India is seeking strategic equilibrium with an increasingly aggressive China, as eloquently articulated by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. In making this move public, he is perhaps responding to several Chinese pronouncements asking for cooperation and collaboration with India, despite the ground reality of the former’s unilateral assertion. The foreign minister also seems to be hoping that given its growing hiatus with the US, China would pay attention to India’s sensitivities. Jaishankar’s move is to underline what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying through informal summits, held at Wuhan and Mamallapuram, though without much impact.
In seeking equilibrium with China, India has bravely been confronting a face-off in the Himalayas for the past several months. It has been building creative, issue-based alliances with the US and Asian majors like Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia, and Australia. It has taken initiatives in the direction of economic de-coupling with China in the name of “atmanirbharata”. All this, however, has not taken India very far in terms of making an impact on China. It may take India at least a decade or two to reach an effective “atmanirbharata” vis-à-vis China, even if its present pace is significantly enhanced.
China is not interested in equilibrium with any of its Asian neighbours, least of all with India. Its efforts are clearly to build a hierarchical Asian order, with itself at the top. Beijing wants India to occupy a slot in such a hierarchy, commensurate only with its power status. It is acutely conscious of India’s economic strength, which is far below its own in terms of GDP and growth trajectory. It knows that India is also far behind on military modernisation and overall capabilities. China is ruthlessly resisting India’s access to global governance bodies, such as the UNSC and NSG. To keep India tied at that level, China is objecting to India’s growing strategic proximity to the US. It is encircling India strategically and economically through its strategic and economic corridors — BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar), CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and the Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Network. It is raising issues like Kashmir at the UN and establishing footprints in the Indian Ocean.
What, then, should India do to explore alternatives to equilibrium, while continuing to work on its present approach in a quiet and calibrated manner? One step could be to adjust with China, at least tactically, for some time, as China had done with the US in the Seventies and Eighties. Such an adjustment could be based on mutual give and take. Critical areas of priority for us could be identified to build an approach on. For India, our first priority could be the resolution of the border dispute. Past formulae from different package deals mutually offered and discussed may be invoked with innovative redefinitions wherever necessary and practical. Secondly, since China has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, it should be asked to prevail over Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue. Here again, various approaches have been tried in the past ranging from formalising the LOC — as Jawaharlal Nehru (then called Ceasefire line), Indira Gandhi (Simla Agreement) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Lahore visit) or as worked out by Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh during 2007-08 — to make India-Pakistan borders redundant.
In return for these “takes”, what can India offer to China as “gives”? First, it could offer access to Chinese commercial cargos to sea, through the Nathula pass (not a brand new offer), and join China’s BRI on mutually acceptable terms. Under this, India may actively move on the BCIM as it had already accepted it in principle in 2013, and both Manmohan Singh and PM Modi had promised China that they would study the proposal seriously. India can also link up its infrastructure projects in Nepal, as it is already working on them. This may please Nepal as it has a vision of becoming a bridge between India and China. This will serve India’s long-term interests in Nepal.
India may also show its willingness, at least tactically, to join CPEC as both Pakistan and China have asked for, provided, and this is critical, that India is allowed to undertake projects in PoK and Balochistan. Surely, Pakistan would resist this stoutly, but it should be China’s headache to persuade Pakistan. As for China’s push into other neighbours is concerned, India still has enough economic presence, goodwill and cultural capital there to play with.
Secondly, India should revisit its Tibet policy, which is a core irritant for China. The Tibetan administration has not provided any clear support to India’s claims in the Himalayas. The US folded up the Khampa rebellion in Tibet, based out of Nepal, in the wake of working out the 1974 peace with China at the latter’s behest. India can politely explore the possibility of relocating the Tibetan Political Administration (in exile in Dharamshala) to a suitable location in Europe, Australia/New Zealand or the US, while continuing to host thousands of Tibetans with dignity and respect.
It is possible that this “give” and “take” may not be acceptable to China. But what is the harm in thinking deeply on its various parameters and sounding out the Chinese? Even if it does not work out as planned, India would have made a bold diplomatic initiative and a huge tactical move towards thinking through out-of-the-box solutions and displaying that it can undertake risks to pursue its long-term national interests, as is being repeatedly asserted by Jaishankar and the Modi brand of foreign policy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2020 under the title ‘A finer balance’. The writer is Professor Emeritus, JNU and former ambassador and special envoy, Government of India