CONSIDER the past and you shall know the future, says a Chinese proverb. That is something the Narendra Modi government did not keep in mind when it embarked on its ill-considered move to confront the Chinese on the Doklam border row last year. An aggressive stance as India knows to its cost since the bruising 1962 war has never helped it to get the better of its large and more powerful neighbour; patient negotiation, on the other hand, has enabled it to deal successfully and quietly with China on border skirmishes. The success lies in the fact that the two countries have managed to live with the world’s biggest boundary dispute these many decades without letting it affect the cultural bonds they share or cramping trade relations. Both have, in fact, flourished in recent times.
But the past was ignored by the BJP regime which has thoughtlessly needled the Chinese over the past three years. There was the frequent feting of the Dalai Lama including a much-publicised visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the sensitive border state, and a meddling in affairs that were best left alone, such as the South China Sea problem. New Delhi also cocked a snook at Beijing by reviving ‘the Quad’, an informal — and pointless — alliance of the US, Japan, Australia and India formed primarily to counter the rise of China. When a party plays to its domestic gallery it tends to forget the strategic costs of immature initiatives.
The nadir was reached with Doklam. In mid-January, the Modi regime’s attempt to stare down China on a border dispute involving Bhutan and China ended in a major embarrassment for the country when China began building a huge military complex in Doklam, close to the site where Indian troops had been despatched rather impetuously to stop the construction of a road in July 2017. While asking India not to interfere in ‘legitimate’ infrastructure development in its sovereign territory, Beijing also administered a sharp rap on the knuckles to Modi’s handpicked chief of army staff Bipin Rawat. “The Indian senior military officer has recognised that it was the Indian border troops who crossed the border … This incident has put bilateral relations to … severe test. We hope the Indian side can learn lessons from this....”
Some lessons appear to have been learned. India is now going all out to address China’s sensitivities even if it means stepping back from the muscular nationalism that has characterised the BJP’s approach to neighbours. Institutional frameworks that were given short shrift earlier are back at the centre of a more realistic policy that is being pieced together by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) since there is a realisation that not much has worked to India’s advantage with the exception of relations with Iran.
India is beginning to reset a brash foreign policy that has damaged ties with China and others.
The architect of the salvage mission is new foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, a seasoned China hand, who appears to be well regarded by the authorities in Beijing. Last month, Gokhale’s meetings with top Chinese officials resulted in a decision by the two sides to initiate a sustained level of dialogue which will include a visit to China by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj who has been kept in the shadows by a prime minister determined to play the sole starring role on foreign policy. It is hoped that by the time Modi meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in June in Qingdao, relations between the two countries would have been set on a firmer footing.
The question is how willing Modi supporters and the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are willing to accept the new reality. Convinced of their latent superiority, the saffron brigade of Hindu supremacists believes China is a competitor that needs to be contained and that India and the US are natural allies in such a project. To concede that China is more powerful and far too rich to be considered in the same league as India is anathema to it. Besides, there is the deep-rooted yearning to avenge the defeat of 1962.
MEA, naturally, is taking a more pragmatic view of geopolitical realities. The official release on Gokhale’s talks in Beijing notes the “need to build on the convergences between India and China and address differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations”. That explains why MEA was able to persuade the government to issue a circular asking senior officials not to attend functions marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile in India — an unexpectedly dramatic shift for a regime that couldn’t have enough of the Dalai Lama in the past three years.
With ties to all its neighbours in tatters — the latest to thumb its nose at India is Maldives — and allies turning hostile, Modi, who often appears dazzled by his proximity to world leaders, is staring at a largely blank balance sheet. Disillusionment with Trump is ineluctable as the US pushes an aggressive ‘America first’ policy and warns of trade war against India (and China). Modi supporters who offered ritual prayers for Trump’s victory in the presidential election are now at a loss to understand why Trump not only mocks Modi publicly but also threatens sanctions against India.
The reset in relations with China is likely to have an impact on Delhi’s dealings with Islamabad, too. The more remarkable development has been the unexpectedly public criticism by the army brass of New Delhi’s policies and of their chief’s hawkish stance on neighbours. Gen Rawat’s claim last June that the Indian Army was ready for a “two-and-a-half-front war” was dismissed recently by the chief of the western command who said it was not a “smart idea” at all. Instead, he suggested that India should improve ties with China because it would also help in resolving the Pakistan problem by giving India the best possible leverage.
The frustration with the government’s inability to deal with the volatile Pakistan border prompted another general to state that “restoring ceasefire requires statesmanship, not brinkmanship.” Both generals were speaking at an open conference and they were clearly sending a message to Modi: reset foreign policy to meet India’s goals.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018