India’s response to the border standoff in Depsang Valley in Ladakh, after Chinese troops occupied positions well inside what India considers its territory, has been characterised by excessive timidity that signals weakness in facing up to Chinese provocation.
To some observers, this tepid response contrasts sharply with India’s robust pushback against Pakistan’s violation of the Line of Control a few months ago. Even providing for the consideration that in Pakistan’s case, India’s spirited response was warranted by the fact that its troops had beheaded an Indian jawan and killed another, India’s wariness in dealing with China is striking.
Some of this contrast is accounted for by India’s relative standing vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. With Pakistan, for instance, India has outgrown the earlier strategic and military parity, and is therefore not excessively concerned about an escalation in the level of rhetoric. In any case, Pakistan has no commercial leverage over India, and its credibility on the world stage is in tatters, particularly after it was seen to have shielded Osama bin Laden. For sure, Pakistan has “nuisance value” as a breeding ground for jihadists, and anyone who wishes to play the Great Game in Afghanistan has to yield to Pakistan’s blackmail, but that apart, Pakistan is neither rich nor powerful enough to command respect.
On the other hand, the concern is not just that China’s military and strategic strengths are far superior to India’s, but that China has also been enormously more successful in harnessing its geopolitical strengths and commercial clout in a way that helps it advance its strategic interests vis-à-vis India.
Indian diplomats concede in private that Chinese play a mean game of political and diplomatic hardball. Even today, the Chinese incursion seems directed at getting India to demolish its fortified positions in the Ladakh region as the price for pulling back its troops from the temporary camps it has occupied in Depsang Valley.
The Indian side has so far been holding out and not yielded to this naked expression of power diplomacy. But then, there’s reason to believe that China has been progressively emboldened by India’s softly-softly approach in recent months – when it has forced Ladakhis to abandon even developmental work , such as building roads or irrigation canals, near the border merely because the Chinese side objected to them.
The latest standoff comes barely weeks ahead of the upcoming visit to India of China’s new Premier Li Keqiang, and the fact that the Chinese side was unhindered by this consideration in ratcheting up tension on the border is indicative of its keenness to project power in an uninhibited fashion. But there’s a history to this too.
In November 2006, ahead of the then Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official visit to India, the Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi had dropped a bombshell that very nearly cast a cloud over the visit. In an interaction with a television channel Sun said that China considered the whole of Arunachal Pradesh to be Chinese territory, a position that was at complete variance from China’s official stand in the border dispute talks between the two countries.
It was a provocative position, but the Chinese later dismissed it by claiming, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, that the Ambassador had exceeded his brief and had not sought Beijing’s approval before taking such a stand. Nevertheless, it was indicative of Chinese propensity to play hardball ahead of key visits, perhaps to project power.
But in today’s world, where geo-economic strengths count for more than military strength, China also wields many more levers of power over India than just traditional threats. For instance, a few years ago, China was able to leverage its economic muscle within the ADB and block the disbursement of a loan to Arunachal Pradesh on the claim that it was “disputed territory”. In response, India withdrew its loan request, which effectively concedes China’s point. In other words, China was able to establish its case over Arunachal Pradesh with the international community – without sending a single PLA soldier across the LoAC or firing a single missile.
China has also wielded its commercial clout with enormous dexterity to wrong-foot India even within its own neighbourhood. Today, if Sri Lanka is slipping out of India’s orbit and moving into China’s, it’s largely because China has capitalised on India’s diplomatic self-goals there, as Firstpost noted here.
Additionally, as we had noted here, China’s manner of dealing with governments whose leaders meet the Dalai Lama showcases its strategy of projecting hard power, even at the risk of being seen to be overreacting. In fact, China marshalls its commercial clout too to “punish” countries that receive the Dalai Lama, according to a research study by scholars at the University of Goettingen. One of the scholars, Nils-Hendrik Klann told me that countries that receive the Dalai Lama – against China’s wishes – see their exports to China contract in the two years following such meetings.
With India, of course, all these fears have been internalised to such an extent that Indian diplomats kowtow to Chinese officials and offer apologies even when no such apology is warranted.
And, yet, when the visiting Chinese Defence Minister breached protocol, as he did last year, and virtually insulted India by offering a cash gift of Rs 1 lakh each to two IAF officers, India merely pretended it hadn’t happened.
As this writer had noted then, Indian wariness about offending Chinese sensibilities runs so high that our officialdom is capable of swallowing any number of slights and not make a fuss. But the tortured course of Sino-Indian relations establishes that this only gives yet more elbow room to China to swing its arms in India’s face.
In recent times, China has been overly dismissive of India’s claims to ascendance, and has been particularly mocking – in some cases, deservedly so – of Indian claims to having acquired strategic parity with China. Whenever they have sensed a weakness in the Indian leadership (even if only domestically), they have tested India’s resolve with provocations along the volatile border.
It is in this context that the latest border standoff in Ladakh should be seen. And so long as India insists on pussyfooting its way around Chinese sensibilities, even in the face of grave provocations, India will continue be seen as a pushover.