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India cannot ignore China's assertive foreign policy

Like Sumdorong Chu in 1987, the Doklam standoff was a watershed moment in Sino –Indian border faceoffs. The abrupt disruption of Chinese road construction and a rapid move of reinforcements into the Jhampheri ridge, left the Chinese army stunned. Quiet, but firm diplomacy complimented by the media, strengthened the Army’s hand further and bolstered Bhutan’s resolve. The disengagement was celebrated not just in India, but also by nations affected by Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. USA and Japan saw India as an Asian bulwark to block China’s growing hegemony.

A year later, the euphoria over the resolute stand taken in Doklam by India, seems to have evaporated, giving way to vacillating steps and statements by the MEA contrary to some media reports creating an air of suspicion.

After the 73-day Doklam stand-off ended last year in August, there appeared to be a conscious attempt by Beijing to build a favorable public opinion in India, suggesting the two nations can start a new chapter.  Speaking on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui had said “Xi and Modi, (who met at the BRICS Summit) sent a clear message of reconciliation and cooperation. We should dance together and make one plus one eleven. He had said, both sides should appropriately manage differences, get the problems under control left over by histories such as issues related to the boundary and the Dalai Lama while finding solutions to new problems.”

Exactly a year after, there is once again a “Doklam Alert” however, this time it appears to be “purposely injected” by a US Congresswoman Ann Wagner, who during a Congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee for Asia and the Pacific claimed that – “China has quietly resumed its activities in the Doklam area and neither Bhutan nor India have sought to dissuade it.”   In response Alice G Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, did not directly refer to Doklam, told Wagner and other lawmakers: “I would assess that India is vigorously defending its northern borders and this (the situation at the northern borders) is a subject of concern to India.”

Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen V K Singh was quick to quash this claim in Rajya Sabha and assured that there are no new developments at site of face-off with China at Doklam. He further added, “In our high-level exchanges with China, the government has consistently maintained that peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas is an important pre-requisite for the smooth development of bilateral relations.”

 Earlier in the month of May, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj  too had echoed the same saying  “there was no change in status quo at the face off-site in Doklam and asserted that a major outcome of the informal summit (in the month of April) between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping was enhancing of mutual trust between the two countries.”

So if all is well between India & China, then why is a US lawmaker making false claims? Does it ring a bell?

Yes, to some extent it does. Since Mrs. Wager had nothing substantial to support her claim and in fact she did not even elaborate on her claim of China resuming its activities in Doklam, why did she even rake this issue at this particular time? (Doklam anniversary & ongoing Pak general elections)

The analogy between the Elephant and the Dragon

Aristotle’s description had busted the myth that Elephant has no knees. And later on in Roman times, everyone knew elephants had knees because those lucky enough to attend gladiatorial games were treated to the cruel slaughter of the animals hauled in from Africa and India. In fact, in his sprawling encyclopedia Natural History, Pliny the Elder (historian) specifically mentions the elephant’s knees when recounting a battle in Rome’s Circus “One of these animals fought in a most astonishing manner; being pierced through the feet, it dragged itself on its knees towards the troop, and seizing their bucklers, tossed them aloft into the air: and as they came to the ground they greatly amused the spectators, for they whirled round and round in the air, just as if they had been thrown up with a certain degree of skill, and not by the frantic fury of a wild beast.”

According to the Physiologus (collection of moralized beast tales) also, when it is time for the female elephant to give birth, the male must be vigilant, for the elephant’s eternal enemy, the serpent, will snatch the baby. Pliny refers to it as a dragon, “perpetually at war with the elephant,” he writes, “and is itself of so enormous a size, as easily to envelop the elephants with its folds, and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both; the elephant, vanquished, falls to the earth, and by its weight, crushes the dragon which is entwined around it.” In the Physiologus, the serpent seems decidedly smaller, as the male elephant “kills it by trampling on it until it dies.”

These descriptions must be read carefully by all to draw a correct analogy between the Elephant and the Dragon before declaring “Doklam alert“.

What is at stake for both?

The major elements of the relationship between India and China:

Energy(Resource competition): India and China are two of the largest, fastest-growing energy consumers in the world. India imports some 75 % of its oil needs, while China imports about 40 % of its oil. Their combined demand has helped drive oil prices to record highs, prompting both nations to try to lock down sources of energy around the world. China’s quest for energy has prompted China-Africa project.

Trade:  Bilateral trade between India and China in 2017 rose by 18.63 % year-on-year to hit $84.44 billion. India accounts for nearly 80 percent of South Asian economic activity and is a critical gateway to the region’s economy. The two countries are increasing their economic cooperation, particularly in areas like technology. “There’s this idea that India does software and China does hardware, and the two of them together make an Asian market.”

Perimeter: The two nations have a longstanding territorial dispute in the Himalayas that led to a border war in 1962. Among the areas of contention, India says China is illegally occupying Indian territory in the disputed region of Kashmir. China has claimed the rights to land in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Security: At the time of India’s 1998 nuclear test, Indian officials said they needed nuclear weapons to deter China, an assertion that raised hackles in Beijing. “There are suspicions on the military side, but both leaders have kept it in check. India is wary of China’s longstanding relationship with its rival Pakistan, including Chinese assistance for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, CPEC and China’s role in a project to upgrade a Pakistani deep-sea port at Gwadar. The nuclear threat from China and Pakistan is combined since China has built up Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional capabilities. China has also expanded its security ties with other nations around India.

India cannot ignore China’s assertive foreign policy

We all know that China has advanced an assertive foreign policy with the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the East and the South China Sea disputes. Having said that we should not forget that China’s alignment with Pakistan and deepening relations with other South Asian countries represent a significant challenge to India’s geopolitical dynamics. China’s economic might allows spreading its influence around the world, which is used to India’s detriment.  It is an open secret that China ensures India remains bogged down in suspicion and mistrust with its neighbors and does not have the strategic appetite to “Act East”.

To counter the above, India has four types of tools at its disposal that it needs to hone: military power, potential partnerships with other countries (Quad), multilateral diplomacy, and international economic integration. India for obvious reasons needs to revise its stance of countering China with the Quad. To counter China’s not so opaque policy of containment, India must get its act together on the military front, as that is what prevents the Chinese from upping the ante when their economic diplomacy runs into problems in Asia.

However, given its improved relations with Beijing in recent months, it probably won’t be seen actively promoting it. Lastly, we cannot ignore the Indian ruling government’s prime focus – 2019 elections!  Therefore, all steps here on will be measured keeping national & party interest.  The nationalistic fervor will certainly be at its peak, and anybody trying to disturb the status-quo may land up paying heavy penalties.

28 July 2018/Saturday                                                                 Written by Afsana 

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