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Sikkim border row: India's China policy is clear, 'strategic maturity', vigorous regional integration are the way to go

The clearest expression of India's policy direction on regional integration and Sikkim standoff with China emerged on Monday when Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar delivered the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy lecture in Singapore to mark the 25th anniversary of India-ASEAN ties. The address coincided with an interview of former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon published by The Hindu newspaper where key questions on Sino-Indian relationship were tackled.

A close inspection of the views of Jaishankar, India's top diplomat, and Menon, India's ex-envoy to China, reveal the multifaceted, stable and consistent nature of the bilateral tie. Both stressed against the dangers of letting one issue overshadow a thousand others. At the same time, they also pointed to the stress factors in the relationship which unless addressed and reinterpreted with the shifting power equations, may result in more incidents of friction in the near future.

The seriousness of the month-long impasse at Sikkim sector is underlined by the fact that both sides have recently reinforced their troop presence. India has redeployed 2,500 soldiers from Sikkim to Doklam plateau while China has made similar adjustments to its holding point at Chumbi Valley. The soldiers are apparently unarmed and in non-combatant mode but on high alert.

Representative image. Reuters

Representative image. Reuters

Menon, an old China hand who is also fluent in Mandarin, admitted in the interview that in his long diplomatic career and history of negotiations with the Chinese on border disputes (he was a moving force behind the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement) he cannot "recall this kind of rhetoric for a very long time", referring to the belligerent stand taken by Beijing on the deadlock near India-Bhutan-China tri-junction.

Speaking to The Hindu's Suhasini Haidar, the former foreign secretary said given the many mutual irritants in NSG, Masood Azhar and CPEC, "my own sense that both of us must sit down and work out a new modus vivendi to govern the relationship. We have both since the 1980s been rubbing up against each other in the periphery we share. So we do need a new strategic dialogue to discuss how we should sort out problems. "

China's steady escalation of rhetoric through foreign office, diplomatic circles and state-controlled media is matched by its calibrated strategic moves. The timing of the seemingly disparate actions point to a clear coordination which could be part of a grand strategy to keep raising the cost of impasse till it breaks India's resistance. China is well aware that if it forces India to withdraw, New Delhi's role as a security guarantor to Bhutan would be diminished and the tiny Himalayan kingdom could fall into its lap.

The building of a road at tri-junction — which India has termed as a violation of the 2012 understanding reached between special representatives of both countries that it would be settled through consultations with Bhutan — stems also from a desire to permanently alter the status quo. Interestingly, China's blanket refusal to engage with India unless it backs off, points to the fact that it wants to create a 'new normal' in the bilateral power equation. It had possibly not taken into account the spirited response from India and this may explain part of their belligerence.

But what are these 'seemingly disparate moves'? As pointed out by India Today's China correspondent Ananth Krishnan on Twitter, China's People's Daily newspaper has posted an image online of a frontpage editorial from 22 September, 1962: "If this can be tolerated, what cannot?", drawing a clear equivalence

Other analysts have pointed to the steady vitriol being belted out from its TV channels.

There are also reports that Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing has indicated its interest in playing the role of a mediator between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a marked departure from its earlier stance.

Amid this furious signaling of intent, two other media reports emerging from China are of special interest. One, it has sent troops to Djibouti to open its first overseas military base. Officially, Beijing has denied that this is part of any military expansionism, pointing out that it is merely a "logistical support base" to facilitate "escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia" and is even intended to ensure "global peace" but few are willing to take these claims seriously.

Least of all, it seems, even the Chinese media. In an editorial, another Chinese daily claimed that there could be no doubt that this is "indeed the People's Liberation Army's first overseas base, where China will garrison, (and) it is not a commercial supply point."

Simultaneously, as reported by various media outlets, China has been sending a plethora of submarines, military and surveillance vessels into the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea, possibly out of the strategic anxiety caused by India's trilateral naval war games with the US and Japan.

The New York Times quoted retired Admiral Anup Singh, who has been part of naval exercises in the past, as saying on the influx of Chinese warships in India's backyard that “they are deliberately upping the ante in order to flag their posture to people who are concerned… The Indians, the Japanese and the Americans. So they deliberately do it as a pinprick."

Meanwhile, Chinese navy is getting ready to begin similar war games with Russia, featuring its latest warships. The signaling here is hard to miss.

Amid these overt and covert signaling, are India and China headed inevitably for war?

Menon doesn't think so, advocating in the interview that military conflict would solve nothing, but "both India and China would have to reach that same conclusion at the same point of time to avoid it."

We see a similar sentiment being expressed by Jaishankar, who in his address at Singapore's Shangri La Hotel called for "strategic maturity", emphasising that "differences shouldn't become disputes", a line quoted from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's interaction with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Astana last month.

Jaishankar didn't deny the existence of pressure points, he placed those in the context of inevitable complexities that might occur when "two major powers" are rising "near simultaneously, that too in close proximity," adding that "the powers in question are civilisational ones, with positive far history and difficult near history, adds to the challenge."

The cornerstone of the relationship must be the acknowledgement that the sum is much greater than the parts, and "skewing the analysis in the direction of one at the expense of the other could mislead us. In truth, the India-China relationship by now has acquired so many dimensions and so much substance that reducing it to black and white argumentation cannot be a serious proposition."

It should be clear by now that regional integration through increased economic, strategic and geopolitical cooperation with ASEAN nations provide the greatest mutual insurance for India and the South East Asian nations against the rise of a belligerent hegemon.

In Jaishankar's words: "Involvement with the ASEAN and the consequent development of trade and sourcing of resources from the East has significantly heightened maritime consciousness in India. This has led us not only to be more active in pursuit of maritime interests but to use the domain to add an additional layer to our policy engagement."

There is little point fantasising about "Hindi-Chini bhai bhai", a rose-tinted fallacy for which we paid a heavy price. But that doesn't mean our relationship needs to be defined solely in terms of competing antagonism. As long as both countries respect each other's core concerns and keep engaging in areas of mutual interest, there will always be space in Asia for two major powers.

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 07:33 AM

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