MAKING predictions is audacious. Save an unintended, unplanned incident, India and China are unlikely to go to war.
It is certainly audacious after President Xi Jinping’s declaration last Sunday, made donning full military regalia to the People’s Liberation Army soldiers, that they could “defeat any intruder”.
He has shattered any early prospect of reconciliation between the two Asian giants whose ambitions clash regionally. The talk of “cooperation, not competition” is passé.
New Delhi has opposed Beijing’s attempt to extend a border road through a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China. It lies at a junction between China, the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and is disputed between Beijing and Bhutan. Duty-bound under a pact, India supports Bhutan’s claim. Since this stand-off began on June 16, each side has reinforced troops and asked the other to back down.
If that road is completed, it will give China greater access to India’s strategically vulnerable “chicken’s neck”, a 20km-wide corridor that links the seven northeastern states to the Indian mainland.
To the chagrin of its hawks, who outnumber the doves, New Delhi has played down the aggressive, even vituperative statements coming from Beijing. No public protests outside Chinese mission have occurred in India.
The Chinese media accuses Narendra Modi’s government of nursing “Hindu nationalist ambitions”. But it remains silent on Beijing’s own record of bullying smaller neighbours with “cartographic aggression” followed by threats, and Xi’s political ambition to become the next Deng Xiaoping.
The world must fretfully note that the stand-off, now in its seventh week, may persist till after the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) 19th Congress.
Leading India-China-watcher Srikanth Kondapalli says the timing of the conclave scheduled in October/November, where five of the seven members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) will be newly appointed, “has complicated matters”.
“President Xi would not like to be seen as giving in to India as it will weaken his hand before the Party Congress. This will mean factions supported by former presidents like Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin getting an edge in getting their nominees appointed to the PSC rather than Xi’s — something he (Xi) would like to avoid.”
It’s the combustible combination of knocking off border posts, diplomatic exchanges and media warfare. Sections of Indian media are active, but overall, Beijing, unleashing Global Times and the CPC’s other official newspapers, appears to have succeeded in making itself heard louder than Indians in international media and, perhaps, diplomatic quarters.
It is India’s lone battle. The world powers are more likely to lean on it to hold talks. New Delhi is ready, but Beijing insists India first withdraw its troops.
This is a clear departure from the earlier understanding that the tri-junction dispute would be resolved through talks. Indians are now beginning to feel that the Chinese are not interested in resolving the larger border dispute hanging fire for half a century.
Both sides passed up an opportunity to defuse the crisis when Modi and Xi failed to meet bilaterally at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Talks among the national security advisers (NSAs), despite Xi addressing their BRICS meet, also failed.
Indians suspect Chinese intentions since the two sides have never stopped talking. NSA Ajit Doval’s visit was the fourth by an Indian government representative since the face-off began. Through July, ministers Prakash Javadekar, Mahesh Sharma and J.P. Nadda were in China for BRICS-related meetings.
The Chinese government, academia and media have shown utter disdain for everything Indian, even raising the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, its “all-weather friend”, by condescendingly offering to “mediate”.
New Delhi instantly rejected the “offer” since it was meant to add to the provocations. Beijing, which advocated Kashmir’s “independence” in the past, has in the recent years acknowledged it as a bilateral India-Pakistan dispute needing a dialogue to resolve.
The two ancient civilisations have never fought since times immemorial, till China overran Tibet in 1950. Since the 1980s, border clashes have taken long to resolve, but resolve they did through talks. The last one in 2006 over Arunachal Pradesh was talked out. This was firmed up in 2012. The current stand-off is a vociferous, risky departure.
The relative tranquility of the last decade has been breached because of new factors.
One, India, still far behind China one-is-to-three on most counts, is catching up in economic achievements, foreign investment and is consolidating infrastructure on the Sino-Indian border.
Two, the India-United States ties, although not formally strategic, have grown exponentially. India has access to technology, especially military technology. And India is a top buyer of armaments.
Three, China dislikes India’s support to Asean’s case on right to navigation and exploration of natural resources in the South China Sea. During Modi’s visits to the US and other nations, India adopted a broad stand refraining from hinting at China’s role. But, Beijng remains suspicious and hostile.
And four, China has taken umbrage to India boycotting the Beijing Summit that launched the Border and Road Initiative (BRI). New Delhi has legitimate territorial and sovereignty concerns with the BRI’s “flagship”, as Beijing proudly calls, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The “corridor” passes through Jammu and Kashmir territory that Pakistan illegally ceded to China. Also, India sees no wisdom in providing easy access to Chinese goods that have flooded South Asia anyway.
Even here, Shivshankar Menon, former Indian NSA, foreign secretary and envoy to Beijing, argues that India only absented from “a meeting” that was attended by scores of others. There is no finality and no timeline, should India decide to join in future.
Lastly, Sino-Indian trade at US$72 billion (RM308 billion) remains heavily tilted in China’s favour. A social media campaign seeking to boycott Chinese goods remains ineffective as Indians are too used to China-made sprinklers and colours for its Holi festival and crackers during Deepavali.
Will money make the mare go towards reconciliation on the border? Seems unlikely, for now. Geopolitics supersedes everything else.
Mahendra Ved, NST's New Delhi correspondent, is president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association 2016-2018 and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ magazine