26 March 2024

On China, Time for India to Be Proactive

April marks four years since the Chinese initiated a series of transgressions all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh eventually leading to the Galwan Valley clash in June. As India gears up for national elections, it is also an occasion to assess the Indian response and implications for its foreign policy.

China has regularly precipitated significant tensions on India’s borders for well over a decade. Its troops violated bilateral agreements at Depsang in 2013, for example, and at Chumur in 2014 even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping in Gujarat on the latter’s first state visit. In 2017, the Chinese attempted to occupy Doklam in Bhutanese territory until they were confronted by Indian troops stationed nearby.

But instead of understanding the pattern of Chinese behaviour as escalatory and unrepentant, India continued to persist with diplomacy – think of the Modi-Xi ‘informal summits’ on either side of the 2019 general elections. These summits have probably undermined other bilateral mechanisms such as the Special Representative talks, given that even talks at the highest level not only failed to yield forward movement but led eventually to conflict.

The 2020 tensions fast-tracked a series of long-discussed government measures against China – the banning of apps, restrictions on investments and greater scrutiny of its enterprises operating in India. However, follow-up has been poor while trade – and India’s deficit with China – has only continued to grow.

The more significant change for India has been elsewhere – increased diplomatic and security engagement with the US and other countries that perceive a long-term strategic threat from China as well as greater activism in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

But New Delhi has also hedged. Indian official and non-official engagements with China have seen an uptick as the latest general elections have neared. This, despite Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s frequent protestations that ties with China could not return to normal without complete disengagement and de-escalation at the LAC.

After the two leaders had completely ignored each other at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in September 2022, Modi had a brief handshake with Xi at the G20 Summit in Indonesia in November. In May 2023, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh followed with a short meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the side-lines of another SCO gathering in New Delhi.

In between, in December 2022, Chinese troops had to be repulsed at Yangtse along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh while in April 2023, China released a third list of places in Arunachal Pradesh it had renamed. Modi and Xi would meet again in August, this time at length, on the side-lines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg but the latter would skip the G20 summit in New Delhi a month later, something that Jaishankar was at pains to deny had anything to do with India.

The Indian government’s willingness to engage China despite the latter’s provocations offers a sharp contrast to its response to Pakistan following the 2016 Uri and 2019 Pulwama attacks.

New Delhi’s actions follow a similar pattern in the run-up to the 2019 general elections when despite Doklam – which was an opportunity to focus government attention and pressure on China – the decision was made to pursue diplomacy with the first informal summit in May 2018.

This approach, however, also ends up confusing partners and neighbours alike who will then frame their China policies without clarity on India’s interests.

New Delhi’s best way forward is to prepare for an extended period of tensions with China – regular incidents at the LAC as well as potentially at sea – including those that it might have to initiate to pre-empt further Chinese provocations and to convey the seriousness of India’s intent to defend its interests.

Originally Published in Deccan Herald on 23 March 2024