The crisis of 2020 in bilateral relations is also an opportunity to address all the issues together, which is perhaps the only way to bring in normalcy in relations with China without compromising Indian interests and priorities.
Dr. S Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister, has espoused the Modi government’s new China doctrine while speaking online at the 13th All India Conference of China Studies. It should be discussed and debated by the foreign policy intelligentia and the defence community. Though an aspiring power, India is lacking in substantial engagement among its policy-makers and experts in the foreign policy and defence domains. Regular criticism on the one hand and unequivocal appreciation of the government’s external affairs policies on the other, form the framework of such dialogues, or rather monologues, by members of the strategic community at large. This has enabled more than necessary space for the leader in charge, which is not a healthy tradition.
It is not usual for this government to go beyond the alphabetical rhyming of synonyms for internal or external policies. However, Dr. Jaishankar’s address unambiguously spelt out India’s current China policy, signalling a long and harsh winter in bilateral relations. He stated 8 broad propositions, which are expectations of India and red lines for China. First and foremost, Dr. Jaishankar made it explicit that agreements reached between both the countries must be adhered to in their entirety, both in letter and spirit. He openly called out the Chinese habit of selectivity – selective interpretation of agreements, interpretation of selective clauses of agreements, and picking up selective portions of the history of bilateral agreement. The flip side of the first proposition is India’s inability to gauge the necessity of formulating a new border management mechanism and to draft a new set of agreements with China for its implementation. It was in 2013 that both sides signed the last of the border management agreements, whose inadequecy to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border was evident at its very inception. It was expected that both countries would improve upon it, which has not happened in last seven and a half years.
Jaishankar’s second proposition is that any attempt at unilaterally altering the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is unacceptable to India. Thirdly, for India, peace and tranquillity in border areas is the basis for development of bilateral relations in other domains. Jaishankar’s warning to China that a disturbed border is inevitably linked to significant downgrading of bilateral relations could not be unexpected for Xi Jinping’s team. In this respect, the Chinese leadership must have expected and must be prepared for a long haul of bitterness with India. It includes New Delhi’s expected embrace of QUAD and pro-active engagement with its South Asian and Indian Ocean neighbours. We do not have any clear explanation for Chinese behaviour if we assume that it knows the likely fallout. Does it mean that China is confident of dealing with QUAD or even an active military collaboration between India and the US? Also, is China confident of racing ahead and edging India out in South Asia and the Indian ocean? Is China is locking India into its neighbourhood, while it continues to spread its influence in all other parts of the world?
The fourth expectation expressed by the Minister is Chinese acceptance of the notion of a multipolar Asia as the foundation of a multipolar world. While the desire is not wrong in itself, its articulation by a regime whose world outlook is firmly rooted in realism is quite strange. China will accept the reality of a multipolar Asia only if it is real and not notional! We need to ask ourselves why China was committed to a multipolar Asia until a decade ago and why it has digressed from it now? What has changed in a decade that has led to China’s projection of itself in Asia and in the world? There is an implicit underlining of India’s position in the world and in Asia in this fourth proposition, which the Minister cannot state in a more explicit manner. It is linked to the above questions about Chinese behaviour on the LAC. Under the Xi regime, China’s perception of New Delhi seems to be that India has been punching above its weight in world politics and, as an emerging world power, Beijing must show the mirror of a reality check to India. If this is true, we must ask ourselves how much Prime Minister Narendra Modi was successful in projecting India in his two informal summits with the Chinese President?
In the fifth proposition, Dr. Jaishankar rightly communicated that China cannot expect India to be sensitive to its concerns on Tibet and Taiwan without recognizing India’s interests on trade and Kashmir. This sets a perfect background framework to institute a composite dialogue between India and China, as there is a lot of give and take that can happen on various issues. It also opens up the question whether border issue should be insulated from overall development of bilateral relations even if status quo with peace and tranquillity returns on the LAC in the near future. The crisis of 2020 in bilateral relations is also an opportunity to address all the issues together, which is perhaps the only way to bring in normalcy in relations with China without compromising Indian interests and priorities.
A bold step towards a composite dialogue, not to be confused with restoration of normalcy, goes well with Dr. Jaishankar’s sixth and seventh propositions. He acknowledged the aspirations of both the countries, pursuits of these by them, as well as inherent divergences and differences arising out of this between the two countries; and that India recognizes and respects it. The composite dialogue can be a way to make China realize, understand and respect Indian aspirations and interests. This dialogue can be based on the three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests. In this regard, India needs to not only identify its own areas of sensitivity and interests vis-à-vis China but also to communicate it to China in a befitting manner. This has been done before June 2020 the way it should probably have been.
Dr. Jaishankar himself mentioned China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, not delivering on the trade promises of market access, blocking of the UN listing of Pakistani terrorists and, of course, the violation of Indian sovereignty by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Despite all of this, the New Delhi establishment never properly assessed the changing trajectory of Chinese behaviour towards India. His eighth and final proposition is that civilizational states like India and China must always take the long view. Perhaps, China has already taken a long view to make India tail it in response. The Jaishankar doctrine is a reflection of this, which nonetheless is a welcome formulation, simply because it brings clarity to the Indian government’s approach towards the China question.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
6th Feb 2021