After a series of diplomatic mistakes Bharat made in 1950s while dealing with China, there is a major turn-around in the bilateral relations. Bharat is scripting “reversal string of pearls” for China. Doklam reflects it starkly
Dr Sudip Kar Purkayastha
After 72 days of standoff between Chinese and the Indian armies, Doklam issue seems to have been resolved diplomatically. It is being seen as a significant diplomatic victory for India. As for China, she had all the while through a mix of shrill warning, sarcasm, and a threat made it a prestige issue. The mode of resolution of the standoff is hurting her image.
It would be pertinent to analyse: (a) India’s blunders that led China to develop a dismissive and domineering attitude towards her; (b) China’s rising ambition and arrogance; (c) India’s attempts to redefine the bilateral relation; (d) the prospect and consequences of a war; (e) the ideal path forward for both countries.
SERIES OF BLUNDERS
Beginning from 1950, India committed a series of blunders continuing through the decade. In that year she rejected a permanent seat in the UNSC offered to her by the US. She repeated the folly in 1955 by rejecting another offer from USSR on the specious ground of international morality and recommending the case of China, instead.
Her extremely naïve and condescending approach with regard to communist China facilitated the latter’s forcible annexation of Tibet, a deeply religious country. China’s People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet in 1950 with an imperial design. While it was decimating Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage, India signed a treaty with China on April 29, 1954, in Peiking inter-alia recognising Autonomous Region of Tibet Region as an integral part of China.
Ironically China began to return the favour by bleeding India. In 1955 she made forays into Indian territories, slicing and annexing them in parts. In 1956-57 she occupied a large tract of land in Aksai Chin to build Sinkiang-Tibet highway and merged it with Tibet. India kept her eyes closed.
China probably interpreted Indian gestures arising out of cowardice and hypocrisy. In the 1962 war she was encouraged to satiate her territorial greed in more fulsome manner. China annexed large territories in Western part of present Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin in J&K. The very next year through a border agreement with Pakistan she managed to get hold of additional 5000 plus sq km area in the Shaksgam valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan of northern J&K. Not resting on these conquests, China has been scaling up demands for new territories.
China’s colonial attitude affected countries in Southeast Asia as well. She bullied the members of the ASEAN countries in the South China Sea with the help of some obscure maps and her bizarre ‘nine-dash line’ theory. After creating a theoretical construct, she went on building artificial islands to extend her territorial rights. Three such islands in the Spratly chain continue to be deeply contentious issues among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. She has been applying variations of similar mischievous strategy with regard to Indo-Tibet border issues. Claiming Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet is a pointer.
Unfortunately, successive Indian ruling regimes yielded to her domination. Since 1950 Indian recognition of China’s right over Tibet had implied an ‘autonomous status’ for the latter. In 2003, India led by the then PM Vajpayee removed that technical caveat too. Over a period of time, China got so emboldened by such continuing appeasement, that she set out to manipulate water of Brahmaputra in disregard to her responsibility as an upper riparian country. India lodged protests but without any result.
On the whole, the pattern of bilateral relations between two countries since 1950 till 2014 betrayed a tendency on the part of India to accept China as the big brother and silently suffer the consequences.
China’s economic progress has turned spectacular since the late 1980s when she began to beat the international competition by paying low wages to vast workers. She has begun using her huge trade surplus to emerge as a grand world power. In this regard, in a move that several critics in Europe and US describe as apparently altruistic but ethically suspect, China launched a massive One Belt One Road (OBOR) project at a cost of nearly USD 1 trillion.
The OBOR seeks to revive the ancient ‘silk route’ both overland and across the seas connecting China to 60 plus countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. Towards that end, she proposes to lend money through several Chinese and multilateral institutions such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Development Bank of BRICS to needy countries to develop their infrastructure. Under that façade, she also contemplates augmenting her strategic footprints in them.
As for India, the OBOR encircles India both overland and across the seas. Significantly, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) branches out of OBOR and reaches Gwadar port of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea through the Gilgit-Baltistan of POK. Not only does this route traverse through a territory which belongs to India presently under Pak occupation, it also envisages setting up numerous cantonments and defence establishments in the area enabling quick mobilisation of the Chinese military in India’s north Western area using the land route.
Across the maritime route, China would help to create port infrastructure in several countries including Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Colombo (Sri Lanka) and link them to ports in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar in the east, Gwadar port in Pakistan in the west whence the route proceeds further westward. The contour of the route virtually gives China oversight on the entire coastal India and also the scope to exert influence over the busy and critical international maritime route running from Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz.
China launched OBOR with much fanfare in September 2013. India had no reason to celebrate. It was part of the Chinese diplomacy to lay a ‘string of pearls’ around India to restrict her commercial and political influence. India’s protest against CPEC was feeble. On the contrary sections of Indian media sang glories of the ‘New Global Power’ from Asia and her grandiose scheme.
In a nutshell, till the latest change of regime in New Delhi, the successive Indian political dispensations had virtually accepted the suzerainty of China and large sections of Indian media enamoured by her splendid emergence as a world power attempted to convert Indians to that vision. May 2014 brought big disruption!
The ‘new India’ sought a relationship as an equal. In 2015 India became the fastest growing amongst large economies overtaking China. She repeated the feat next year as well. Her energetic new PM went around amongst India’s neighbours as well as the major powers of Europe, America and Asia building a strong diplomatic network of Allies. In the Far East India forged a strategic alliance with Japan, an Asian giant as well as a global economic power.
In the Southeast Asia, Vietnam, a small but valiant country, has been one of the victims of China’s unfair aggression since 1979. India made Vietnam an ally and a centrepiece of her strategy to counter Chinese neo-colonialism. As part of the strategy, India has been selling Vietnam arms, providing training to her military and helping her explore oil rigs in South China Sea disregarding the Chinese frown. In return, Vietnam agreed to India setting up naval presence in Nha Trang (with a direct line of sight to China’s strategic Hainan Island) and Cam Ranh ports.
Through a major strategic offensive India, has been laying around China a ‘reverse string-of-pearls’ involving India, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and Russia that has tacit support from the USA. She is also combining her strategic outreach with Japan’s great economic might to help build multiple infrastructure projects across Africa, Iran, Srilanka, and Southeast Asia. These are competitive alternative and aimed at weaning them away from China’s influence. The Freedom Corridor stretching from Asia-Pacific to Africa and Mekong India Economic Corridor connecting Kenya-Tanzania-Mozambique through Jawaharlal Nehru and Kochi ports are parts of such endeavour.
China has been upset at the stunning reversal in Indian approach. This has seemingly led her to resort to a series of intimidatory attempts at Arunachal, Doklam and Ladakh in recent times.
Does it mean China would modify her attitude henceforth? It is difficult to predict. But she must have realised bullying will no longer work on India. Her long engagement with Japan on the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in the East China Sea showed the futility of such a strategy with another major power. Doklam was a confirmation.
Next, can she hope to win or break India’s morale by waging a limited war? That is likely to cause her more harm for several reasons including inter-alia:
a) India had committed a grave error in 1950s on Tibet. A war thrust upon would give an opportunity to make some atonement. A Tibetan government in exile is still functioning in India. A bulk of Tibetans is thoroughly unhappy with the Chinese rule and they still desperately long for freedom, however impractical the prospect may look now. Significantly India recently gave some indication about her rethinking on Tibet issue by some symbolic actions. For example, she allowed Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in April 2017 and the celebration of his 82nd birthday by Lobsang Sangay the Prime Mister of the Tibetan government in exile on the shores of the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh in July 2017 much to the chagrin of China;
b) China is bound to lose Indian market, which is potentially one of the most attractive ones in the world. In FY 2017 China had a trade surplus of nearly US$51.08 bn in her favour out of total bilateral trade of US$71.48 bn with India. A war will kill that market for long time to come;
c) Significantly, for the first time since 1947 India under the new regime is trying to rediscover her roots. She is getting closer to her core civilisational values and this process seems to be infusing in her a cool confidence, self-assurance, and a refreshingly different world-view giving a new momentum to her all-round progress . A war may give further push to her spirit while China’s image may suffer as a neo colonial and aggressive country.
In this connection, despite China’s initial reluctance and due to India’s firm insistence, the joint declaration of the BRICS summit on the inaugural day on September 4 in Xiamen China, condemned terrorist attacks and terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and named various terror organisations including inter-alia Pak based Jaish-e- Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba along with ISIL/Daish, Al-Qaida, Taliban and others. This gave hope that China may begin to mend her way.There are lots of things that enlightened Asian countries like India, China and Japan can do together to bring lasting benefit to mankind like achieving paradigm shift in areas such as solar energy, space exploration, medicine, food production, communication etc. Not the least, of course, is they can do plenty in burying the ghost of terrorism and making the world a better place for future generations!
(The writer is a senior columnist)