India’s China strategy needs to be debated

Is India repeating the errors made in its pre-1962 engagement with China?

May 09, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 11:22 am IST

‘It is time for an urgent debate in Parliament on India’s China strategy’.

‘It is time for an urgent debate in Parliament on India’s China strategy’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Chinese have a knack for making headlines on India’s borders. The latest move, in April, saw them “renaming” 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh, which they consider to be “Zangnan” or, in English, “South Tibet”. The announcement was made after approval from the State Council, implying a green light from the very top of the Chinese system. Zhang Yongpan, of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claims that China’s move to “standardise” names in Zangnan “completely falls within China’s sovereignty and it is also in accordance with the regulation on the administration of geographical names”.

Long-held tactic, much provocation

India responded typically by “rejecting outright” this act of nomenclatural aggression on part of the Chinese. But is that enough? The “re-naming” of disputed territories has been a long-held tactic of the Chinese government, and this is the third batch of “re-naming” with reference to Arunachal Pradesh. More significantly, it is not the first provocative act of Chinese provenance in recent months. Ever since the unresolved stand-off at Galwan in June 2020, there has been no serious attempt by Beijing at a resolution, let alone a restoration of the status quo ante, while several instances of further provocation have occurred from the Chinese side. Another border skirmish in December 2022 in the Tawang area showed that whatever policy the Ministry of External Affairs is masking with its anodyne statements, it is not ensuring deterrence.

India has lost access to 26 out of 65 Patrolling Points (PP) in eastern Ladakh, according to a research paper submitted by a senior police officer at the annual police meet in Delhi, last December. The “play safe” approach has turned areas that were accessible (before April 2020) for patrolling by the Indian Army into informal “buffer” zones, resulting in the loss of pasture lands at Gogra hills, the North Bank of Pangong Tso, and Kakjung areas. This is a matter of national security and of grave concern. Prime Minister Narendra Modi assures the nation that no “Indian territory” has been occupied, but such surrenders of access to lands traditionally used by Indians have become routine. Yet, the government refuses to openly call out the Chinese threat. The Prime Minister was willing to stand up and proclaim that “this is not an era of war” while sharing a platform with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin — the leader of a warring country with which India shares deep and friendly relations. What stops him from speaking out on a series of egregious transgressions by China on his own country’s borders?

Explaining the Indian stand

There are arguably several factors that have possibly led to the Indian aversion to denouncing the Chinese. Happymon Jacob has identified several: the growing power differential between the two countries; uncertainty about the strategic actions of major powers such as the U.S. in case of a military stand-off; the military capability differential between the two countries (India is not equipped for a major war with China); pressure from Indian business interests anxious to safeguard trade (India’s trade dependence on China has now crossed over $100 billion); lack of consensus within the various ministries of the government about the kind of response the Chinese threat merits; and lack of political will within an increasingly hyper-nationalist, image-conscious Bharatiya Janata Party government (Mr. Modi is obsessively anxious not to appear weak, especially just in advance of a general election).

These considerations have led to the emergence of overcautious self-restraint on the part of the Indian government, marked by a refusal to permit even a basic discussion of China in Parliament, on the grounds of national security. This overlooks growing Chinese self-assertiveness on its land and sea borders, bordering on belligerence, which has already set alarm bells ringing in a number of Asian capitals and in Washington. Is India repeating the errors made in its pre-1962 engagement with Communist China? Nehru’s vision of India and China as the two major south Asian civilizations led to India being one of the first countries to recognise the Communist government in China and ended up with its softening its line on China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet, its encroachment on India’s borders and its cartographical aggression in the pursuit of Chinese goodwill. Mr. Modi’s current policy of Chinese appeasement seems eerily similar, and could end just as badly.

What lesson does this have for the Indian response today? The ruling party vociferously argues that in the 1950s, India failed to call a spade a spade, behaved too cautiously in its diplomacy, and left too much for too late. The only difference 60 years later appears to be that the Indian government is today reinforcing its border defences and building roads and other infrastructure on the Indian side. While these may prepare India better to resist a People’s Liberation Army sweep into India, it does nothing to deter a Chinese build-up and continuing “salami-slicing” tactics on the disputed frontier, while India’s diplomacy only emboldens Beijing and leaves potential allies puzzled. Only if there is an acknowledgement of the problem can there be the initiation of a process of resolving it.

China’s assertive image building exercise

As a one-party state, China does not have to worry about public approval, but the Chinese Communist Party has shored up its domestic credibility by valorising its international image. Once anchored in the “peaceful rise” theory, it is now about showing strength, determination, economic might and an unwillingness to compromise on what it sees as its core national interests. The absence of a tough rhetorical response to Chinese actions in public is usually viewed there as a Chinese gain, whereas acrimony in public unsettles them.

In fact, China’s public image is a source of its vulnerability. It has always had a fear of being isolated in global affairs: this is why its assertiveness today is accompanied by diplomatic overtures in Europe, Russia and West Asia, to add an adroit diplomatic gloss to its uncompromising military determination. India was able to capitalise on China’s image-consciousness to get Masood Azhar blacklisted by the 1267 UN Sanctions Committee after China blocked India’s efforts for more than a decade, cornering Beijing through nimble, stakeholder-oriented diplomacy, so that in the end, China did not want to be seen as the lone holdout. Hence, image matters to Beijing, and can be exploited to India’s advantage.

When dealing with the Chinese, India must always remember Mark Twain’s observation, that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. The period since Galwan, 2020-23, is not the same as 1949-62, but the same pattern of appeasement and self-denial is ominously emerging. India is missing an opportunity to loudly and proudly raise matters of its own vital interest by not using a strategy that fractures China’s image by challenging it publicly on its transgressions. The government must do what Nehru did, and take the Indian people into confidence. It is time for an urgent debate in Parliament on India’s China strategy.

Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP (Congress) for Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha, a former United Nations Under Secretary-General and former Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. He is the award-winning author of 24 books, including Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st century. Armaan Mathur is a political science honours student at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi

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