China sought to rake up the Kashmir issue again at the United Nations, but withdrew in the face of stiff opposition from other members. The latter action shows the success of Narendra Modi’s relations with big powers, but the former, his failure to counter Chinese continued belligerence against India. Why is Modi government unable to contain China when several world powers are wary of Chinese expansionism and wanting India to be its counter-weight in India-Pacific? This is a puzzle one would like to unravel here.
Apparently, the Ministry of External Affairs continues to be confused about the China strategy in the India-Pacific region, and we are similarly confused about MEA’s China strategy. The foreign office ought to find out why is China reviving the ‘K’ issue at the UN? Certainly to shame India as the other powers observed while opposing the Chinese move. But how does China gain from it? One, it seeks to browbeat India into submission, second, to seduce Pakistan into allowing them greater base from which they can check India’s influence in the region, third to dissuade India from jumping into the anti-China bandwagon. China finds the Kashmir issue a convenient stick to diplomatically beat India.
If it raises bilateral issues and directly confronts India, China may raise heckles of anti-China powers like the US, Japan and France. In addition, it may not get the covert support of Islamic countries like Pakistan does. That is why, of late, Beijing is using Pakistan to intimidate India.
Obviously, South-Block may have a different perspective on China’s India strategy. But, whatever it may be, New Delhi’s moves vis-a-vis China have been inconsistent and incomprehensible to observers like us. Former diplomats who are free to speak-up, post-retirement, say that New Delhi is following a policy of ‘engagement’ with China. This is in keeping with New Delhi’s post-Nonalignment policy of multiple engagements in the world.
Curiously though, the policy of ‘engagement’ is ill-defined as we see it. Take for instance, these ‘no agenda’ informal summits between N. Modi and Xi Jinping. The first one took place in Chinese city of Wuhan, around a lake. Both the leaders strolled around the lake and literally sat in a swing. I called it ‘swing and stroll’ diplomacy. No one knew what were the issues discussed, and the outcome. The government apologists said, that the summit was successful inasmuch as it normalised the relations after the Doklam stand-off. That is highly debatable.
The second one took place in Mallapuram in Tamil Nadu, where both the leaders dined and again walked around the beach. One can call it ‘dine and detour’ diplomacy. Detour meant Xi Jinping’s substantive visit to Nepal with a stopover in India. Because, Nepal signed as many as 22 agreements taking excuse of New Delhi’s spreading the ‘red carpet’ to the Chinese leader.
The latest actions of Modi government, although internal, would help China deepen its nascent links with India’s neighbours. One is referring to Citizenship Amendment Bill and National Register of Citizens. These policies are internal with heavy external repercussions. The tone and tenor of presentation of these policies to the public by the government spokespersons have cluttered India’s neighbourhood. To recall, CAB, now CAA was conceived and passed to confer citizenship on those non-Muslims fleeing from their countries to escape religious persecution. Three countries were specifically mentioned – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All the three countries were characterised as theocratic. Let us leave out Pakistan as we have a complicated relation and position with that neighbour.
But how can we describe other two friendly countries as theocratic. They have elections and parliaments. Theocracy is rule by the religious heads in the name of God. They are Islamic Republics, Islam being their State religion. There are many Christian countries with developed democracies. So, downgrading the neighbouring regimes in relation to an internal law is unwise. Such a stance will push them to Chinese embrace lurking around to grab them. While we make a law, even as a sovereign country, we must calculate its international costs, and proceed cautiously. The reverse also should be thought out diligently, the domestic impact of an international action. In particular, New Delhi’s fumbling on China is costing our economy.
It would be naive to assume that MEA is unaware of Chinese expansionism in the region. Even at the current height of a feeling of ultra-nationalism heaped up by the ruling elite, we refuse to recognise that China is illegally occupying our territories and making additional claims. Despite the sporadic friendly overtures, Beijing seeks to embarrass New Delhi on Kashmir. Just on the eve of Xi-Jinping last visit he commented adversely on Kashmir. New Delhi had been all along silent on Chinese action on Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, unlike retaliating swiftly against Turkey as it raised the ‘K’ issue at the UN.
Whilst New Delhi’s policy towards China defies explanation, let us pontificate on what are our options. One, India has little to gain from taking a confrontational posture towards China, given the huge asymmetry between the two countries in military and economic terms. It is prudent therefore to maintain the status-quo, meaning, keep engaged with China. Between these two options – competition/confrontation and cooperation, New Delhi forgets to measure Chinese reaction to its relation with other countries. In particular, India has forged deep diplomatic and naval links with like-minded countries in the region. One is referring to Quad-America, India, Japan and Australia. Such partnership has already wiped out one option, i.e. cooperation with China. Yet, New Delhi believes that it can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
Having taken that bold step, why prevaricate, and pretend that China will remain friendly? South Block reckons that it can still befriend China. That is why perhaps India went too far to be accommodating and cooperating emboldening China in the region.
Like Modi government has taken an unambiguous stand against Pakistan in relation to terrorism and Kashmir including PoK, why cannot they take a similar position vis-a-vis China! In addition to strategic confusion, there are at least two factors that inhibit them taking a tough call on China. Firstly, New Delhi is still not fixing the economy to be the alternative manufacturing hub to China. Prime Minister’s call for $5 trillion economy notwithstanding, India is far from replacing China as the investment destination. The countries preferred are Vietnam, South Korea, and even Bangladesh. The economic growth and gains achieved by much-slandered Manmohan Singh government are squandered away.
Second, the soft power that India enjoyed as comparative advantage over China is yet to play out, on the contrary, as said before, due to confusing and complicated laws like NRC and CAB, New Delhi seems to be losing out on that front too.
Admittedly, the propositions made here could be contested. But what is beyond doubt, and make no mistake, that Modi regime must make China the reference point in framing its economic and foreign policies supported by sound social policies. This would lift the foreign policy making and overall growth of the country. Is there a better alternative?
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI