In geopolitics, the definition of beneficiary is fraught with ambiguity. It becomes an amorphous, shifting term, since realignments can produce strange bedfellows – and unintended beneficiaries.

The surgical strikes across the Line of Control with Pakistan on September 29 put India in an ambiguous zone, because China becomes the unintended beneficiary.

This has profound significance for India’s foreign policies vis-à-vis a host of issues, especially its strategic posturing in the Himalayas. The ruling elites do not yet grasp this. It needs some explaining.

Chinese chequers

Forty-eight hours down the line after the surgical strikes, Delhi is manifestly eager to de-escalate – if only Pakistan will oblige. The ball is in Pakistani court.

However, Pakistan will retaliate. There is no shred of evidence that Pakistan has begun realising, as former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh spokesman Ram Madhav surmises, that India today has a so-called different leader.

Madhav doesn’t know that Pakistan’s threshold of pain is very high.

And that is more so today, because of Delhi’s decision to wade into the insurgency in Balochistan. It is useful to remember that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s August 15 speech from the ramparts of the Moghul citadel preceded the Uri attack.

It carried much symbolism across the border in Pakistan. How the resonance of that speech would have slit open old cauterised wounds in the Pakistani psyche over the vivisection of their country 45 years ago is something Indians do not understand.

Equally, Pakistan genuinely believes that India has already lost Kashmir. In the Pakistani calculus, the payback time for 1971 has come. Therefore, Pakistan sees no sense in de-escalating and letting India off the hook.

Kashmir, Afghanistan, Balochistan – this is going to be India’s Bermuda Triangle. Suffice it to say, India is set to become a national security state for a foreseeable future.

The 13-year old ceasefire on the LoC has been openly violated by India. The dissolution of the ceasefire (in a formal sense) creates great fluidity in the security matrix impacting Jammu and Kashmir.

Enter China. Since India’s western borders need much greater attention from now onward, the steady build-up on the disputed border with China will have to wait or slow down.

Clearly, any move on our part that China might see as provocative will complicate matters for the Indian Army. Do we move BrahMos misslies upto Tawang? Do we send more tanks into Ladakh? There are no easy answers.

The best-case scenario will be to settle for peace and tranquillity on the disputed border with China, keeping low profile, handling incursions tactfully and calmly, eschewing any plans to create new facts on the ground.

Of course, the good part is that the disputed border continues to remain the most peaceful terrain on the planet.

However, China has no reason to view this as an Indian concession. Rather, it will see India’s strategic restraint as borne out of sound realism.

A terrible beauty

The heart of the matter is that a terrible beauty is born in the post-surgical strikes regional security scenario. It forces India to make a realistic reappraisal of its China policies.

In the current flare-up, China has taken a mature stance after careful deliberation. The visit by the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee RN Ravi to Beijing also turned out to be a fortuitous happening, providing the opportunity to put across our concerns over terrorism at the highest level of leadership – with China’s intelligence czar and Politburo member Meng Jianzhu.

Meng told Ravi, according to Xinhua, that

“strengthened counterterrorism cooperation between China and India was conducive to the interests of the people of both countries… (and) voiced hope that the two sides could put to action counterterrorism collaboration and protect regional security and that of the two countries.” (Emphasis added.)

On the other hand, Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar, Pakistani Special Envoy on Kashmir who arrived in Beijing soon after Ravi’s visit, was only received at the level of Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin (corresponding to our Foreign Secretary.)

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s account of their meeting signals that Beijing’s post-cold war era stance on Kashmir is cast in iron:

“Vice Minister Liu Zhenmin listened to Pakistani envoy’s briefings on the situation in Kashmir and Pakistan’s standpoint, and emphasised that China has been following the Kashmir situation and takes seriously Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.”

“China believes that the Kashmir issue is a left-over from history which shall be resolved by relevant parties through dialogue and consultation. China hopes that Pakistan and India will strengthen channels for dialogue, properly handle their differences, improve bilateral relations and together protect the regional peace and stability.”

These remarks might disappoint the so-called hardliners in the Indian establishment and in our Sangh Parivar (such as Madhav) because their reading of the tea leaves will be that China fuels India-Pakistan tensions.

Policy shift

Having said that, Modi government’s policy shift toward China, as evident downward from the Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific issued during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January last year, is becoming unsustainable.

Three vectors of this policy shift can be prioritised.

First and foremost, it is eminently desirable to mothball any action plans on Tibet that may be in the pipeline with our security establishment.

Of course, China can be expected to calibrate the transition to the post-Dalai Lama era to its advantage, but it can’t be helped.

No matter the volatility of the situation in Tibet, a hands-off policy is in India’s best interests. Let Beijing figure out its way to stabilise Tibet on its terms – just as we need to regain a grip on the Kashmir Valley, which has been under curfew now for eighty days.

Second, government needs to think afresh on the imperatives of causing annoyance to China over the disputes in the South China Sea, which has been evident in Delhi’s policies through the past year and more.

This rethink is anyway overdue, given emergent realities – Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s reluctance to be drawn into confrontation with China, loosening of US-Philippines alliance, uncertain future of Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (underpinning of US’ pivot to Asia), Obama Administration’s keenness to stabilise ties with China, and so on.

India had got all dressed up but there’s really nowhere to go, as the assumption that it is much in demand as a balancer vis-à-vis China in Asia turns out to be delusional. We need to get into more comfortable casual clothing.

Third, most important, India’s stance on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is simply illogical. If India wishes to stand akimbo apropos China’s One Belt One Road, fair enough. It is our sovereign prerogative to do that, no matter what the rest of the region does.

But it is an entirely different thing to try to undermine the corridor, which is a crucial vector of China’s geo-strategy and one that Beijing will advance with all the resources at its command.

India simply cannot oppose the corridor on its own steam without getting into Chinese crosshairs. Which of course is something avoidable in the present circumstances.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that while the Indian surgical strikes on Thursday may help Modi to regain his aura as a muscular Hindu nationalist leader as well as to address the widespread indignation and outrage within India over Uri attack, these are short term factors at work. On the other hand, the prospects for medium and long-term escalation of tensions with Pakistan are very real.

The United States’ capacity to moderate India-Pakistan tensions has significantly diminished due to the atrophy in American influence over Pakistan. China, on the other hand, wields much influence over Pakistan.

India and China could have a congruence of interests over regional stability – provided Modi orders the bureaucrats to get cracking at it. And it can prove to be a game changer for India – provided Modi orders a reboot of the normalisation process with China with a positive outlook, as he tried to do in Ahmedabad two years ago.