Doklam Standoff: Not Forgetting Bhutan

In the latest face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area, the role and place of Bhutan has been easily overlooked. It is the Bhutanese after all that are contending with Chinese over the area and it is they who invited the Indians to take up cudgels on their behalf against the Chinese.

Bhutan is, in many respects, probably India’s only genuine ally in the region and this too, is largely the result of that country’s unique political history and development. The Bhutanese monarchy has played a key role in nurturing a close and beneficial relationship with India and India has in large measure reciprocated. While a tiny country, Bhutan has always been favoured with fairly senior and always competent Indian ambassadors in its capital and maintains the Indian Military Training Team in support of the Bhutanese army. Also worth remembering is the fact that it was to Bhutan that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first official foreign visit after taking office.

That said, India should simply count itself lucky that it has managed to maintain a special place for itself in Bhutan’s international affairs for such a long time despite the vagaries of international politics.Continue reading “Doklam Standoff: Not Forgetting Bhutan”

Explaining Action and Reaction on Doklam

Following the latest confrontation between China and India in the Doklam area of Bhutan, there is clearly an edge to the repeated Chinese calls to India to ‘immediately pull back’ Indian troops to their side of the boundary. The Chinese have stressed that this ‘is the precondition for any meaningful talks between the two sides aiming at resolving the issue’.[1] What should Indians make of this and what should we look out for?

First, the frequent statements from India that it is not today the same as it was in 1962 and the Chinese response that nor for that matter is China implies more than just the accretion of military capability and determination and will on both sides. These statements are also a reminder that both sides have a much more clearer view of each other shorn of romanticism on the Indian side and of an equally romanticized ideology-driven anti-imperialism on the Chinese side. Responsible leaders on both sides know the costs of war.Continue reading “Explaining Action and Reaction on Doklam”

Panama Switches Diplomatic Recognition from Taiwan to China

Taiwan has lost yet another member of the small group of countries that recognize it diplomatically with Panama in Central America making the move to build ties with the PRC instead. The last country to switch ties was São Tomé and Príncipe in December 2016. Before that it was Gambia at the beginning of the previous year. But in between it must also be recalled that there was the move in Nigeria to get the Taiwan representation to move from Abuja, the capital, to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, an attempt to curtail whatever limited diplomatic privileges that the Taiwanese enjoyed in practice there. Taiwan is now down to just 20 countries recognizing it officially.[1]

With the latest action, there can be no doubt that China under Xi Jinping is engaged in a long-term but steady strategy of trying to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and constrain its international space. Beijing is declaring in unequivocal terms that it does not believe that it can reach any form of accommodation with Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-Taiwanese independence Democratic Progressive Party-led government and that its patience to wait for reunification is diminishing.Continue reading “Panama Switches Diplomatic Recognition from Taiwan to China”

India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum

In May, China hosted its first heads of government/state-level event under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI Forum represents the culmination of over three years of intense Chinese diplomatic activity trying to sell what is likely going to be Chinese president Xi Jinping’s most significant foreign policy legacy.

For this reason alone, there should be no doubt that the Chinese initiative is strategic in nature – not just in economic terms or militarily but also in terms of setting regional and global political agendas.

Western notions of China’s models of economic development and global engagement or of its ambitions are possibly irrelevant today and nowhere near what the Chinese themselves seek to achieve. The BRI’s heavy stress on cultural contacts and people-to-people exchanges is often ignored but is part of a promotion of China’s soft power underlining in turn its political/ideological agenda. This agenda is a direct challenge to India’s own political values and system.Continue reading “India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum”

Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to India: China in the Background

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is slated to make a state visit India from 7-10 April. The visit comes after at least two postponements. The difficulty in getting the visit to take off is a far cry from the warmth and cordiality that was on display in words and deeds during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka in June 2015.

Hasina’s reservations have to do with her fear of coming away from New Delhi without any agreement either on sharing the Teesta river waters or on constructing the Ganges Barrage on the Padma river at Pangsha near Rajbari. The agreement has fallen through multiple times during both the UPA tenure as well as during Modi’s visit and despite Dhaka agreeing to major India’s major demands of allowing transit of goods to Northeast both from Indian mainland overland through Bangladesh territory and by sea through the Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong and Mongla.

The Contrast

The coming state visit will be Hasina’s first in seven years to India and it might be useful to compare and contrast the progress in Dhaka’s ties with China – India’s principal challenger for Bangladesh’s affections – in the meantime.Continue reading “Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to India: China in the Background”

When Religion and Politics Mix: The Dalai Lama and India-China Relations

The Dalai Lama is slated to visit Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from 5-7 April. The visit follows a public meeting with the President of India in December last year – the first of its kind in some 60 years[1] – and an address at a major Buddhist conference in the Indian state of Bihar in mid-March where he shared the stage with the minister for culture in the Indian central government.[2]

Beijing has expectedly protested loudly and vigorously, presaging a fresh round of tensions in the India-China relationship.

The Chinese have been trying to portray Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh itself, as the central issue in the India-China boundary dispute. In the process, they are trying to repudiate a significant clause of a landmark 2005 bilateral treaty, which stated clearly that ‘settled populations’ would not be disturbed in the process of resolution.[3] Tawang, with the largest Buddhist monastery in India and a population of some 11,000 at last count, is as settled as they come. This Chinese volte face – no doubt related to continued challenges to their legitimacy in Tibet – might be said to have been at least partially responsible for why the boundary negotiations have not moved forward for a while.Continue reading “When Religion and Politics Mix: The Dalai Lama and India-China Relations”

China in Central Asia: Myth-making and Foreign Policy

China is deepening its ties with Central Asia through the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. Cooperation with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) that was already quite intense in the field of trade, especially in the energy sector, is broadening into infrastructure development with an eye on strengthening the region’s role as a transit hub for Chinese products moving to the more prosperous and bigger markets of Europe.

The primary objective for China is, of course, the maintenance of stability in Xinjiang, which is a key Chinese province and actor in the SREB. Despite all the troubles in Xinjiang, however, the province is today considerably better off economically than most of its eight neighbouring countries. Beginning in the 1990s China-CAR trade through Xinjiang has expanded and today, several companies from the province have a strong presence in Central Asia. For example, the Xinjiang-headquartered Chinese enterprise TBEA that has promoted connectivity in Central Asia by building power transmission lines in Kyrgyhzstan and Tajikistan. It is also noteworthy that there is a flight from Urumqi to every CAR capital and to many other cities besides. Indeed, many of these countries are connected to each other by air not directly but via the Xinjiang capital.Continue reading “China in Central Asia: Myth-making and Foreign Policy”

Rethinking the China-Pakistan-India Triangle

It has been suggested that New Delhi’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was an ‘extraordinary exercise in realpolitik’, that the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘is not easily rattled by disapproving noises at home or abroad’. One analyst referring to China’s opposition put it rather colourfully that Beijing behaved ‘not as an enlightened power but as a strategic small-timer, with the petty, perfidious and short-termist mindset of a Pyongyang dictator or a Rawalpindi general’.

Not being ‘rattled’ is a good thing and as it should be. However, the ‘exercise in realpolitik’ is not all on the one side and nor indeed, the petty behaviour of a ‘strategic small timer’ with a ‘short-termist mindset’. India is just as guilty and another Indian commentator has, in fact, analysed the NSG episode as an example of India lacking in Kautilyan attributes.Continue reading “Rethinking the China-Pakistan-India Triangle”

How India Deals with its China Challenge

Book Review: Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab. 2017. Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company).

Dragons sell. Especially on book jackets and in book titles. Red dragons, baldly hinting at China, sell even better, perhaps. The title of this book is however, somewhat misleading for it is in the main, actually a very good overview of the structural problems that hold India back from its ambition of becoming a regional and global power. China is merely the counterpoint against which these problems are magnified and shown as requiring urgent resolution.

The authors start off with a cutting Introduction that blames various levels of India’s political and military leadership for mistakes in multiple conflicts and crises – the 1962 conflict with China, the 1965 war with Pakistan, ‘the wily Bhutto outsmart[ing] Gandhi’ in 1971 on a Kashmir resolution, the ‘panic reaction’ of Operation Meghdoot to hold Siachen, the ‘Pyrrhic victory’ of Kargil and the ‘total disappointment’ of Operation Parakram. China makes an appearance only on and off here but most notably in the concluding assertion that ‘the problem with Pakistan is inextricably linked with the China problem’.Continue reading “How India Deals with its China Challenge”