It is unlikely that anyone in the Indian government seriously considers the terms of the India-China military disengagement in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control to be anything but a temporary truce. While agreeing to halt its creeping aggression in the short run, China has also made it clear that it neither acknowledges the sanctity of the LAC nor is it willing to abandon its claims of sovereignty over Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh — regions it claims as historically parts of Tibet and, by implication, China.
For the past two decades at least, there has been a debate in India over how to view China: as a competitor or an adversary. If nothing, the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley, coming barely three years after the prolonged face-off in the India-Bhutan-China border at Doklam, has settled this question quite conclusively. The near-national consensus over its designs on the borders hasn’t, however, extended to strategies to deal with the China threat to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Predictably, the emergence of a national consensus has been marred by internal political calculations. It is not altogether curious that the most trenchant critics of Narendra Modi’s handling of the border kerfuffle happen to be those who have consistently opposed him since 2014 or before. Some Opposition leaders have delighted in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to strike a personal relationship with China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping hasn’t paid dividends.
Others have taken perverse pleasure in arguing that China has set its sights on overtaking the United States as the number one global power and considers India to be at best an Asian irritant. The implication is that Modi’s attacks on the culture of “expansionism” is tantamount to India punching above its weight.
The understanding of China’s Middle Kingdom mentality may well be accurate but, unfortunately, the critics don’t stop at stressing the daunting challenges before India. By celebrating China’s spectacular rise from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, there is also the policy prescription that it is futile for India to resist the emergence of a unipolar Asia, and that it is best to negotiate the terms of honourable subordination with Beijing.
Although this is never stated explicitly, this ‘Vichy mentality’ is discernible. It has been craftily masqueraded in the assertion that the Belt and Road doctrine is a meaningful alternative to West-dominated globalisation and promises a ‘community of shared destiny’; that with a hostile Pakistan in the western border, India must avoid a second front at all costs; and that pan-Asian resurgence is a loftier goal than intransigence over fuzzy borders.
From the Bandung Conference to the 1962 war, Jawaharlal Nehru’s China policy was centred on a misplaced faith in pan-Asian solidarity. He was guilty of woolly naivete. Today’s appeasers couch their indulgence of China in the logic of realpolitik and, in some cases, handsome business returns.
Without doubt, China has cultivated influential friends and they are by no means confined to those who still wave a red flag. The willingness to gloss over China’s single-minded military and strategic expansion, the ruthlessness of its internal regime, its unethical commercial practices, including the brazen theft of technology, and its emulation of 19th-century European imperialism in parts of Asia and Africa is remarkable. It is a testimony to China’s successful global soft power outreach that hegemonic designs have been cast in a benign garb.
Those who dance to China’s tune include capitalists preoccupied with global supply chains, decision-makers with an eye on kickbacks Chinese companies are only too willing to negotiate, the Taliban in Afghanistan that has been bankrolled in bad times, Third World oligarchs that appreciate China’s disdain for human rights and sundry intellectuals who love a good junket. The China lobby is formidable and more varied than anything the Soviet Union was able to build during the Cold War.
It is prudent to acknowledge that a lone struggle by India against a rampaging China would have made limited headway. Fortunately, in the wake of Covid-19, there is greater global appreciation of the fact that China has gone too far. The West may be in decline and the centre of economic power may be shifting eastwards, but it is still resourceful enough to mount a fightback.
India stuck its neck out by frontally opposing Belt and Road, thereby earning the intense displeasure of China. Now it must shape its diplomacy and economic outreach to align with all those who cherish prosperity with democracy and national independence. It is going to be in the frontline of an emerging dharmayuddha.