Narendra Modi's new outreach to China is bigger than just foreign policy and may hold keys to Asia's future
China’s might is reshaping India’s neighbourhood, raising fears that allies like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan could end up orbiting Beijing.
Modi's meeting Xi Jinping in Bishkek comes at a time when the two countries are facing shared challenges.
Long a proponent of a nuanced, fluid strategy on China, Jaishankar now has the opportunity to put his own ideas to the test.
India will have to live with China as it evolves, managing conflict as best as possible, and at once pursuing what opportunity can be had.
His words were spoken in the shadow of the gold statue that guards the throne of Bhutan’s Dragon King. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s message for his visitor, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was to have no witness but the Buddha. Bhutan remained India’s most loyal ally, the king said. But he warned: there was growing pressure from a new generation to keep the kingdom out of India’s conflicts with China. In future crises, Bhutan’s support might not be a given.
King Jigme’s message — delivered earlier this month during Jaishankar’s first-ever foreign visit as minister — will, almost certainly, have been on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind as he begins his second-term effort to engage Beijing.
China’s economic might is reshaping India’s neighbourhood, raising fears that allies like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan could one day, like Pakistan, end up orbiting Beijing.
The prime minister’s meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping in Bishkek on Thursday comes at a time when the two countries are facing shared challenges. The United States is threatening to overthrow the global trade order on which the Asian powers’ prosperity has been built, and its confrontation with Iran threatens their energy security.
In theory, this should facilitate building a new kind of bilateral relationship, but mutual suspicion runs deep in both Beijing and New Delhi. Finding a way forward on China, the critical foreign policy task for which Jaishankar has been brought into government, is no small task.
Five years ago, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had pushed forward a policy of staring down China all along its contested borders with India — a posture long advocated by foreign policy hawks. Bared swords, the theory went, were needed to scare the dragon off its Himalayan fastness and nudge it towards making peace on the borders.
In 2014, thus, Indian troops began building border defences and irrigation works on contested territories along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh’s Chumar area. Then, Indian troops dug in to block the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from building roads, also in Chumar, sparking a small-scale crisis on the eve of President Xi’s first visit to India.
Things came to head in 2017, with a 10-week standoff on the Doka La plateau, when troops under the command of Brigadier Gambhir Singh — later awarded an Ati Vishisht Seva Medal for his leadership — moved into territory claimed by Bhutan to block Chinese road construction.
Even though it won applause at home, the actual results of this new strategy remain contested. In Doka La, for example, China has built bunkers just 80 metres from India’s forward position at Doka La, linked to the PLA’s forward base at Yatung by an all-weather road that snakes across the plateau through the pass at Merug La. There are multiple new military structures scattered across the area, including trenches, artillery positions and helicopter landing pads.
India was able to ensure China didn’t push its road further south, right up to the Bhutan-India border, but could do nothing to deter PLA’s consolidation of its position, and this moreover inside territory claimed by Bhutan.
Perhaps even more important, border negotiations between Doval, India’s special representative, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, failed to progress. The wider relationship, too, remained mired in disputes on everything ranging from trade to Pakistan.
External affairs ministry insiders say that Jaishankar, as he prepared to leave office in January 2018, was convinced that Doval’s strategy had failed. Long a proponent of a nuanced, fluid strategy on China — one that sought incremental gains even in the face of border problems — he now has the opportunity to put his own ideas to the test.
For Indian policy-makers, this much ought to be clear: time is not on New Delhi’s side. Beijing’s economic might makes it a critical source of trade and investment for the entire region. From 2014 to 2018 alone, the American Enterprise Institute’s data shows, China invested a staggering $22.84 billion in Bangladesh, $8.14 billion in Sri Lanka, $1.7 billion in Maldives, $4.47 billion in Nepal, and $3.34 billion in Myanmar.
This money might come, as Sri Lanka has discovered, accompanied by painful terms and conditions — but cash-strapped developing countries have little choice.
From 1959, when People’s Liberation Army troops stamped out the last vestiges of Tibetan autonomy, Bhutan’s élite linked its fate to India, fearing a similar fate. But the children of that élite now study in Hong Kong, Singapore or the West — not in schools at Darjeeling or colleges in New Delhi.
Bhutan’s business and political leadership see China as more of an opportunity than a threat — as do the élite across South Asia.
New Delhi isn’t, of course, without leverage. K Illango, a senior R&AW officer passed over earlier this year for appointment as its chief, stitched together opposition alliances in Sri Lanka and Maldives that were able to defeat pro-Beijing regimes. These were signal victories for India in times where its regional influence has been sorely tested.
Pressure and coercion, though, are no substitute for hard cash — meaning that it is in India’s own interests to not reduce its China policy to a head-to-head clash.
The prime minister’s new outreach to China must rest on a clear-eyed understanding of why it behaves in the ways it does. China’s neighbours see a fire-breathing dragon; the dragon sees the glint of spears and sabres. China’s aggressive posturing on its peripheries — from the expansion of military bases in the South China seas, to the enabling of North Korea’s nuclear programme — is not an outcome imperial ambition, but stems from its fear.
Left a strategic orphan by the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, and conditioned by colonial humiliation, Beijing sees the world as a malign entity, where norms are meaningless and power the best argument.
For the past decade, Beijing’s geostrategic policies have evolved into what could be called an adolescent phase: newly-grown muscles are flexed, but not always with either clarity of purpose or with finesse.
India will have to live with China as it evolves, managing conflict as best as possible, and at once pursuing what opportunity can be had. This isn’t perfect strategy, but the alternative is worse.
The wars of the future, the Spanish general Manuel Fernández Silvestre Patinga prophesied in 1910, “will be concluded in one day’s hard fighting.”
Leaders, persuaded by their generals that war could be contained, and its fallout calculated, allowed themselves to be dragged into World War I. Ten million soldiers and seven million civilians gave up their lives by 1918, and millions more in smaller wars that raged until 1923.
Europe, then, looked a lot like Asia now: riding a great wave of prosperity, its markets better-integrated than ever before. Like Asia today, it was also a stage for new, rising powers acquiring military muscle, and old powers pushing back against them.
Modi’s new outreach to China is about something bigger, then, than just foreign policy: the moves he now makes hold the keys to a continent’s destiny.
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