9 May 2023
India’s Inaction is Encouraging China’s Bad Behaviour
(Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming (2L) and China’s Defence Minister General Li Shangfu (L). Credit: PTI Photo)
Late last month, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh held bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) defence ministers meeting in New Delhi. The two ministers spent less than an hour in their meeting. This is in sharp contrast to the hours that each of the several rounds of post-Galwan corps commander level talks — the 18th round had concluded without results a few days before — have lasted.
Even accounting for the fact that the latter are negotiations and so, will naturally take time, there are only two possible interpretations of the very short duration of the meeting between the ministers at a time when their armies are essentially face-to-face in several pockets along their disputed boundary. One, that the meeting was simply a diplomatic going-through-the-motions, and two, that what had to be said was clear, unambiguous, and shorn of rhetoric.
While both interpretations can hold true at the same time, Singh certainly was categorical — “that development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquillity at the borders”. Singh underlined that existing bilateral agreements and commitments had to be respected, and that their “violation… has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations”.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brief handshake with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Bali’s G20 Summit in November was intended to suggest a fresh attempt to put ties back on track, clearly there is little progress.
Indian ministers are conveying a degree of exasperation in meetings with their Chinese interlocutors. In early March, on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers meeting in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang that the state of bilateral relations was “abnormal”. This was not the first time that Jaishankar had used this formulation.
For their part, the Chinese have been plugging the line for some time now that the situation on the LAC had returned to ‘normal’. General Li repeated Qin’s talking points from March declaring that the situation on the LAC “is generally stable” even as he called for placing the issue “in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, and promot[ing] the transition of the border situation to normalized management”. Clearly, China wants India to move on from the events of 2020 even as it hangs on to the gains from the LAC transgressions.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are also using their meetings with the Indians to signal what they think of other parts of the bilateral relationship as well as about India’s foreign policies more broadly.
When like Qin, General Li declared that the two countries “share far more common interests than differences”, and that they “should view bilateral relations and each other's development from a comprehensive, long-term and strategic perspective”, the Chinese are not just talking about the bilateral relationship but also about how India must view the international situation. Essentially, they are accusing India of lacking ‘strategic perspective’ because it does not accede to China’s wishes and works with the United States/the West against China, instead.
One could call this a case of the Chinese being tone-deaf or hypocritical, but from the point of view of an authoritarian regime in power, it is difficult to conceive anything but a linear trajectory in which China is inevitably going to take over from the US as global superpower. Such a narrative is necessary to justify to Chinese citizens both the Communist Party of China’s dominance and repression of any opposition at home as well as to justify the huge sums their government is investing abroad, some of which like the Gwadar port in Pakistan, clearly lack any economic rationale.
Whatever their internal calculations, no doubt, at least some parts of the Chinese system —including those in operational roles in their foreign and defence ministries understand exactly what Indian government officials are saying and that they are not buying any of China’s ‘common interests’ talk.
Where then, are the Chinese going with this approach?
One possibility is that the Chinese think they have the measure of the Indian government believing that New Delhi will never initiate a conflict or a tit-for-tat response no matter how long the present situation on the LAC continues. New Delhi’s responses so far justify this belief.
Even if from New Delhi’s perspective, the events of 2020 have created the opportunity for a visibly hard-line approach against China on economic issues as well as through India’s partnerships in the Quad, these only confirm what Beijing already believes to be the case of India being disposed against Chinese interests.
The second possibility is that the Chinese will be emboldened by India’s inability to move beyond rhetoric and diplomacy to initiate a fresh land grab along the LAC. It is also quite possible that tensions will travel from land to the maritime domain. Given China’s increasing naval ambitions, including possibly preparations for a Taiwan contingency, it could aim to graduate from non-military operations in the Indian Ocean to testing out capabilities in real-time confrontations. Indian Navy chief, Admiral R Hari Kumar’s recent highlighting of the large presence of Chinese vessels — military, research, and fishing — close to Indian waters and his service’s “close watch” on them is noteworthy in this context. That the Indian Navy is currently stronger than the Chinese PLA Navy is beside the point — the issue is that the Chinese might believe that they can escalate without serious repercussions.
The Indian government is currently, therefore, in an unsatisfactory position and could well find itself in a worse one, before long. It needs to treat as urgent, the task of retrieving its credibility with the Chinese (and other nations watching) by responding directly and clearly to China’s transgressions and attempts to normalise the current situation on the LAC.
Originally published in Deccan Herald on 04 May 2023