The current standoff between India and China over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang from April 4 is a lot more than just his emotive longing to visit the great monastery which he had last graced in 2009. It’s a political, military and diplomatic game which China, more than India, has been indulging in for the past many years. India has usually been the responder. During the last two decades of the 20th century China followed the principle of stable borders and decided not to disturb the status quo lest it hinder the process of its modernisation. Only the standoff with India at Sumdorongchhu in May 1987 after the Indian Army’s Exercise Chequerboard, caused short-term disturbance of this policy. From 1993, when the Peace and Tranquility Agreement was signed, there was relative peace at the borders. However, one can recall how progressively over time India perceived that eventually it would have to be the Chinese threat it would have to militarily contend with in the long term. George Fernandes as defence minister was one of the few who had the courage to openly say this in 1998.
For some years now, China has been testing India’s will and capability through “walk-in actions” at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), signifying its readiness to reactivate its borders after achieving a degree of higher confidence after the PLA’s modernisation. However, with the coming of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and his proactive outreach and intent of taking economic relations well beyond, it appeared that the relationship would finally shed past perceptions. Once the relationship improved, the two nations would be ready for serious negotiations on the border issue. In fact, trade and economics were meant to make the border issue much less significant. A couple of things have disturbed the emerging bonhomie and rare chemistry that was on display between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jingping in 2014, that promised a much more cordial relationship.
First, even before Mr Modi took office, China’s broad strategic policy did not ever look towards India as an equal within Asia. Although economic cooperation had continued at a high pitch, the political relationship was always hamstrung by this Chinese perception. It is a natural phenomenon relating to two large neighbours wary of each other’s intent and the border dispute was only a factor for exploitation.
In recent years, China has firmed up its view that India is ever willing to enter into partnerships that primarily target it. India’s legitimate concerns on China’s aggressive stance at the border and in its relationship with Pakistan doesn’t appear to have ever been taken into account; trust was obviously in great deficit ever since 1962. Earlier, in partnership with Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) and now with the United States and Japan, extending even to Vietnam, India’s emerging relationships appear to have made China wary. Mr Modi’s special effort to build trust and a personal relationship with the Chinese leadership scored spectacular success, but his special relationships with both former US President Barack Obama and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe perhaps became a fear factor for China. It only underscores the degree of difficulty in maintaining equal and mutually beneficial partnerships with multiple nations without one or the other being suspicious of the other. Second, the coming of the high-profile China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), particularly with the alignment passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, there has been considerable fallout on the region’s strategic environment. Whatever be China’s military and economic compulsions, the execution of a major strategic initiative through disputed territory claimed totally by India impinges on its sensitivity in no small way. It even enhances the scope for strategic collusion between Pakistan and China.
Third, the diplomatic signals have not been encouraging at all. China’s refusal in the UN Security Council to have Masood Azhar classified as a terrorist or placing obstacles in the way of India’s bid to become a member of the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG) have obviously only created more negative sentiment in India. India sensed that these actions were designed to send home subtle messages about China’s concerns on the emerging India-US Strategic Partnership and India’s efforts to reach out to Japan and Vietnam. For China, anything contributing towards its stronger relationship with Pakistan works against India. Fourth, the recent very visible actions undertaken by China within South Asia appear to be a drawing of the erstwhile “string of pearls” into a tighter noose; strategic messaging packaged smartly. The changing status of ownership of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka in China’s favour and the visit of a PLA Navy submarine to it were ominous signals. The purchase of Feydoo Island in the Maldives by a Chinese company also raises concerns. The ongoing deal of China’s state-run Zhenhua Oil to buy Chevron’s gas fields in northeastern Bangladesh bordering Indian states also firms up India’s suspicions, more so as Zhenhua is a subsidiary of China’s Norinco defence industry conglomerate. To cap it all, the Chinese defence minister has paid a well-publicised visit to Sri Lanka and Nepal with some attractive offers of defence equipment. The visit was probably timed for the period just before the Dalai Lama began his intended tour.
There is much concern in strategic circles about India’s defiant attitude and expression of strategic independence in taking the decision in October 2016 to clear the Dalai Lama’s visit. He has been invited for a cultural festival by the BJP government of Arunachal Pradesh; even the 10-day period of the visit is longer than usual. China has employed its usual media blitz the way it always does but also got its official spokesperson to express concern over the future course of Sino-Indian relations. India’s stance appears fairly well calibrated. The cumulative effect of CPEC, the Masood Azhar affair and NSG issue had put it firmly on the defensive. It can’t be seen to be remaining at that position in a fast-moving world where comprehensive national power, punching within one’s weight and strategic independence are all seen as rolled into one.
Should India expect a Chinese response other than political and diplomatic? Prudence demands readiness for all contingencies, and nothing which exacerbates the situation. Military calibration by China is always a possibility, but it must take into account the implications and end results; a strategy without an aim achieves nothing. Does it have the will to launch military operations, and to what purpose? India’s national pride and its international standing is a factor that it cannot ignore. For all their deficient capabilities, the Indian armed forces are no pushover. A localised border action to embarrass India can’t be guaranteed to carry any assurance of success, and will always bear the potential for a larger conflagration. China is known for its strategic pragmatism. It must realise that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang was not designed to embarrass China but more as a message to the people of Arunachal Pradesh. It is a matter of perception even as unnecessary symbolism needs to be reduced in the relationship. Many across the world will be observing these developments, chiefly in East and Southeast Asia, and in Pakistan eyes will be peeled to see if India wilts under pressure. The decision to continue with the visit will give the Indian government much more confidence in handling its northern neighbour.