One year after Doka La standoff, China still speaks language of occupation, says historian on Delhi-Beijing ties

Professor VC Bhutani (retd) of Delhi University has specialised in India-China relations. Having studied China and Chinese history at length, he believes Chinese ascendance in the world order is here to stay just as India needs to demonstrate a much more sophisticated approach in dealing with this super power.

Firstpost spoke to Professor Bhutani about how much India-China equations have changed since the Doka La standoff:

One year after Doka La, China continues with its road-building activities in Doka La. What signal is this sending out to India and other countries across the globe?

Most of China’s actions in pursuit of its territorial and maritime claims are unilateral and without even a shadow of evidence of the basis of those claims. China believes that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Hence, it speaks in the language of occupation which is more convincing than any argument.

China is conveying a message to the rest of the world that it has at long last arrived and that it will take possession of anything that it chooses to call its own, with or without any basis, logic, or justification. It also means that after US withdrawal from world leadership, China is the natural successor as world leader and from now on, the world will be run as China says, without regard for the claims and justifications offered by other countries, whether on the Indian border or in the South China Sea.

I am prepared to stick out my neck to say that Chinese actions in South China Sea can precipitate a further imbalance in the world order.

In retrospect, should India have disengaged its troops from Doka La in the first place?

It hardly matters what India ‘achieved’ at Doka La a year ago. All that has gone down the drain. For the present, it is China which is once again calling the shots. It is reasonably certain that Modi will respond with more ‘summits’ and will parade that as success of his foreign policy. In real terms, it will add up to very little. Xi will be happy to keep Modi in good humour but Xi will not resile from any of the claims that China has made in the past or that it may make hereafter.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

How much will India’s economic and security heft increase after joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

This is in the main speculative. We have yet to see how India’s economic relations shall lift up, if they do. All approaches to the countries to the west and north of Pakistan are not available to India. It is difficult to visualize a change of attitude and policy in Pakistan that will enable India to pursue economic relations with Central Asian republics. The same applies equally – if not more – to the security aspect. Contrary to expectations in India, it is unlikely that Pakistan shall contribute to or facilitate India’s security outlook in relation to areas which India cannot reach except through Pakistan. In short, the key to Indian approach to Central Asia lies in Pakistan.

Will both India and Pakistan joining SCO help towards easing of India and Pakistan relations?

This is a fond hope in India and a stated but mischievous expectation in China. China likes to pretend that it is working for better India–Pakistan relations, especially after they have both become full members of SCO. It is hopeless to think of SCO as an ‘Eastern NATO’: If it became anything like a defence grouping, it would conflict with traditional Indian foreign policy, one of whose principles has been to keep away from military alliances, hence non-alignment.

On foreign policy, there is a wide measure of agreement among most strands of foreign policy thinking in India that keeping away from power blocs has been good for the country. Nehruvian principles have informed foreign policy-making in India in the post-Nehru era, including the two BJP interludes. In spite of vocal and perhaps visceral opposition to Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, NDA II foreign policy has essentially been continuation of policy followed by Manmohan Singh government.

Inclining towards USA seems to be problematic for the present because of Trump’s attitude towards even long-standing US allies and other signed US commitments of the past. No one should expect a helping hand from USA under Trump if India faced a showdown with China.

It is possible to recognise that Modi has been pursuing personalized foreign policy with Xi but we should know that Chinese foreign policy decisions are not affected by a swing-ride in Gujarat or visits to a Chinese lake.

Will such a step help end terrorism, especially in our regions with a great deal of it emanating from Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is not a member of SCO but only an observer. Afghanistan by itself cannot make much difference in the fight against terror. We should understand that much of terror emanates from Pakistan and that terror is the preferred and chosen tool of Pakistan Army and security forces to achieve objectives which it cannot hope to achieve by military means: Pakistan has fought four wars with India and achieved nothing. The 1971 experience especially galls with Pakistan because India cut Pakistan in two. The Pakistan Army chief shall go on making pleasing noises but he shall do nothing to scale down terror activity against India with the avowed but unstated objective of detaching Kashmir from India.

Properly speaking, SCO should include both Afghanistan and Iran as full members in addition to India and Pakistan. But even then, Pakistan’s approach and policy shall not change. And let us realise that on this, there is across-the-board agreement in Pakistan among all who have a role in decision making – the army, the civilian government, the opposition, non-state actors (the basic instruments of terror against India), and the judiciary. This is unlikely to change merely because India and Pakistan are members of SCO. Nor is China overly keen about easing India’s difficulties. On the contrary, China will do everything to use Pakistan against India in every conceivable manner and on all possible occasions.

What do you feel about President Xi’s recent statement that SCO is an ideal platform to end the several decades old hostility between India and Pakistan?

This was stated for the record and for effect and should not be taken seriously. We should not build large expectations from China or SCO. It is practical to expect that SCO shall operate as an instrumentality of Chinese foreign policy. China will go on saying that problems between SCO members should be resolved by negotiations but will make effective nonsense of such efforts to ensure that India and Pakistan do not start being good neighbours. China will go on offering grandiose schemes like OBOR and CPEC, knowing that India will not subscribe to them for reasons that it has often stated. If Xi was serious about Indian participation in CPEC, he should have discussed with India first before making a grand announcement in Pakistan. China does not expect or even want Indian participation in CPEC.

Russia seems to be moving closer to Pakistan. Is this being done at the cost of India and will India joining SCO help in re-establishing close ties with Russia?

It is interesting to recall that after Modi and Pakistan president Mamnoon Hussain shook hands, Hussain went on to shake hands with Putin but Putin did not shake hands with Modi (Qingdao, 10 June). Russia seems to be clear in its mind that the leader of the bloc is China and that it is important to stay on the right side of China. It is natural, therefore, that Russia–Pakistan relations shall warm up, which will necessarily be at India’s expense: This is axiomatic.

We should have no hope, much less expectation, that India–Russia relations shall lift up — in SCO or outside. In Brezhnev's time, India–Russia relations were a result of USA's unconcealed patronage to Pakistan and Russia’s willingness to be a factor in the Cold War idiom of India–Pakistan binomial relations, which Indira Gandhi used with consummate finesse and effect.

Will Moscow use Pakistan against India as is being done by China?

If China puts pressure on Russia, it is not unlikely. It remains to be seen if Putin will have the guts to avoid being enlisted by China.

If that happens, India should consider leaving SCO, just as India put SAARC in cold storage because of Pakistan’s continued use of terror against India. SAARC in any case has lived past its usefulness. It cannot achieve anything as long as Pakistan regards India as its permanent adversary – India does not regard itself so.

How is India going to address the issue of Gilgit–Baltisan becoming Pakistan’s fifth province, given that Chinese official position is that the Kashmir dispute should be resolved through dialogue and consultation?

Gilgit–Baltistan and northern areas were parts of the state of Kashmir and shall remain in dispute as long as Kashmir remains disputed between India and Pakistan. Neither of the two can hope to throw out the other by military means or even with foreign military help. The two should therefore settle the dispute by making LoC the International Boundary throughout. Short of this, there is no way of solving or changing anything.

How is India handling China after Doka La? Given that China has emerged as the world leader, where does this leave India?

With its new constructions, China has outflanked India in Doka La, just as China has outplayed USA in the South China Sea. With USA under Trump, there is no possibility that China shall be called upon to fight a war with USA. India in any case cannot hope to start a war with China for Doka La – or even for Chicken’s Neck if China occupied it.

The saddest part of Indian foreign policy today is that Modi has little understanding of foreign policy or international relations. Then, he has as foreign minister someone who does not contribute to policy making, while the minister of state does not seem to take interest in foreign policy. Who is debating foreign policy in government and who is advising Modi? It is difficult to suggest anything that Modi would take seriously. He is enjoying his foreign travels.

China is willing to share details of Brahmaputra flows with India, but has given no indication of how much Brahmaputra water it will control because it is planning to build over 200 dams and reservoirs on this river and its tributaries.

China is not unduly concerned about international law. There are definite provisions in international law about the rights of a lower riparian. But China is not bothered about India’s rights. I suspect that in the years to come, China will start lecturing India about Pakistan’s rights as a lower riparian in the Indus rivers waters.

China has emerged as the world leader. Where does this leave India? India was moving closer to the US during the Manmohan Singh era but that seems to have halted with the present US president Donald Trump unable to get a grip of the situation.

Part of the answer is contained in the question. There has been US withdrawal from world leadership during the tenures of Bush II and Obama. China seems to believe that with its economic and military power, it is qualified to be the new world leader. But it also seems that China is inclined to use every part of the international relations scenario for its own interests without concern for other countries. I, for one, would regard OBOR or CPEC or BRI as definitely intended to ensconce China as the unquestioned world hegemon – with several other countries so indebted to China that they would not lift a little finger against it. In fact, it is possible to say that Xi is doing his utmost to neutralise India so that even if India does not join BRI, it will not actively oppose China.

We seem to be nowhere close to resolving our border issue with China and now, China has started a huge mining operation in the North East close to the Indian border? Your comments.

It is an error for India to engage in large economic relations with China when the fundamental question of the boundary remains unresolved. If economic relations are closely enmeshed, it will be difficult for India to take independent foreign policy decisions because Indian foreign policy decision-making shall be constrained by economic factors and the influence of the economic lobby in India.

There has been a strand of opinion in India for quite some time that India should not make a hostage of the future economic relations between itself and China to the settlement of the boundary question. This view was successfully sold to successive governments, both Congress and BJP, leading to large Indian investments in China and the opening of trade and other relations.

It is a fact of the situation that it is possible for China to make things difficult for India in SCO, ASEAN, NSG and UNSC by taking some hard decisions. At the same time, the commercial lobby in India will make it impossible for India to take independent decisions in India’s national interests.

India should do everything possible under the sun to work for settlement of the boundary question and meanwhile to put a hold on economic relations.

Take the example of Northern Europe. Russia annexed Crimea and went on to spread its influence in Ukraine. Western nations responded by imposing sanctions on Russia and asked European countries to join in the sanctions. Several countries of Northern Europe keep their homes warm with gas flowing in pipelines from Russia. These countries cannot run the risk of endangering their gas supply by joining in sanctions against Russia. In the upshot, the question of Ukraine is in a stalemate, with no resolution in sight.

Economic factors can easily become constraining factors in foreign policy decision-making.


Updated Date: Jun 16, 2018 16:58 PM

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