India-China standoff needs patient diplomacy, not war-mongering: Modi govt should look to Leo Tolstoy

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time, Leo Tolstoy said. So, it is reassuring to hear India's external affairs minister rule out war as an option and talk about diplomacy as the only solution for India's current standoff with China.

Diplomacy, in true Tolstoy-esque fashion, demands both patience and time. But what it achieves is much more than what a military conflict guarantees. "War cannot be a solution to any problem. Even after war, we need to talk to find a solution. Wisdom is to resolve issues diplomatically," Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha, advocating patience and eschewing aggressive language.

India and China, in spite of the muscle-flexing and war-mongering by its media, just cannot afford a military conflict. As a generic rule, military conflict is almost impossible between two countries with large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The stated purpose of amassing nukes, as countries that have developed them argue, is to use them as deterrents to war. So, the logic of nuclearisation automatically minimises the chances of an India-China war.

File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. PTI

File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. PTI

Swaraj's other reason for keeping war off the table is also compelling. She told Parliament that China has invested around $160 billion in India and that we (India) "don’t want to win our neighbours by military power but by being an economic superpower." With both countries having so much at stake, the cost of war is prohibitory.

Then, there are the unstated reasons. Politicians cannot go to war unless it guarantees more electoral gains and greater popularity. Unlike Pakistan, which is considered a less formidable adversary in spite of its nuclear weapons and has more to lose in a war, India knows a conflict with China can lead to incalculable harm to both the economy and the geography. With elections just a few months away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government just cannot risk an escalation that can erode its popularity and lead to mass resentment because of the implications on the finances and the country's morale.

Swaraj clearly outlined India's long-term objectives. Apart from better bilateral relations with China, resolution of border disputes — not just the jousting over Doka La — and peace in the region, India also wants to retain its traditional friendship with Bhutan.

With India's other neighbours coming under the Dragon's influence, Pakistan becoming a virtual province of China, India needs to ensure that its traditional friend Bhutan does not see in any Indian action a sign of weakness and Delhi's inability to courageously address Bhutan's security concerns. If that happens, China would easily become the regional hegemon. Any sign of Indian weakness will make our neighbours believe that New Delhi doesn't have the diplomatic, military or financial muscle to deal with China.

Considering its constraints and objectives, patience and time are India's only warriors.

But, it would be irrational to believe China would allow India to play the Doka La game with its own interests in mind, according to New Delhi's timeline. Its counter to Swaraj's statement that if India wants peace, it should withdraw from Doka La with no strings attached shows Beijing is low on patience, or at least this is the impression it wants to create.

On Friday, its defence ministry spokesperson again warned India that the People's Liberation Army's restraint has its bottomline and goodwill has its principles. He asked India "to give up the illusion of its delaying tactic, as no country should underestimate the Chinese forces' confidence and capability to safeguard peace and their resolve and willpower to defend national sovereignty, security and development interests."

For India, the biggest challenge now is to balance its own reliance on diplomacy — and refusal to drum up a hysteria war — and China's sustained belligerence. What then could be India's options?

Two options have been outlined in detail in an article in The Indian Express. One of them is asking Bhutan's army to replace Indian soldiers at the Doka La tri-junction, thus partially accepting China's demand for withdrawal without delay. But, this strategic retreat, as security experts told The Indian Express, leaves Bhutan with the option of directly engaging China, a possibility India is uncomfortable with. The other option is to wait till November, when the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will meet to re-elect its leader. Once domestic politics is out of the equation, the two countries can then silently work out a diplomatic solution.

Playing for time suits India's domestic compulsions too. In a few months, elections for the Gujarat assembly are due. Maintaining a strong strategic posture without risking escalation is important for the BJP to retain its nationalist appeal. Once the elections are over, Modi and his team can talk to China, without worrying about some of the concessions they may have to make to resolve the crisis and avoid a military conflict.

Tolstoy may be proved right yet again.

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2017 12:41 PM

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