New Delhi’s new regional calculus
Last month, New Delhi’s regional policy took another interesting turn with the beginning of disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the announcement of ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC). After nine rounds of high-level military talks, a disengagement process in the Pangong Tso region has witnessed the return of Chinese and Indian troops and armour to their permanent bases. While Indian troops still continue to lock horns with the Chinese at multiple sites along LAC, this move is being widely viewed as the beginning of a long drawn out de-escalation process between the two Asian giants.
On LoC , the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMO) of the two nations engaged telephonically and decided to adhere to all agreements on ceasefire along LoC and the sectors of the International Border “in the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders”. Though an agreement was also reached in 2018 to abide by the 2003 ceasefire agreement, there has been an increasing number of ceasefire violations in recent years with volatility rising across the frontier. More than 5,000 ceasefire violations were reported in 2020 and this year has seen Pakistan violating the ceasefire more than 600 times. Given the state of India-Pakistan relations, the announcement of a ceasefire took everyone by surprise.
What has been striking in the analyses of these developments in India is a strange sense of defeatism. Some have criticised these moves as being timid while others have argued that these moves have been pursued under external pressure. One can be critical of the policy moves only after assessing the fundamental shifts in India’s regional environment and New Delhi’s foreign policy and security posture. And that assessment seems to be missing.
All policy frameworks evolve in a wider domestic, regional and global context. No nation, even the mightiest one, exists in a state of splendid isolation where external factors do not impinge on policymaking. Smart policy is about recognising those constraints and using them to your advantage at the right time.
The single-most important geopolitical development of the last few months has been India standing up to China after the Galwan Valley incident in June 2020 and making it clear to Beijing and to the world that it is possible to resist Chinese aggression successfully. Even as Indian forces challenged their considerably more resource-rich Chinese counterparts along LAC, Indian diplomacy ensured that New Delhi retained a central role in the global health crisis, emerging as net provider of security in the realm of public health. While, for most countries, taking China on in a challenging domestic and global environment would have been impossible, New Delhi stood up. India’s message to the world was — if this is the new normal, then we are prepared.
And not only did the world notice, Beijing did as well. If the Chinese Communist Party is talking today about “the need to create enabling conditions to settle the border dispute”, it is, in no small measure, due to a consistent message from India that the Sino-Indian relationship cannot be divorced from the border challenge. The larger strategic fabric of bilateral ties between India and China remains as fragile as ever and China is not going to mend its ways just because it has moved back from a part of LAC. But it can no longer be ignored that the ability of India to shape the terms of its engagement with China is growing.
This confidence is reflected in the way New Delhi has moved with Pakistan on LoC with the new ceasefire agreement. After decades, Indian policy vis-à-vis Pakistan has been able to put the latter under pressure from multiple points. Economically, the global isolation of Pakistan is biting and the scrutiny as part of the Financial Action Task Force has been more effective than initially thought. Diplomatically, India’s campaign against Pakistan has put the spotlight squarely on the latter’s use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy. Militarily, India has demonstrated that not only does it have the means to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff but it can also respond adequately on the conventional front and can impose costs on Pakistan for its reckless behaviour. And strategically, by standing up to China, it has made it clear to Rawalpindi that a Sino-Pak axis is no guarantee for the success of a two-front challenge.
As a consequence, for New Delhi today, making a play for diplomatic overtures vis-à-vis China and Pakistan is not as costly as it once would have been. And that’s the real change in the regional matrix and India’s security calculus. India is not giving peace a chance because of some woolly-headed notion of regional rapprochement or because of pressure from external stakeholders such as Washington. New Delhi had never closed its doors to diplomacy in the first place. India’s neighbours decided not to go down that route. If India is now once again willing to give diplomacy a chance, it is only after effectively demonstrating that if challenged, it is more than adequately prepared to preserve its interests. And this message is being heard by India’s regional challengers, notwithstanding domestic contestation.
Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal