of greater cooperation, the Asian giants have assumed antagonistic positions.
It would make sense if bilateral differences alone conditioned this environment. Unfortunately, other countries – notably the United States and Pakistan—are also influencing the Indo-Sino relationship.
Washington perceives Beijing not only as an economic challenger at present, but also as a future challenger in the global political and security arenas. The Belt and Road Initiative epitomises this potential. While China advertises this as being primarily economic in nature, there is more to it than meets the eye.
There is nothing wrong with China’s desire to make a global impact. And, there is nothing wrong either in the United States pulling out all stops to protect its sphere of influence. The only problem is that India is among several countries caught in the crossfire.
It is often said that Washington would desire “a unipolar world and a multipolar Asia, China would prefer a multipolar world and a China-centric unipolar Asia.” On the other hand, India – which is close to the United States – “would like to see a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia,” thereby intensifying Beijing-Washington and Beijing-New Delhi competition.
India is also under pressure to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involving United States, Japan and Australia, to deal with challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. While there is a strategic rationale for this, there is also a political undertone to check Chinese domination.
This game of US-derived checks and balances has certainly hurt India-China ties. Further, as a strategic defensive mechanism, Beijing is treating an ‘enemy’s enemy as a friend’, which has adversely affected India-Pakistan ties.
Ground realities suggest that while China’s Pakistan-Nepal-Sri Lanka (and perhaps Bangladesh in the future) policies ring alarm bells in New Delhi, India’s Japan-South Korea-Vietnam-Central Asia (and the United States) policies are viewed as irritants in Beijing.
While India and China have continuously engaged in economic, political and even security dialogue, there is an inherent adversarial tinge surrounding it. Accompanied by rhetoric and tit-for-tat countermeasures, they have neutralised confidence-building measures.
Chindiahas oscillated among ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ (Chindians are brothers) to bye-bye (due to differences) to buy-buy (economic complementarity) to returning again to bye-bye (change of the rules of engagement on the border and attempts at economic decoupling). Eighteen meetings of the current leaders over the last six years, including the famous ‘Wuhan Spirit’ and ‘Chennai Connect’ in the recent past have done little to improve ties.
In the past, China implemented Mao Zedong’s 1940s ‘da da, tan tan’ (fight fight, talk talk) strategy. When Washington sought to influence Mao to stop the war against the Nationalist Army, he agreed for talks, but continued to make decisive gains, and eventually achieved victory, on the battleground.
It has now tweaked and emerged out of another strategy, that of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead’ strategy. President Xi Jinping feels that it is China’s time to lead (not necessarily the world). China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy will pursue the da da, tan tan strategy, but by using its economic heft and, hopefully, continuing its three-decade-old policy of not firing a bullet across its borders.
In such a milieu, India must recalibrate its strategy to achieve ‘cold peace’ with China. The two countries with “oversized egos” must cooperate and compete, but avoid further confrontation. One way out is to dehyphenate India-China ties from the United States, which would also address the India-Pakistan issue. Despite the recent events, this could help Chindia progress from “Inch (India and China) towards Miles (Millennium of Exceptional Synergy)”.
It could be a decent strategy to make friends with the enemy next door rather than remain close to a distant friend! This could have implications for the Gulf as well.
Ahead of the talks, here are the key points that have led to the dispute and the pitfalls as the two nations, who fought a 1962 border war and have clashed many times since, over the solution:
After a fierce physical fight on the undefined Ladakh border left many dead on both sides, India and China are trying to defuse the situation. The nasty clash, in which soldiers used rods, stones and bare hands, occurred even as talks
The continuing escalation of India-China tension on the border leading to a large-scale physical attack by Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) men on Indian personnel on the Line of Actual Control (LAC)
The confrontation in the Galwan Valley, part of the disputed Ladakh region along the Himalayan frontier, was the deadliest in 45 years. India blames China for instigating the fight by developing infrastructure in the valley, which it said was a breach of the agreement of what area remained in dispute.
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