Recent steps of the Narendra Modi government to go out of the way to appease Beijing can only lead to the entrenchment of unhealthy ties with our northern neighbour.
This would be singularly unfortunate because there is some merit in the view — held by some of our prominent foreign policy practitioners — that it is with Beijing that India must imagine her most important relationship.
This view has been obscured because, for the most part since the 1950s, our relations with the Soviet Union had very high value. There was a beneficial economic and defence component, besides Moscow’s crucial assistance on the Kashmir question in the UN Security Council. And since the end of the USSR, India has come to enjoy a very productive and comfortable connection with the West.
With China, the memory of 1962 has been somewhat effaced. Still, the bilateral interaction has at times been characterised by mutual mistrust, in part on account of China teaming up with Pakistan to discomfit India in a variety of ways. At the level of both popular perception and official deliberations, these factors have badly undercut the rapid rise in trade ties with China, about which some questioning has now begun to be raised.
On the whole, broad Indian nationalism has been affronted. That’s not a good sign in building relations with any country, leave alone a powerful neighbour with which there is an unsettled boundary.
There are several reasons why the China relationship is extremely important and ought to be seen as such. For one, China’s economy is four times the size of India’s, although India could forge ahead in about 30 years’ time if we are sensible and can make our young population productive.
Two, China has been spending heavily on defence for a number of years, several times more than India. Three, China — like Pakistan, which it partners against India — is an unsatiated power, which makes it a troublesome entity.
It appears to have messianic zeal and a sense of destiny. In line with this, regionally it gives every impression of flexing its military muscle by growing as a maritime force, a missile force, and a cyber force in a manner that its neighbours find threatening. Its spectacular rise in recent decades has disturbed the placidity of the waters that surround it.
If any neighbour of China must deal with these harsh realities, it is evident that if ties are managed in an equable and mutually respectful way, India-China relations have enormous potential to be a stabilising factor for the international economy, and calming political nerves from the Strait of Hormuz to the East China Sea and the broad Indo-Pacific zone, an area of extraordinary economic and human potential.
For this to happen, India and China need to be sensitive to each other’s essential concerns. Only that can lead on to the present century being an Asian century. Regrettably, however, India has lately given the impression of being ready to accept an unequal relationship. That will stunt India’s potential, and impart an epidemiological dimension to the ties with unpredictable flare-up possibilities.
Recently, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi reportedly told the Indian foreign secretary, who was on a visit to Beijing, that India ought to be “prudent”. Last week, Mr Wang, answering media questions, held forth rhetorically on the good that may ensue from good Sino-Indian ties, but pointedly noted that China would “protect its legitimate interests”. Is this a warning? And, if so, how is India going to prepare for it?
Replying to a Parliament question recently, the minister of state for defence gave the impression that India needed to prepare for a renewal of Chinese military belligerence in the Doklam area, where the armies of the two countries held each other in a “standoff” for 73 days last summer.
But the way India has shaped its political response gives the impression of being obsequious to Beijing, leaving room for the impression that the present government is strong on words but weak, vacillating and unimaginative when it comes to action.
New Delhi asked all officials not to associate themselves with programmes featuring the Dalai Lama. The noted Tibetan spiritual leader was planning on a programme to thank India in the 60th year of being given shelter in this country.
There was simply no need for this as Indian officials have not participated in the Tibetan monk’s programmes in the six decades that he has been here. The Dalai Lama runs only religious affairs here. A precondition set by India was that he won’t engage in politics. Therefore, India declared a ban for transgressions that have never occurred. This is a sure sign of being overly courtly.
The meaning that can be plausibly read into this is that New Delhi is paying obeisance to Beijing. This is the way India has received it, and this is the way China would too. India’s several neighbours — who are always looking at how Beijing and New Delhi deal with one another — are also likely to read a similar meaning into recent events.
Here on, then, we may expect the Chinese to turn on the squeeze even harder — the perfect example of an unequal and inequitable relationship. In our ties with Nepal, which has lately made no bones about privileging China over India, and with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, our supine stance in relation to Beijing is likely to leave India without any worthwhile leverage in the region. What would then be left of India’s standing in Saarc?
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave the Dalai Lama refuge in 1959 when the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation was crushed. The Chinese attacked India in 1962, and gave our unprepared forces a thrashing with a view to belittle Nehru’s leadership. But Nehru stuck to his guns. He did not turn over the Tibetan monk to Beijing.
But the Modi regime appears to be altering the terms of engagement against the Tibetan holy man. This sudden loss of nerve on India’s part belittles us in the eyes of the Tibetan people and dents this country’s image across Asia and the world, which regards the Dalai Lama with sympathy.
It is now also easy to see why India backed off from underlining its strategic interests in the Maldives once it became clear that the absolutist government of President Abdulla Yameen was in cahoots with Beijing and has offered China a naval observation post, which, doubtless, will become a full-fledged military base on India’s doorstep. We have caved in and our interests will be hit hard all round.