Tango or not, India must remain steadfast with China; Beijing's call for 'friendship' could be another ploy

Prakash Katoch

Two signals from China caused an eclectic change in India's outlook towards China. In December 2017, China's Special Representative Yang Jiechi delivered Chinese president Xi Jinping's message to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that both countries should aspire to become "friends for generations" and "partners in rejuvenation".

The second signal was Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi briefing media in Beijing (March 2018), "Despite some tests and difficulties, the China-India relationship continues to grow. ...China is upholding its rights and legitimate interests.... Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other.... If China and India are united, one plus one will become eleven instead of two. With political trust, not even the Himalayas can stop us from friendly exchanges."

Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. PTI

Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. PTI

India's response was erratic, to say the least. A government memo asked leaders and government functionaries not to attend Tibetan diaspora events marking 60 years of Dalai Lama's exile and thanking India for giving shelter to Tibetans. With External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attending foreign ministers meet in China before the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao (June 2018), which will be attended by Modi, it's all the more reason to interpret Chinese signals cautiously. Besides, the fact that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay was invited for Modi's swearing-in ceremony, wouldn't it have been prudent to quietly orchestrate postponing the 'thank you' event to the end 2018, giving time to observe the Chinese behaviour?

India also cancelled the annual Asian Security Conference by Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) citing "administrative reasons", this year's theme being "India and China in Asia: Making of a New Equilibrium". Whether or not there was fear of discussions that could displease Chinese participants, the cancellation does indicate undue appeasement; a sign of weakness.

Significantly, while Yang delivered Xi's message to Modi, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) was permanently establishing itself in north Dokalam. Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman eventually admitted Chinese presence in the region but efforts continue to play it down. A post on social media talked of PLA shivering in minus 17 degrees in temporary shelters. Another talked of satellite photographs misinterpreted and that China had no Plan B at Dokalam, which must have tickled the Chinese pink. Incidentally, Yang was a state councilor under Chinese premier Li Keqiang in 2013 when the latter visited India in the wake of the 19-kilometre deep PLA intrusion at Raki Nala in the Depsang Plains of eastern Ladakh.

Yi's call for tango too raises many questions. Dance to whose tune €" China's? Doesn't his statement about upholding China's rights and legitimate interests imply all illegal claims (Dokalam, Arunachal Pradesh, and other areas), and isn't this a threat? What is the basis of trusting China €" a call to Tango? Where was China when Russian president Vladimir Putin was pushing for stronger India-China-Russia relations over a decade ago? Would Yi call that 1+1+1 equals 111?

The Chinese excel in attacking the leadership of target country €" witness Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and even Indonesia. This is extremely easy in politically divided India. That is why Ambassador Luo Zhaohui was parleying with the Opposition and threatening India during the Dokalam standoff, while Indian communist leaders €" welcomed and funded by Beijing and the Communist Party of China €" are now sending "heartfelt congratulation and best wishes" to Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Quite apparently, China wants India to join CPEC, something the Indian Opposition may have promised to do if they come to power, surrendering the sovereignty of India notwithstanding.

Chinese are also past masters in winning over diplomats posted in Beijing. Remember Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel deploring then ambassador to China, KM Panikkar, in his letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on 7 November, 1950. Another former ambassador to China serving as National Security Advisor of India during the UPA II rule was building perceptions for India to withdraw from the Siachen area that would enable China and Pakistan to join hands in Ladakh at an immense strategic disadvantage to India.

Vijay Gokhale, India's present Foreign Secretary has also served in Beijing albeit he has red-flagged China's connectivity push.

But all said and done, don't we understand that China is behind the increased belligerence of Pakistan, turning the Maldives and Nepal against India; Pakistan targeting Indian villagers to increase pressure on the Modi government; or the Pakistani prime minister rushing to Nepal to coordinate a joint China-Pakistan-Nepal pressure group against India, and the like. With absolute power, Xi is challenging the US on multiple fronts. Chinese protégé North Korea is testing nuclear reactors for making weapons-grade plutonium.

Some views are being expressed that the India-China rapprochement would wean the communist nation away from Pakistan, which is naïve considering China uses Pakistan against India, employing the ancient strategy to 'kill with a borrowed knife'. Besides, Pakistan is already a Chinese province and strategically vital for China. The view that the Chinese are constrained to team up with India because of the downturn in the Chinses economy too is flawed because the Chinese economy is four times that of India, and India will hardly terminate trade relations in case of border clashes; considering we haven't even withdrawn the most favoured nation status to Pakistan.

India needs to remain steadfast, even though the NDA II has continued with the UPA policy of deliberately keeping India armed forces ill-equipped. India still has surprises for China in case of larger conflagrations while in small-sized conflicts, the military can be counted upon to blunt PLA intrusions. The obsolete weapons don't mean they don't fire, and Xi knows this from China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979. But if India wants peace, it must prepare for war. In geopolitics, no negotiations work from the position of weakness. Xi wants China-centric Asia which requires subjugating India. Instead of getting mesmerised by the serpent's gaze, we should focus on its fangs.

Finally, there is no reason for India to be obsequious to Beijing as China will mount all-round pressure in trying to force New Delhi to join CPEC and install a government that dances to Xi's tune. At the same time, relations that don't impinge India's national interests must be pursued.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army

Also See: Months after Sikkim standoff, Nirmala Sitharaman to visit China in April; agenda for visit yet to be finalised

Sushma Swaraj to travel to China next month for taking part in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting

Wang Yi appointed as China's State Councillor, will become key negotiator with India on border issue

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