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Why does Delhi allow Beijing to bully it?

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Jul 14, 2017, 3:05 am IST
Updated : Jul 14, 2017, 3:05 am IST

Why has it given an open warning to New Delhi for constructing India’s longest bridge the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge over the Brahmaputra river?

India and China flags (Photo: PTI/File)
 India and China flags (Photo: PTI/File)

What should have been a routine tri-nation peacetime annual naval drill in Indian waters suddenly turned volatile owing to the recent Sino-Indian land-border standoff and an avoidable Chinese statement: “Hope the naval drill is not aimed at any third party”.

Understandably, Beijing was craftily “working on it’, as seen from its early-June utterances related to the Malabar joint naval exercises on the Bay of Bengal: “China welcomes India’s rejection of the Australian request to join the naval exercises”; “China hails India for keeping Oz out of the drill”; “India rejects Oz naval drill offer, China ‘happy’”.

The burning question is why did China publicly declare its happiness? Is there more than what meets the eye — specially in the light of India’s recent refusal to be in China’s OBOR/BRI/CPEC jamboree of May 2017.

Perhaps. However, when on June 1 came a curious, though not necessarily connected, set of news relating to China that reflected the importance of India’s national interests, things got somewhat connected: “Defence Ministry unveils strategic partnership policy”; “After 17-year wait, India to get first new conventional submarine in July-August”; “Global arms majors will need their government’s nod to ally with Indian companies”.

A paradox indeed! On one hand, India, despite the GDP downturn, trying to organise its defence industry and commissioning a new conventional submarine after a long gap, and on the other side, China appearing to undermine Indian attempts to broaden the tri-nation naval exercise in its own backwater.

Before the Malabar saga, the public pronouncement of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson on May 31, 2017 made an unfocussed disclosure: “We are happy to see no more dialogue and communication on security issues” — a smiling Hua Chunying said, in an obvious reference to Australia. “We are happy to know that India has refused Australia’s offer to join the upcoming naval exercises with Japan and the US.”

Now comes the serious stuff. As far as India is concerned, a Reuters report from New Delhi, quoting anonymous officials, said on May 30, that India had rejected Australia’s request to join the drill to avoid a hostile reaction from China.

What is wrong if India does the naval exercise Malabar in the Bay of Bengal? It’s within its own zone, far from mainland China, far from the South China Sea, far from the Chinese PLA Navy submarine base along the coast of Hainan Island.

One has to try to understand what is happening behind the scenes. Is this an attempt to bully India? If so, why? Is it due to China’s $50 billion bilateral trade surplus?

Why such an open anti-India stand on various forums — from New York to South Asia’s Navy Nagar; Depsang to Dokala/Doklong; J&K to Bhutan-India-Tibet tri-junction?

Why is Beijing indulging in an incessant routine of proclaiming a “worldly threat” from India from Tokyo to Taiwan; New Delhi to New York; Philippines to Da Nang; Bhutan to Penang?

Why has it given an open warning to New Delhi for constructing India’s longest bridge the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge over the Brahmaputra river?

And now the expression of “happiness” for India’s “acceding” to the Chinese demand to bar Australian entry to the Malabar exercises?

Is this the best way to conduct international diplomacy by an aspiring superpower?

Now what is Malabar? It is a bilateral India-US naval exercise since 1992, a series of high-end war-fighting exercises conducted to advance multinational maritime relationships and mutual security issues. What began well, however, for the Indian Navy, soon came under China’s hostile radar.

Thus when the 2007 exercise included the participation of Australian, Japanese and Singapore navies, a démarche was issued by China, and then it was decided to limit the participation to the US and Indian navies.

Later Japan expressed a keen interest in participating in the exercises during a visit by its defence minister to India in 2014. He explicitly expressed the Japanese desire to participate in Malabar, but stressed that the proposed trilateral (US, India, Japan) naval exercise would not be directed against or constitutes a counter to, specific or perceived threat from any country (implying China obviously).

Thus took place the 19th Malabar exercise in October 2015 in the Bay of Bengal in which the US Navy was led by its Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Roosevelt; the Japanese maritime self-defence force deployed its missile destroyer Fuyuzuki, and the Indian armada consisted of a guided missile destroyer, frigates, a submarine, a support ship and a maritime aircraft P-8I.

In 2016, the Malabar joint naval exercise took place in June off Okinawa Island, focusing essentially on anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction operations and air defence training. The US Navy once again deployed its Nimitz-class carrier John Stennis; Japanese operated its Hyuga class helicopter carrier, P-3C and ShinMaywa US-2 rescue aircraft, and the Indian Navy operated its frigates, corvette and support ship, thereby making a perfect trilateral exercise at the entry point of the Pacific Ocean.

Today, however, if what transpired in the media in early June is true, then it constitutes a matter for concern, as India never objected to the recent Sino-Pak naval exercise in the Arabian Sea. Also, India already has done a bilateral naval exercise with Australia (a few weeks ago) on the basis of an Indo-Australian bilateral defence agreement of June 2013.

The moot point here is not participation or non-participation of Australia in the Malabar joint exercises.

Is the 2007 Chinese démarche to India still valid? Or a fresh (secret) démarche has been issued to India to stop its routine naval exercises with friendly foreign navies? One just cannot appreciate the avoidable aggressive psyche of China. If Beijing really aspires for a superpower status, it has to show maturity and nuanced diplomacy.

Blind imitation of gunboat diplomacy of the 18th and 19th century-Western imperialist powers are likely to be ineffective in the long run.

And India must ask itself  what are its compulsions. Why does one get an eerie impression of New Delhi being repeatedly bullied into submission by Beijing — even in matters of routine naval exercises in own waters?

Tags: chinese, defence ministry, hua chunying, beijing, dhola-sadiya bridge