India must resort to an autonomous foreign policy

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By: Ashwin Prakash

The unsettled border issue is the Achilles heel of India–China relations. It erupts every few years, bringing the two countries on the verge of military confrontation. Temporary peace is restored through negotiations limited to resolving the stand-off and brushing the lasting solution aside. The crisis mitigation process after every military engagement is mechanically driven, repeating with boring regularity; phrases used by the previous joint statements.  “Not allowing differences to become disputes” is one such phrase that has  again appeared in the most recent India–China joint statement issued after two-hour-long negotiations between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Moscow. The diplomatic phrase was extensively used during the informal summit in Wuhan between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the post-Doklam clash in 2017.  These hollow words have failed to stop the otherwise peaceful border with China turning into a dangerously violent zone where the Chinese killed 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley in June 2020, without using firearms. This led to a clamour for changing the rules of engagement for border patrol platoons.

The net result is that, recently, both parties have fired gunshots to enforce their perceived territorial claims and counterclaims in the Himalayan hills. We have now reached a stage where more bloodshed is imminent.   One factor driving the current India–China imbroglio is the growing Chinese assertiveness and its enhanced propensity to brandish its military power. However, in analysing Chinese behaviour, one cannot overlook the American aggression and desperation to save its declining empire. China’s main threat is the United States (US), which is militarily challenging its territorial claims in the South China Sea, interfering in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and launching a concerted campaign on the alleged atrocities against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibetans by the Chinese state. Cornered by Washington, the last thing Beijing wants is bad relations with India. Then, why is Beijing behaving aggressively in Ladakh? The recent Chinese pre-emptive actions in the eastern Ladakh sector emanate from its fear that the US may nudge India to employ the “forward policy” in the border areas to embarrass the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its leadership. This fear is accentuated by the securitisation of foreign policy under Modi, and the display of unnecessary braggadocio by his political–military set-up that now includes Aksai Chin in Indian maps. This is in sharp contrast to the approach adopted by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.  In 2013, when the Chinese intruded into Depsang Valley, the UPA government settled the issue diplomatically, keeping its security forces on the back-burner. The episode ended with the Chinese admitting to intruding into Indian Territory. After the incident, India and China signed the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement with an intention to enhance predictability on the borders.

Improved predictability on the borders gives China the leeway to concentrate its forces on the eastern seaboard, but upsets US strategic calculations based on overstretching Beijing’s resources and keeping its leadership distracted on multiple fronts.  Modi’s highly securitised foreign policy, which is not shy of indulging in the game of brinkmanship, is calibrated to work in tandem with its security policy. In mid 2014, the Chumar area flared up and continued even when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India was underway. Modi’s confidence came from the fact that in Chumar, the Indian Army enjoys a geographic advantage over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This gave the Indian negotiators an edge over their Chinese counterparts when they sat down to de-escalate the situation.  New Delhi negotiated from a position of strength to resolve the Doklam crisis in 2017. The Indian Army squatted on an alien territory disputed between Bhutan and China. Beijing was pushed on the backfoot as India tested the Chinese leadership’s resolve to secure the territory, at a time when the 19th National Party Congress of the CPC was round the corner.

More recently, before Jaishankar embarked for the talks at Moscow to de-escalate the fast deteriorating situation in Ladakh, the Indian military provided him the advantage by capturing some crucial heights in south Pangong Tso lake area that left the Chinese surprised and infuriated. Apparently, the militarised foreign policy is working well, but what it aims to ultimately achieve is difficult to comprehend. Is the objective limited to impressing the world that, irrespective of the power differential, India can tame China?  The policy restricted to merely making an impression is unsustainable. It overstretches India’s financial and security resources in times of chronic economic sickness. The policy is exorbitantly prohibitive because India cannot simultaneously have deployments on its borders with Pakistan and China and also be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. The embrace of American interests in Asia impedes India’s agency to solve the border issue with China. To confront this reality, the Indian diplomacy must disengage the border issue from its Indo–Pacific policy. Notwithstanding the inherent troubles with dovetailing our foreign policy with US interests, India can commit its military services to aid US’s China containment policy only on a single front. However, the larger question remains: What serves India better? Being a subordinate ally to the US or moving towards amicable relations with our neighbours? The answer is blowing in the Himalayan winds.  INAV

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