Has China done anything in recent times to deserve a more compliant India?
In diplomacy, foolhardiness is as damaging as pusillanimity. To show bravado, without the ability to implement it, displays lack of maturity. To show timidity, when the situation does not warrant it, shows lack of strategic resolve. These thoughts come to mind in the light of the recent directive sent by Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha to the Centre and states that senior leaders and government officials should refrain from attending functions marking 60 years in exile of the Dalai Lama. The directive was reportedly prompted by a note by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale that such a step was advisable given that India-China relations were going through a sensitive phase. As a result, the Tibetan government-in-exile has cancelled two events in New Delhi — one, an inter-faith prayer meeting at Rajghat; and two, a “Thank You India” function, which has been shifted to Dharamsala.
Is this genuflection before Chinese sensitivities justified? Perhaps there are facts, or new developments, to which the MEA is privy to, but prima facie this deference to China is difficult to understand. The Dalai Lama has been in India for the past 60 years. India has reiterated to the Chinese that we recognise Tibet as a part of China, and that His Holiness will refrain from any political activity. That this has largely been the case is verifiable, and becomes manifestly clear through the nature of activities planned to commemorate the 60th anniversary — special prayers, mass tree plantations, yoga events, cleanliness drives, feeding of the hungry and homeless, and distribution of blankets to the poor. There is nothing “political” in this, or different from what the Dalai Lama, a deeply revered religious figure internationally, has been promoting all these years. Why is China taking umbrage, and even more important, why are we so suddenly deferential to their sensitivities?
Has China done anything in recent times to deserve a more compliant India? I don’t think so. In fact, it has been particularly hostile. It has blocked India’s efforts to designate dreaded Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN. It has done its best to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplies Group. It has brazenly gone ahead with the proposal to build the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan through Gilgit-Baltistan, territory that India claims to be its own. Last year in June it also escalated the Doklam crisis by attempting to build a road in the disputed area at the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan. Geopolitical strategist Brahma Chellaney has now reported that, in spite of the Indian government’s claim of disengagement, the Chinese are continuing to build sentry posts, trenches and helipads in Doklam.
Over the years, China has consistently implemented its policy towards India of “engagement with containment”. Containment has meant showing India its place whenever necessary and with impunity. At the time of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, Chinese troops invaded India in significant numbers at Chumar in Ladakh. We predictably downplayed this outrageous behaviour. On bilateral trade — which is hugely in China’s favour — China milks the Indian market while limiting market access to our exports. Geopolitically, China has penetrated deep into our sphere of influence by acquiring strategic assets in Sri Lanka, such as Hambantota port, and by meddling against our interests in Nepal, Bangladesh, and more recently, in the Maldives. It regularly gives sanctuary to anti-India insurgents in the Northeast. While we seem to have looked the other way, it has invested billions of dollars in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, an area recognised internationally as disputed, but resisted our attempts to foray for oil in the open waters of the South China Sea.
On Arunachal Pradesh, which is undeniably a part of India, but which China continues to designate as disputed and calls “South Tibet”, the Chinese have been unrelentingly intimidating. Earlier, the Chinese government announced that Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh will be given stapled visas to travel to China. We protested, but rather mutely. An effective retaliatory response to this affront should have been to say that we shall give stapled visas to Chinese of Tibetan origin. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh last month, the Chinese lodged a formal diplomatic protest! In April 2017, when the Dalai Lama went to Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese lost all diplomatic restraint and unilaterally named six places in that state on their own map.
The problem is that we have too low a threshold of happiness about Chinese behaviour. Earlier this year, China appeared to be a little “nice” to us at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris, by withdrawing its opposition to a US proposal to place Pakistan on the FATF’s watchlist of countries with financial links to terrorism. We took it as a huge victory. But China plays this game of aggression and conciliation as part of a strategic plan, and support to Pakistan, notwithstanding this “concession”, will remain an integral part of its policy to contain India.
So, with such a track record, why are we so readily willing to kowtow to China? Are we a natural punching bag? In diplomacy, perceptions greatly matter. Nations respect nations that respect themselves. This is particularly so in the case of China. A timid and submissive India reinforces the Dragon’s self-belief in its ordained destiny of global dominance as the “middle kingdom”, and strengthens its conviction that India can be easily bullied. We need to understand that while China may be militarily stronger than us, we are not a walkover either. Such meekness, particularly from a government whose leaders took pride in their muscular approach to diplomatic relations, hardly does credit, either to them, or to our national interests. We need to have good relations with China, and should do what is required for this, but in conformity with our self-esteem, and as part of a strategic gameplan. A little bit of attitude will do our diplomacy good. Perhaps this couplet of Ghalib can inspire us: Mat pooch ki kya haal hai mera tere peeche, Tu dekh ki kya rang hai tera mere aage — Don’t ask how I will fare under your sway; you see how you will fare under my watch!