After more than a fortnight of looking to play down the gravity of China’s incursion in Ladakh – and spouting a string of grating, infelicitous metaphors, mostly from External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid - the Manmohan Singh government appears to have been awakened to the folly of its ways.
The realisation that walking on eggshells around Chinese sensibilities may merely signal enfeeblement – and invite yet more of the same border provocations – may have finally dawned on the government. The first signs of this are manifest in the carefully calibrated signals it has sent out, suggesting that it sees little merit in Khurshid going ahead with his 9 May visit to China to draw up the schedule for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s upcoming visit to India – if the Chinese troops don’t acknowledge the sanctity of the Line of Actual Control. Even though that line remains undemarcated in large sections of the Sino-Indian border, both sides have abided by an understanding of where it lay, until the Chinese incursion of 15 April changed the status quo dramatically.
Simultaneously, the Defence Ministry has indicated that it is cancelling a scheduled visit to China by senior Indian military officials and bureaucrats, which was to begin on 11 May. According to media reports, the Indian delegation, made up of officers and officials at the National Defence College, was to have visited Thailand and China, but the effort will now be to cancel the China leg and visit another country instead.
These are precisely the kind of calibrated messages that needed to be sent out in the first place, but Indian officialdom was seen to be excessively keen to softpedal the issue, and even hold out alibis for the Chinese provocation. In his earliest comments on the incursion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested it was a “localised” problem, which could be sorted out by the military commanders. Khurshid, ever given to wholly infelicitous turns of phrase, dismissed the incursion as mere “acne” on a “beautiful face”, which would be remedied with the application of cosmetics.
It took the repeated rebuffs by Chinese military officers, at three flag meetings called by the Indian side to de-escalate the situation, and the conditions that the Chinese side laid down for the pullback of their troops, to convince Indian policymakers that perhaps the incursion was more serious than they had conceded.
Travelling to Iran on Friday, Khurshid was asked about his upcoming visit to Beijing, but again revealed a familiar resort to sophistry. In matters of human affairs, he said, there was no such thing as “certainty”. And while there was no provision – as of that day – to review his visit to Beijing, “one can’t predict today what will happen tomorrow.”
Khurshid conceded that India would have liked a “much better response” from China – in terms of a “reversal of the adverse incident” in Ladakh. (Evidently he believes that the gravity of the Chinese incursion can be diminished somewhat by calling it an “adverse incident”.) But even so, he acknowledged, there had been no review of plans for his travel to Beijing. “We have not… reached that stage of review… We haven’t found any reason to review our schedules as of now.”
But while Khurshid continued to evade a direct response to questions on his proposed visit to Beijing, unidentified sources, also travelling with Khurshid, were somewhat less inhibited. They acknowledged that Khurshid’s visit would “not be worthwhile” in the absence of any significant progress in the talks taking place at various levels.
While any escalation in the tension levels on the border would be unhealthy, the point is that forsaking the levers of coercive diplomacy, in the way that the Indian establishment has done for too long, is a losing proposition. As former diplomat Rajendra Abhyankar points out, the Chinese side has not yielded any ground – either on the terrain or in their pronouncements. In such a scenario, the outcome of this standoff “will depend entirely on our will and ability to engage them in ‘counter-coercive’ tactics…”
Succumbing to China’s demand – that India demolish the structures at Daulat Beg Oldi – would, he adds, amount to accepting the principle of coercive diplomacy in future dealings on the border issue with China, and would effectively neuter India’s plans to bolster its defences along the Line of Actual Control. Even if India does not demolish the structures, any sanctity that the Line of Actual Control enjoys today will be negated if the Chinese troops continue to occupy the territory they now hold, he notes.
As Firstpost noted earlier, India’s wariness about offending Chinese sensibilities runs so high that our officialdom has proved itself capable of swallowing any number of slights and not make a fuss. But the tortured course of Sino-Indian relations means that this only gives yet more elbow room for China to swing its arms in India’s face. Wholesale capitulation was never the answer.
And in fact, India’s own approach in the past of dealing with Chinese provocations firmly – by, for instance, suspending all military-level exchanges between the two countries – did yield the desired results. There is, thus, the space for India to exert itself diplomatically without resorting to military adventurism. But to exert the levers of coercive diplomacy, you need to know that you have a spine in the first place. That realisation has perhaps dawned, even if a trifle late, on Indian officials.