Indo-China ties

To achieve peace on the border, India must demilitarise its China policy

Couched in Beijing’s bluster on Doklam deadlock is a message for conciliation. New Delhi must respond in kind.

On July 15, China’s state news agency Xinhua published a commentary on the border stand-off in Doklam. Although it firmly restates the Chinese position that India must pull back its troops for the month-long impasse to be resolved, the tone betrays Beijing’s conciliatory attitude. Therein lies a message.

Politically, it’s revealing that the commentary appeared soon after the government held discussions with the opposition on Friday and Saturday that yielded the consensus that New Delhi should seek a peaceful end to the deadlock.

Diplomatically, the article must be analysed in the context of an important policy speech by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, delivered from a prestigious podium in Singapore last week, ostensibly outlining India’s approach to the geopolitical shifts in Asia-Pacific.

For nearly two decades, Singapore has been India’s conduit to the ASEAN. It has served as a confidante, friend, guide and counsellor, influencing New Delhi’s China policy, for better or for worse.

Thus, it was not insignificant that Jaishankar spoke from a podium presided over by Kishore Mahbubani. The Singaporean scholar-diplomat, known as an inveterate advocate of the “Asian Century”, is respected by the Chinese as a voice of moderation and realism. Two years ago, when the shrill rhetoric of Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was the signal tune of the region’s politics, Mahbubani berated American intellectuals for refusing to recognise that the United States was a power in decline.

Has India used Mahbubani to get through to Beijing to resolve the Doklam stand-off? We may never know for certain. But the fact that the Xinhua article pointedly takes note of Jaishankar’s speech is telling.

It has been noticed that Indian Foreign Secretary Jaishankar Subrahmanyam recently has made positive remarks in Singapore, saying that India and China should not let differences become disputes.  

Jaishankar’s speech was indeed notable for referring positively to the India-China relationship at a time when it is strained.

  • He recalled the civilisational ties between the neighbours and juxtaposed the “difficult near history” with the “positive far history”.
  • He cautioned against reducing the discourse to black and white since the two countries have “stakes in each other”, and differences must be viewed through the prism of a “multi-faceted” relationship.
  •   He stressed that in the final analysis, “at a time of global uncertainty, India-China relations are a factor of stability”, and the two countries “must not allow differences to become disputes” and ought to be capable of approaching each other with “strategic maturity”.

Reaching out

It was a clear diplomatic overture to Beijing. That Jaishankar invoked Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to confirm that the outreach was sanctioned by the political leadership.

Plainly put, Jaishankar signalled his government’s interest in “de-escalation” in Doklam. Thankfully, the clamour for war from hypernationalists in India, including some ex-soldiers who apparently want the gravy train to run till eternity, doesn’t reflect the thinking in South Block.

The big question now is how China weighs this “signal”, or whether they take it as a credible signal at all.

The Chinese have clarified, more than once, that diplomatic channels remain open, and have sought to distinguish South Block from the Indian defence and intelligence establishment. This suggests they may be amenable to the outreach.

In fact, the Xinhua article too makes a distinction between Jaishankar and “some Indian civil groups, tinted with intense nationalism…constantly stirring up anti-China sentiments” as well as “some senior officials of India who made irrational remarks, which further fuelled the unnecessary tension”.

In effect, it all comes down to the Modi government’s China policy. Is there even a coherent policy?

Jaishankar’s speech was out of sync with the provocative act of a top leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, hoisting a Tibetan flag on the Chinese border in Ladakh early this month.

It is an insult to common sense to accept that such an act of provocation – or plain idiocy – at such an explosive moment in India-China relations would have been committed without the encouragement of some spooky fellow hiding behind the bush. Are there rogue elements in our government trying to sabotage peace efforts with China? If this provocation was sanctioned by the Indian establishment, why did it suddenly change tack and send a conciliatory message through Jaishankar? There are no easy answers.

But the good news is that the Xinhua commentary ends on a positive note.

China has a will to solve the problem peacefully by diplomatic means, and China also cherishes the peace and serenity in the border areas, but the precondition is that the trespassers of India must withdraw unconditionally.  

The ball is in New Delhi’s court. Hopefully, its response will not be dictated by the hotheads.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey.

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