May 29, 2020 12:13:35 am
The interesting thing about US President Donald Trump’s offer of mediation between Delhi and Beijing is that it was made at all. It is less about Trump knocking together the heads of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping than about signalling American concerns about Sino-Indian military tensions that have become frequent and intense. It comes amid the expanding arc of conflict between the US and China — from trade disputes to coronavirus and from Huawei to Hong Kong. Despite the massive and unprecedented polarisation in the US, the US political class has come together to project the China threat and agree on the need for a vigorous push-back. Trump’s statement merely extends the argument articulated a few days ago by Alice Wells, a senior official in the State Department. Wells was locating Chinese muscle-flexing on the disputed border in the trend of Beijing’s aggression in many areas, including in the South China Sea.
Trump’s offer is bound to irritate China. Beijing sees itself as Washington’s equal but has convinced itself that China is poised to overtake the US as the predominant power in the Asian theatre. It is especially galling for Beijing, since, not so long ago, China was offering to work with the US to manage the conflicts between Delhi and Islamabad. India and China might have been equals way back in the 1990s; Beijing no longer sees Delhi in the same weight class. Clubbing China with India will be seen as a big put-down in Beijing; and that, probably, was Trump’s intent.
There was a time when Delhi used to jump at any one talking about “mediation”, especially on Kashmir. But now it has learnt the art of fending off these busy-bodies with a smile. And then, Delhi discovered that it could, in fact, leverage international interest in its relations with Islamabad to India’s advantage. In the last few years, it managed to redirect the international concerns on Kashmir towards the sources of cross-border terrorism in Pakistan. In fact, Delhi is actively “internationalising” the question of Pakistan’s sanctuary and support to those fomenting violent extremism in Kashmir. Similarly, Delhi can use the global concerns on a Sino-Indian conflict to counter the PLA’s forward policy. In the name of handling the boundary dispute with Beijing in a purely bilateral framework, Delhi has turned its China strategy into an opaque process that neither the domestic or international public opinion understands. This is a good moment for India to publicise its case for a reasonable boundary settlement with China and contrast it with Beijing’s insatiable territorial greed. If winning the war of narratives is important in today’s world, standing one’s ground in a military standoff is absolutely critical. In a paradox, a Delhi that can repel Beijing’s military incursions on its own will gain ever-larger international political and diplomatic support for India’s contestation with China.
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