How India can keep China in check | Opinion
The June 15 clashes between India and China have finally broken the four-decade record of relative peace on the Himalayan frontier. Reactions have been sharp, ranging from calls to evict the Chinese from their entrenched positions to others calling for a Cold War.
The debate over China’s rise has been raging for the past two decades, if not since 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) swept into Tibet. India-China relations have seen it all — from engagement to a dramatic collapse in 1959, a brief-but-traumatic war in 1962, a hiatus of no- war, no-peace in the decades that followed. And, finally a diplomatic breakthrough with the 1988 modus vivendi that paved the way for India and China to build a relationship without settling the border dispute. The core premise was that the stable development of relations is predicated on a peaceful periphery. It reflected pragmatism and broader shifts in Chinese and Indian priorities in favour of economic transformation at home and a peaceful neighbourhood. The June 15 clashes have dented that agreed-upon edifice.
It is clear that the next phase of the relationship depends on a peaceful frontier. But this should not mean merely a restoration of the status quo ante. If, by the status quo, we mean two large nuclear-armed countries resuming their aggressive jostling and humiliating each other, that is unsustainable. To anyone who has viewed leaked videos of the border face-offs in recent years, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) grey zones have been transformed into a nasty tit-for-tat game, waiting to explode.
For the past decade, both sides have adopted forward policies matched by new connectivity links to the frontier. A belief that an array of confidence-building measures (CBMs) would cushion this changing balance of power in the forward areas has been misplaced. It is time now for stock-taking and re-envisioning a new conflict-management framework. There were two main reasons to engage in proactive probing in the grey zones — as a symbolic ritual of showing the flag to demonstrate consistency over claim lines, and, keeping an eye on each other so that nobody changes the status quo on the ground. But there was a complementary political element too. High-level talks between the special representatives were intended to lay out a framework within which each side would bring forward their claims for serious bargaining to commence. But with that political process stalling in recent years, tactical forward probing along LAC has assumed a life of its own, disproportionate to the envisaged goals.
Why can’t Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping settle the dispute? Chinese scholar Yun Sun summarises the key problem obstructing a settlement — “Key concessions India demands from China on the border settlement are hard commitments that cannot be reversed. By contrast, what China seeks from India, such as its neutrality in the US-Chinese strategic competition, is ephemeral and easily adjustable.” This problem of uncertainty and fluidity in strategic intentions has no apparent solution for the foreseeable future. However, stabilising the frontier through new norms is possible and in the interests of both states. Creative approaches such as agreed buffer zones in the most contentious pockets and coordinated or restricted patrolling regimes to avoid violent scuffles must be integral to the new status quo.
In their excitement or jingoism, many have declared a breaking point in the India-China relations. This is precisely the time to avoid such hyperbole.
The relationship has not suddenly gone south. The warning signs have been apparent for some time. It has been falsely claimed that Delhi has been oblivious to China’s rise. In fact, Modi’s China policy has been uncompromising across the board. From the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to maritime security to emerging high technologies such as 5G, Delhi has been bold in its rhetoric and actions. Even in the geopolitical arena, India has been unabashed and dogged in engaging the United States (US), despite an unenthused president in the White House. Across Asia too, Delhi has been proactively tapping China’s neighbours as a future countervailing hedge. With traditional ally Russia too, Modi’s renewed outreach in recent years is reminiscent of the old geostrategy — promoting a balance of power in Eurasia.
If anything, India’s policymakers could be critiqued for getting ahead of themselves and precipitating counter-balancing moves from China without having a credible strategy in place. But Delhi’s real failure has been to not match its realpolitik words and deeds with a broader foreign policy framework where sustained engagement with China was also part of a grand strategy to emerge as a “leading power” in a multipolar world. Instead, Delhi has found itself leaning against China with an empty treasury and unpredictable partners.
History shows that when India possessed strong and positive ties with the great powers, it was taken seriously by China. Yet, history also shows the clear limits of what leveraging that balance of power can do for India. The India-US and India-Soviet (Russia) ties worked to stabilise the India-China relationship when India remained firmly grounded in recognising and pursuing its own interests rather than becoming an object in a great game. So only when two conditions simultaneously held was India able to shape a mutually beneficial relationship with China — shrewdly leveraging the international environment and maintaining a sophisticated China policy.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is an adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and author of Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies During the Cold War
The views expressed are personal