Modi govt sure-footed in dealing with Beijing but needs to adopt two-pronged approach

Earlier this week, at a closed door meeting of Indian strategic thinkers and half a dozen Chinese scholars on South Asia, the fault lines in the often troubled Sino-India relationship unexpectedly surfaced once again highlighting the enormous differences that persist in dealing with the contentious boundary question.

One of the visiting Chinese scholars, perhaps provoked by an aggressive Indian query on China’s continuing policy of using Pakistan as cat’s paw against India, squarely laid the blame for recent troubles at the un-demarcated border at India’s door. “It is the new forward policy practiced by India, especially in the grey areas which exist in the Western sector that has led to the recent incidents on the border,” was the burden of the Chinese scholar’s argument.

The underlying message was: Just like in the run up to the 1962 war, India is the aggressor once again and all its actions in border areas were “leading to negative consequences.”

Of course the more senior lot in that group spoke in the usual platitudinous tone about the need to ‘resolve the border dispute through mutual respect and mutual compromise,’ one of them even outlining three pre-requisites for an eventual settlement: Strong political will on both sides; a strong political leader in Beijing and New Delhi and a formula acceptable to the people of both countries!

One of them advised Indians to go through the archives and historical documents to understand the problems that beset Sino-Indian boundary issue and reminded everyone that the border is not demarcated even as the Chinese team skirted the main question as to why each VVIP visit is preceded by an incursion! Of course one Chinese assertion is: there is no incursion, we are always within our own territory!

The reason I have dwelt on a Track II meeting at such length is to underline the almost irreconcilable positions that exist in India and China on the boundary question. We in India believe China is following the ‘creeping’ invasion policy along the border while scholars at prominent Chinese think tanks term India as the aggressor!
If at an informal level there are such obdurate views, the hard line that officials adopt during negotiations can only be imagined.

So what is the current Sino-India equation?

Over the past two years, the relationship graph has seen some highs and many lows.

First the highs: Three bilateral meetings at the highest level possible have taken place since 2013.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made his first overseas visit to India in May 2013 and mainly spoke about strengthening the India-China economic relationship. In October 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Beijing and signed yet another pact (the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement or BDCA) to try and keep the contested boundary calm. In less than four months after a new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge in Delhi, Chinese President Xi Jingping was in India. Apart from political contacts at the highest level, even military to military engagements ( have increased in the past two years and yet, two of the most serious border incidents since the Sumdorung Chu incident in 1987 have taken place in this period.

So the lows: In April 2013,  PLA soldiers walked across the Line of Control (LAC) in the remote and desolate Depsang Plains in Ladakh (( just a fortnight ahead of Premier Li’s visit and stayed put for 21 days before an all-out effort resolved the crisis. The experience of the standoff came in handy when the BDCA was being negotiated. But if any one thought  the face offs, jostling, pushing and pulling between troops at the LAC would stop after signing the latest border pact, they are mistaken.
On the day President Xi Jingping arrived in Ahmedabad this September, 1000 Chinese troops walked across the LAC in South Eastern Ladakh’s Chumur area leading to another tense and perhaps the biggest face off in the past 25 years. India’s overnight swift response (sending in 2000 troops against the 1000 Chinese) and staring down the Chinese was unprecedented in many ways but even as the crisis ended, questions on why the PLA repeatedly ups the ante on eve of VVIP visits remain unanswered. Many theories (the PLA is not under total control of President Xi, says one implausible conjecture) have been advocated but the most rational reason stems from PLA’s effort to keep up the tension on the border since India has belatedly started a massive military build up backed by improved infrastructure all along the Himalayan border.

President Xi and Prime Minister Modi seem determined to not let the boundary issue cloud the overall relationship since both India and China realize the old security architecture is slowly crumbling and both Beijing and New Delhi, along with Tokyo, will have major role to play in the rapidly changing strategic equations. The trick for India will perhaps lie in balancing the strategic competition with China with the need to cooperate on many common issues. As India’s then National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, remarked in January 2012, “The issue is whether we (India and China) can continue to manage the elements of competition within an agreed strategic framework which permits both of us to pursue our core interests.” Beyond the bilateral, both countries have recognised and pursued common goals. These  include reforms of the Bretton Woods system, new institutions to advance the interests of emerging economies through steps like the recently launched Asian Bank.

India however needs to guard against increasing Chinese footprints in South Asia. Smaller nations in the region have often played India against China (notably Sri Lanka of late) to their advantage. India will have to arrest the drift in neighbourhood policy to reclaim strategic space in South Asia before its too late.

The new government, even as it appears more assertive and sure-footed in dealing with Beijing, needs to adopt a two-pronged approach. Keep the engagement going even while improving military capability and stitching alliances with countries like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea and Australia as an effective foil to China’s rise.