August 2022 saw the world’s largest democracy complete 75 years of Independence. In 75 years, Indian Diplomacy has witnessed a massive evolution in its conceptualisation of the world and, specifically, its strained correspondence with neighbouring countries. But as the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the dawning of the ‘Amritkaal’ (or the next 25 years until India’s centenary as an Independent nation) – the era of India’s unrestrained rise as an undisputed global leader, are we misinterpreting the greatest challenge to the emergence of ‘Vishwa Guru Bharat’? Are we missing the required strike on – China?
The Test of Time for Modi’s India and its diplomatic Knight in Shining Armour – Dr S. Jaishankar
Recent tidings of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) going loggerheads with its Pakistani counterpart adds no new element to the already fractured and fraught relationship between the two. The stress between the two countries is at a point where further declivity would only break the threshold of an armed conflict. Both countries have left no stone unturned to defame and lay allegations on the other. While Pakistan has raked up the highly contentious Kashmir issue on every global forum and accused the BJP-led government in New Delhi of holding prejudice again religious minorities. India has rallied around the international community to hold Pakistan accountable as a haven for terrorists and attempted to prevent its exit from the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list. Further, India has been vocal about Pakistan’s hypocrisy regarding minority persecution and has raised concerns about rising intolerance against Pakistani Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.
The recent jolt to the bilateral ties, came in New York, during India’s Presidency of the UNSC when the Indian EAM – Dr S. Jaishankar remarked – “hosting Osama bin-laden” and “attacking a neighbouring Parliament” are against serving as credentials to “sermonise” before the council.
Jaishankar had subtly but profoundly taken a dig at Pakistan and its history of providing hideouts to menacing terrorists as the Al-Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden and the terrorists propagated on its soil to attack the Indian Parliament in 2001. Soon after Jaishankar’s remarks in the UNSC, his Pakistani counterpart – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari stated that “Osama bin Laden is dead.” But the
“Butcher of Gujarat” is not only alive but thriving as the “Prime Minister of India”. Zardari was referring to the 2002 Gujarat Riots that took place under then Narendra Modi Government.
Zardari’s remarks were termed as a “new low, even for Pakistan” by the Indian MEA and drew widespread excoriation.
But, when it comes to vexatious neighbours, Pakistan is not the only worry for India. In fact, there is a bigger, more prevalent and consequential threat to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in China than Pakistan is or ever was. It is no secret that the world’s second-largest economy and military superpower – China is pursuing its ambitions aggressively around the globe. For Communist China, a vibrant democracy like India was never an ally. Despite arduous efforts by successive Indian Prime Ministers to establish amicable relations with China, the ties between the two countries have been of war, standoffs and economic strifes. The Chinese leadership, since Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and today’s Xi Jinping have perceived India as a rival in both economic and geopolitical spheres.
China’s concerns about India are bona fide – given the antagonising relationship it maintains with its principal competitor – the US, the country it soon will overtake economically and in the domain of geopolitical influence, China believes for India to be its single largest challenger in the future. And as in contemporary circumstances, China’s perusal of its completion with the US through malicious and detrimental tactics, which is severely impacting the larger interests of the world – it believes for India to fill in its boots an envious and vile world second for the future. Therefore, it is insecurity that runs Beijing’s diplomatic policies towards New Delhi.
Although Sino-Indo relations could never be termed as ‘outstandingly friendly’ or even ‘amicable’ – there was a period of tranquillity in the border areas and enhanced cooperation in various fields, post the 1962 war. However, India’s rise as an economic powerhouse and military superpower in the 21st century led to increased concerns and tensions with Beijing. As is evident from the fact of China being the only permanent member in the UNSC to not support India’s bid for permanent membership of the security council and the mainstream divergences on almost all of the critical global issues. While disagreement between the two countries can be anticipated from the many different values and principles perused by them, the scope of cooperation in myriad fields between the two giant economies and critical players in the Indo-Pacific region cannot be ruled out.
However, increased stress on bilateral ties is gradually ruling it out.
Even before India emerged as a crucial player in the global economic and geopolitical landscape. China had its fair share of differences with the country over border areas, the Tibet issue and later the asylum granted by India to the Dalai Lama. While the persecution and massacre of Tibetans by the Communist regime in China were in no way acceptable to India. Yet, the nation under Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru refrained from a zestful take on the issue; for the sake of relations with the larger neighbour. Nevertheless, India was firm in its stance to provide refuge to the Tibetan Dalai Lama and his associates, citing its responsibility to uphold human rights, freedom and dignity, something vehemently opposed by China. Although, Prime Minister Nehru’s overlooking of the explicit differences between India & China for the sake of bilateral ties was shattered with the breaking of the Indo-Sino 1962 war. It is also true that today the Tibetan community is flourishing in India and the Tibetan government in exile is also operating from India. Tibetan culture was preserved and promulgated through India’s efforts and is an unambiguous example of India’s intransigence on basic human rights and values.
Apart from sweeping historic differences, India-China relations turned downhill, gingerly but unforeseeably, in the past two decades. That is post the economic liberalisation of 1991 when India’s tremendous economic potential drew global acknowledgement and consideration. As India’s economic trajectory became increasingly widespread, it drew a contrast with China, irking the dragon to act prudently and viciously towards its democratic neighbour. This is evident from the multiple ‘conflict points’ that emerged between the two on various fronts. Be it the PLA’s mischieves
at the 3,488 km long Line of Actual Control (LAC) or China’s use of the ‘Veto power’ to prevent the designation of terrorists in the UNSC, especially those involved in anti-India terrorism, or even the PRC’s attempts to hamper ties between India-Sri Lanka and India-Nepal through extortion.
China is all out to impede India’s growth wherever and whenever it can. The Xi Jinping administration known for its duplicitous and deceptive diplomacy appears to ostensibly desire healthy relations with India, laying the onus for it on New Delhi and then double-crossing to engage in activities that add to New Delhi’s suspicion towards Beijing. While Xi’s dragon is blazing fire on numerous countries in the Indo-Pacific region and democratic nations, in the forms of trade competitions or border issues, the conflict with India is much more broad-based and intensive. And post the Galwan Clashes of May 2020 and now the exchanging of blows at the Tawang Sector in Arunachal Pradesh – the state China claims to be ‘illegally occupied’ by India, the Sino-Indo relations have finally hit the rock bottom.
Since Independence, India has been cautious of its larger and mulish neighbour for a variety of reasons. China, on its part, has always interpreted India’s wariness as a weakness and clearly has underestimated its democratic neighbour on numerous occasions. Ideologically nor in practice has China been able to strong-arm India nor has it been successful in suppressing India’s rise. Successive Indian governments, though vigilant, have not shied away from explicitly flagging the differences between the two neighbours. Howbeit, India’s cautious take on China has on occasions appeared to be its spinelessness to stand for itself. The biggest example of this is the gigantic trade volume and the trade deficit between the two countries. Ironically, India’s strategic and even economically most redoubtable counterpart is also its largest trading partner. Trade between the two countries is pacing since 2004-05, in 2022, for the second consecutive year, it swelled upto a whopping USD 100 billion.
The trade gap has particularly widened in the past decade. In 2021, annual two-way trade crossed $100 billion for the first time, reaching $125.6 billion, with India’s imports accounting for $97.5 billion, pegging the imbalance at close to $70 billion. Trade ties began to boom in the early 2000s driven largely by India’s imports of Chinese machinery and other equipment, up from $3 billion in the year 2000 to $42 billion in 2008, the year China became India’s largest trading partner. Hence, India’s largest trading partner is also the one with which it shares highly erratic ties and with whom it is constantly involved in military friction. Economically, India yielded irrationally to China, surmounting the dragon’s leverage, and boosting its confidence. China, alternately, has impudently utilised its clout to pressurise India on matters of strategic and economic significance, further it is increasingly barging into India’s domestic affairs.
India’s pusillanimity became conspicuous and reached its zenith when then Indian Defence Minister of the UPA Government – A.K. Antony stated brazenly in the Lok Sabha or the lower house of the Indian Parliament – “We have intentionally not developed the border areas around China. Because a rudimentary border area serves India’s security interest as the enemy will have to undertake laborious efforts to incur or invade Indian territory.” Such chickenhearted statements did India no favour and redundantly aroused China’s conviction against India. The UPA government, from 2004- 2014, led by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh came precariously close to China and seemed to struggle under its dreadful influence – as is evident from the trade explosion and the high-level visits between the two leaderships; yielding no results. In sooth, Prime Minister Dr Singh bequeathed a highly convoluted India-China relationship to his successor – Narendra Modi.
Soon after assuming office, Modi like his predecessors did try to forge amicable relations with China and even found strong ground through his healthy exchanges with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
However, luckily for India, it did not take Modi a decade to understand that what China says and does are completely different things. The 2017 Doklam Standoff was a clear indication for New Delhi that China undermines its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The NDA government, led by
Narendra Modi, initiated a series of hefty buildouts and infrastructure development projects in the border areas for enhanced mobility of Indian troops and other security-related concerns – something China simply could not swallow. Soon after, incidents of clashes between the Indian Armed Forces and the People’s Liberation Army or the PLA increased significantly. Often, PLA troops would venture into Indian territory and attempt to unilaterally change the status quo at the LAC. Nevertheless, much to China’s frustration, the PLA’s excursions into Indian territory were met by an uncompromising response from the Indian forces, not ceasing their efforts until the PLA were thrashed back onto its side of the fence. These border skirmishes would, in some instances, inflame to strenuous clashes as in Galwan (May 2020) and a milder one in Tawang recently. The message from India being unambiguous on these occasions – “not even an inch of the territory will be compromised upon”, for China – this is a New India.
Following the clashes in Galwan, for the first time in 75 years, India did not seek to make things right with China and rightfully let the onus fall on its aggressive neighbour. India was precise and bold in its criticism of the conflict and China’s flagrant claims of its origin and results. India made plain that it would not tolerate any futile conflict or attempts of unilateral amendments to the status quo at the LAC. Further, New Delhi was intrepid in pointing out the standing issues in the India- China relationship and outlined the obligations of Beijing to address them following ideals of mutual respect and harmony. India reached the next level in tackling China with the Minister of External Affairs declaring – “Our relationship (India-China) is not normal and it won’t be until we have unwarranted and one-sided attempts to propel tensions in the border region” the Indian EAM did not shy a bit to take a strapping dig at China and its deceiving claims. Another inspiriting move by the Indian Government came through the banning of around 250 Chinese applications; post the Galwan Clashes. The blunt move carried an overt message – the Chinese aggression on the border will have consequences, not limited to the border but, through the entire length and breadth of the India-China relationship. This was a first from the Indian side and pushed Beijing to reassess its approach towards New Delhi, something it is not good at but is gradually being exacted towards.
In the two and a half years following the Galwan clashes, India’s tone towards China and its actions have been scathing. For New Delhi, Beijing is simply an unreliable ‘partner’ with which it seeks to minimise its partnerships. This has been a concealed agenda of India, which is reflected time and again through various actions and commentaries of New Delhi. Recently, during the 2022 winter session of the Parliament – Indian Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal took note of the India- China bilateral trade, its volume and steps taken by the government to prune and alter its configurations. The pillars of the government’s this agenda are national initiatives such as ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ (Self-reliant India) and the India Semiconductor Mission (ISM) aimed towards making the country a primary choice for semiconductors and electronics manufacturing.
Further, the once Chinese dominated Toy Industry in India is now composed of a staggering 85% Made in India toys – the industry is an epitome of intra-industry radical reforms. India has also scaled up its infrastructure development projects along the LAC, following the clashes, which in the first place were the cause of the clashes. A 1,748-km long two-lane road, being called the “Frontier Highway”, will be built by the road transport ministry and will be designated as NH-913. It will help defence forces and equipment travel to the border with ease and also aims to stop the entry of immigrants from border areas – in certain areas, it is a mere 20 KM from the LAC. Meanwhile, Beijing frequently reiterated its willingness to engage with New Delhi and expand the partnership, also seeking to address all issues through dialogue, manifesting that New Delhi’s concrete actions have found the base.
The Galwan Clashes of May 2020 were a watershed moment for the India-China relationship. Although, the clashes were followed by moderate de-escalations and frequent military-to-military level talks were initiated to maintain transparency. Unequivocally, the clashes have left an indelible mark on India’s perspective towards China, a mark that was imminent to arise due to the dragon’s
unjustified warmongering. Since the clashes, not on a single occasion have the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met or even interacted. No bilateral meetings were held between the two during the SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan or the ASEAN meet in Cambodia. The highest level of engagement has been between the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar and the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi. Yi made a one-day India visit in March 2022, where he held deliberations with the Indian NSA and EAM, but the visit could not forge a constructive outcome. Anti-china sentiments are also high among the Indian masses and China is often a major point of rift in Indian political circles. To add insult to an already worsening injury is China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or the CEPEC, which is viewed by India as a menace to its security and territorial integrity. The CEPEC not only brings closer two of India’s greatest arch-rivals but also passes through so-called Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or the PoK, which India considers to be an integral part of its territory. Lately, the blossoming friendship between China and Pakistan is reckoned as a contra-India bilateral partnership and there are good reasons, provided by both sides, to believe so. Together, the BRI and the CEPEC are only adding to the already boundless suspicion between India and China.
All-inclusive, India and China are two colossal global economies, jockeying for economic supremacy and grappled in a heated tussle in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s back-to-back successful missile testings along the Bay of Bengal, coinciding with Chinese research vessels entering the same region – is everything but a coincidence. Lately, the two are also involved in a scuffle to harbour greater economic influence over a third country – as was evident from the Sri Lankan economic crisis and also the financing of various projects in Maldives and smaller African countries. Pursuing disparate values, India & China have little in common to exercise a healthy partnership. Beijing’s pursuit to be an unrivalled regional hegemon is single-handedly challenged by India’s emergence as a trustworthy and lucrative partner for the rest of the world. China’s peculiar stance around Coronavirus’s origin, its three-year-long ‘zero-covid’ policy and its utterly failed vaccines and with it the vaccine diplomacy – contrasting with India’s successful ‘Vaccine Maitri’ mission and provision of efficacious vaccines to 75+ countries; reoriented the world’s choice between the two. In the post-Covid-era the world is inclined to engage with India rather than China, adding to Beijing’s already heightened insecurity towards its democratic neighbour. However, unlike the case with Islamabad, Beijing and New Delhi practice a degree of diplomacy where derogatory remarks against the other are not in parity nor ideal for their diplomatic standards. Hence, dogmatic exchanges between the two are in- existential. However, as far as the Arjuna’s eye of Indian diplomacy is concerned – it is indisputably and vigorously centred on China.