IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council
India is facing a major military challenge, with escalatory potential, from an unscrupulous and deceitful adversary on its northern border. The stakes are huge in terms of national security and economic choices India must now make with greater clarity and realism than before.
Unfortunately, instead of a show of national unity to meet the heightened external threat, the government is also facing an internal challenge, with opposition politicians aggressively questioning the government’s read-out of the developing situation and demanding premature explanations, and retired army officers claiming a fuller grasp of the ground situation (based on secondary information) than field commanders and confounding the public. They, along with some strategic experts, are giving running commentaries on the evolving situation as if a cricket match was being played in the high mountains.
Lack of foresight
The nation must show solidarity in facing a hegemonic adversary that sees India as an obstacle in realising its global ambitions. Regrettably, those who have held high-level security positions in earlier governments have begun to play politics in criticising the Modi government for showing ineptitude in handling China, as if the governments they have served had a more robust China policy that limited Chinese options in dealing aggressively with India.
Long before Modi/BJP came to power, China has been countering India strategically with impunity. The 2005 agreement on guiding principles and parameters for settling the border issue had some good features, but we accepted the Chinese formulation on making “meaningful” boundary adjustments, a Chinese code word for territorial concessions in the east by India. China began claiming Tawang in violation of the provision in the agreement about safeguarding due interests of their settled populations in the border areas, and we absorbed this Chinese provocation. From 2005 onwards China began claiming the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, calling it South Tibet, started issuing stapled visas to those from Arunachal Pradesh, shortened the length of the India-Tibet border, provoked the Depsang incident before the visit of the Chinese premier to India, which the then External Affairs Minister absurdly described as acne that can be cured with an ointment. In May 2013 while visiting China he announced that he would “love to live in Beijing” and that “On the problem on the LAC, both countries are on the same page” and that “we don’t have prickly issues of significant difference”.
The joint statement on Premier Le Keqiang’s visit to India illustrates the unreal assumptions, confusion and wishful thinking behind our policy towards China. It talks of India and China setting an example of relations between big, neighbouring countries. It refers to India-China relations having acquired global and strategic significance and stated that both countries do not see each other as rivals or competitors.
Where was the need to agree that in the Chinese path of development “fundamental human rights and rule of law are given their due place”. Tibet? Worse, it says that the “two sides are committed to taking a positive view of and support each other’s friendship with other countries” and “support each other in enhancing friendly relations with their common neighbours for mutual benefit and win-win results”. This meant, absurdly, that we view positively and support China’s relations with Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar etc. Besides acknowledging China’s commitment to non-proliferation processes, we agreed to carry out bilateral cooperation in civil nuclear energy. This undercut our objections to Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation, if we were open to such cooperation ourselves, besides ignoring China’s opposition to our NSG membership. We even agreed to ‘further enhance bilateral cooperation in maritime security”, to “earnestly safeguard the security of international sea-lanes and freedom of navigation”, implying that we didn’t view China’s maritime silk route as a threat.
Rising to challenge
There is continuity in government policies and Modi inherited this incongruous legacy. Having yielded ground to China, anti-Modi critics, that include some retired diplomats, shouldn’t hobble the centre’s response to China’s aggression by eroding domestic support, or behaving like spectators who seek a good fight. The government has to act responsibly and exhaust the negotiating process fully before examining other options. It is becoming apparent that the restoration of the status quo ante is improbable, as it would seem that China had buckled under a strong Indian response and obtained nothing for what would seem in hindsight as a reckless, ill-considered move. We have therefore a serious challenge ahead for us. Disengagement, partial withdrawal in phases, creation of a buffer zone, even if it is equitably done, is not a solution, as China will still preserve the option to apply pressure and raise tensions at will to exercise oversight over India’s regional and global foreign policy options. We should disregard the so-called Chinese sensitivities about our relations with the US, Quad or bolstering the Indo-Pacific concept. This is not a question of ideology, it is one of making pragmatic choices faced with a geopolitical adversary determined to obstruct India’s peaceful rise as much as possible.