There are three ‘cold wars’ that have been underway for some time, which involve India and China. Each shows both how much the world has changed since the ‘original’ Cold War between the US and the USSR and how distinct in their worldviews and approaches India and China are from the superpowers of an earlier era. These cold wars are also now picking up pace.
The first cold war is a direct one. Mutual trust has never been a strong suit of the India-China relationship but the ongoing Chinese transgressions along the LAC indicate a significant breakdown of long-standing bilateral agreements and can be considered a tipping point. For the foreseeable future, LAC face-offs involving violent physical altercations and possibly casualties will be the norm. And yet, these are unlikely to escalate into full-fledged conflict even as both sides criticise each other more openly in bilateral and multilateral conversations.
What also separates the India-China cold war from its predecessor between the superpowers is the deep and growing economic linkages between the two sides. Another feature is the distinct asymmetry in both the military and economic equations in China’s favour. But while calls in India for selectively boycotting Chinese goods are unlikely to work, the Indian government can still prevent any further Chinese ingress in the form of capital and technologies. Given its own political economy, this might be more of a concern for China, than the LAC itself. Asymmetry, thus, does not necessarily mean lack of leverage for India and avenues for negotiations and compromises will exist in the relationship.
The Indian government has a near perfect ground game in terms of messaging domestically on matters related to Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. And yet, ever since the standoffs with China began in early May, the government’s communications have been limited, confused, and confusing.
This is not to say that India’s military responses to either Pakistani or Chinese provocations – based on such information as is available in the open domain – has been wanting. In the case of the former, one could argue that even such an incident as Balakot where India attacked Pakistani territory, was calibrated well given that it did not lead to escalation. In the case of the Galwan Valley incident of 15 June, too, the official statement on the Prime Minister’s remarks at the All Party Meeting on 19 June quotes him saying, “that twenty of our brave soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for the nation in Ladakh but also taught a lesson to those who had dared to look towards our motherland”. This suggests that the Indians at least gave as good as they got. The Chinese, too, seemed to acknowledge casualties on their side. In dealing with a power like China with its superior military capabilities, that is as good as one can expect, and even something of a victory for India.
However, the question here for the Indian government is of communicating its position and version of events accurately both at home and abroad. The 19 June statement shows the Prime Minister prefacing his reference to the deaths of the soldiers by saying “that neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured”. In reality, this obscured more than it clarified. While the present tense suggested that he could technically be accurate insofar as the situation at the moment of his speaking was concerned, the Hindi version – ““न तो किसी ने हमारी सीमा में प्रवेश किया है, न ही किसी भी पोस्ट पर कब्जा किया गया है” na to kisi ne hamari seema main pravesh kiya hain, na hi kisi bhi post par kabza kiya gaya hain – appeared to make a somewhat larger claim covering the entire period since confrontations started in May that neither had anyone entered Indian territory nor capturedany Indian posts.
Ever since Xi Jinping came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), he has given greater wings to a form of victimhood-based nationalism in China and promoted the image of the CPC as the only institution capable of defending China’s interests. One narrative that has built up as a result is that China must reclaim territories that it had supposedly lost to imperialism and great power machinations over a century and a half before the arrival of the CPC at the helm of affairs in China in 1949. In the initial years however, under Mao Zedong as Chairman of the CPC, it was not nationalism as much ideology that drove China’s actions – China even willingly gave up territory to Vietnam as part of the objective of maintaining friendly relations with a fellow communist country.
But even then, as in the case of India in 1962 and the Ussuri clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969, China was ready to throw in and risk everything to push back when it thought its neighbours were trying to take undue advantage of it or acting in a hegemonic manner. Continue reading
The first Indian casualties on the disputed India-China boundary since 1975 should be occasion to reconsider several long-held beliefs and methods of dealing with the relationship that successive governments in New Delhi have adopted over the years.
This essay will deal with just one trope – that foreign policymaking in India cannot be an open, public or democratic exercise and that ‘quiet diplomacy’ is the way to go in dealing with China. There are two central problems with such a position – both of which have been on view during the ongoing crisis on the LAC and which have severely constrained the Indian government’s ability to assess the situation as well as to find options to deal with it.
First, the desire to keep decision-making on China within the strict confines of the government has much to do with the run-up to the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. The lesson learned following India’s defeat seemed to be that discussing matters openly in Parliament or with the general public tended to limit the freedom of manoeuvre for the Indian government to engage in negotiations with the Chinese side that would require compromises by New Delhi in order to have a realistic chance of a resolution that at least broadly met India’s interests.
If this tendency has continued within the Indian government, it has to do with a second reality valid until quite recently, which was that expertise on the border areas or on what went on there was limited to the Army and various paramilitaries – the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and previously, also the Assam Rifles, both under the Ministry of Home Affairs – that had manned the borders and/or with the diplomats and other civilian officials who held administrative charge of these areas.
There are good reasons why neither position is tenable any longer.
For the rest of the article originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Reorienting India’s China policy towards greater transparency’, Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation, 17 June 2020 see here.
In early June, a “virtual summit” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, led to the signing of several agreements that have significant implications for regional security. The call for a deeper maritime partnership between the two countries and an important agreement on mutual logistics support in each other’s military bases come against a backdrop of bilateral tensions in both the India-China and Australia-China relationships.
Chinese transgressions on the Line of Actual Control between India and China have been ongoing over the past month and while this is not a new phenomenon what was notable was that these transgressions took place at multiple locations in Sikkim and Ladakh, indicating perhaps, a new phase in bilateral tensions. Australia-China relations, meanwhile, are in a particularly difficult phase. Canberra’s push for an independent international investigation into the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic attracting furious reaction from Beijing which accused the Australians of playing proxy for the United States. In the inflated Chinese view of themselves, no country accusing China of wrongdoing has any agency or rationale of its own but is always serving American interests.
Talk of a post-Covid world order often centres around the decline or the retreat of the US from global leadership implying that the field is clear for China to pursue its ambitions to take over with even greater speed. However, as countries like Australia and others like France and Germany – despite the general failure of a collective response from the European Union – have shown, a vacuum created by the US does not necessarily mean that liberal democracies elsewhere will not stand up to China. Continue reading