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India and China might not want war, but will not be able to will peace either

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Chinese aggression is a problem for the world. India has announced it intends to break the shackles of the past.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: September 12, 2020 9:05:39 am
india china, india china border news, india china boder dispute, india china talks, s jaishankar wang yi talks, china news, ladakh, line of actual control, indian expressExternal Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. (File Photo)

India and China continue to be locked in a tense stand-off, despite the meeting between Minister S Jaishankar, and Minister Wang Yi. India is right to stand its ground that the Chinese have violated existing protocols on the border. It is right to send a signal that it will not embolden China by ceding territory. But it is worth looking beyond the morality of the claims and counter claims, at the structural logic of the situation to see why India and China are now locked in this precarious embrace, where they might not want war, but will not be able to will peace either.

The first is an issue of trust. Clearly, the Chinese actions have set back trust between the two countries by decades. But rather than think of trust as an attribute of character, think of the tactical logic of trust. Was the “trust” that kept tranquillity at the border largely a product of a perceived asymmetric relationship? Keeping a measured distance and disengagement made sense when both sides could assume that the other side either did not have the capacity or would not rapidly deploy troops in strategic positions at the border. With the building of infrastructure on both sides, this trust was bound to break. The ground realities were shifting. So even if there is some temporary disengagement, both sides will now assume that the slightest diminution in military deployments could give the other side an opportunity to advance in a matter of hours. An infrastructure-thick environment will require permanent presence and closer deployments.

Chinese capabilities are probably greater than India’s in this respect. But with India ramping up infrastructure and capabilities, this fear will be tangible on both sides. The fact that at the level of the army, we seem to have consistently misread the PLA’s intentions, both in April and May when the first deployments happened, but also in June and July when disengagement was supposed to have taken place, will make trust nearly impossible. So, heavier deployment of assets is now a fait accompli. The closer the armies get, the greater the risks.

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But beyond the tactical logic, there is a political logic that does not bode well. Let us, for a moment, put aside the moral claims and look at the self-reinforcing logic of perception. There is still speculation on why the Chinese are taking an aggressive posture. A distracted US gives an opportunity for Chinese assertion. But the very fact that we are not sure of Chinese motives means it is hard to know their endgame.

We may not know their motives, but we can think about their fears. These fears make the situation precarious. At a basic level, they will want to secure their interests in CPEC. But on the most important matter, Tibet, the situation may be as bad as the 1950s. China has always wanted an aggressive territorial and cultural consolidation on Tibet. In the Fifties, it felt vulnerable on account of fears that India and Nepal could be a staging ground of resistance in Tibet, aided by the Americans. The importance of this structural issue has not diminished. Chinese interest in Nepal is less to encircle India. It is to ensure Nepal is not used in any way. With China intensifying its cultural consolidation in Tibet, Sino-US tensions rising, the fear of India being ground zero for any resistance is high.

On Tibet, India is in an awkward situation. At one level, India does not have to do anything and China will still see it as a potential threat to its cultural hegemony in Tibet, because of the presence of the Dalai Lama. Ladakh and Tawang are also important pieces in that cultural consolidation. The Sino-India modus vivendi was premised on keeping the Tibet issue in check, and India, in recent years, often against its own democratic instinct, clamped down on Tibetan protest. But just as we are not sure of Chinese motives, they may not be sure of our motives either. There is an ideological shift to a deeper authoritarianism in China; and authoritarianism by its very nature will require an aggressive nationalism to shore up its power.

Chinese aggression is a problem for the world. But India has also announced that it intends to break the shackles of the past; its growing power means it needs a new paradigm of foreign policy. This policy will supposedly safeguard India’s interests more assertively. It wants to exchange the allegedly placid submission of the past with a more sophisticated policy, where all options can be exercised. India may be right about its claims. But it does not take a genius to figure out that, if diplomatically not well managed, this posture also causes great uncertainty in the international system and makes it harder to assess motives.

Our Pakistan policy is premised entirely on keeping them guessing on what we might do, including possible military options and altering the territorial status quo. We may think we were within our formal international rights to alter administrative status quo in Kashmir. But like China we are also signalling that we are not content with the status quo and would like infrastructural, territorial and cultural consolidation on our periphery. The government of India may paint a picture of diplomatic maturity. But the domestic ideological articulation of India’s position ranges from reclaiming PoK to Aksai Chin. We never weigh our own words carefully. We cannot abandon Tibetans. But it is not difficult to see that Ram Madhav attending a Tibetan commando’s funeral fits into a narrative of uncertainty over our intentions.

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The point is not to impugn India’s claims. Between India and China there is no comparison on who is the more responsible power. The point is a simple analytical one that our own trumpeted departure from the past, without either the diplomatic preparation, domestic political discipline, and full anticipation of military eventualities, does not make it easy for others to understand our endgame. So there is a mutually reinforcing cycle of mutual antagonism. More than a tactical deadlock, there is now also a deeper psychological and political deadlock. Faced with a palpable threat, India cannot back down. But we are in uncertain territory in terms of the logic of escalation. Resolving this conundrum will require not routine political guidance but great statesmanship on both sides. Otherwise we are in a state of nature, where neither side can anticipate the other’s intent, and will take pre-emptive measures, heightening the risk of conflict.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 12, 2020 under the title ‘Neither war nor peace’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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