Delhi’s much appreciated restraint during the confrontation with Beijing in Doklam had one important element — not to let the military tensions on the border disrupt other interactions with China. Can Delhi sustain this policy as the range of differences with Beijing continues to widen? The BRICS summit hosted by President Xi Jinping could reveal how Delhi plans to manage India’s sharpening global and regional contradictions with Beijing. During the Doklam crisis, Delhi was determined to avoid making matters worse and took pains to sustain the tempo of normal diplomatic business with China.
The peaceful end to the Doklam crisis does not mean the problems on the disputed boundary between India and China have been resolved. Careful management of the northern borders and finding ways to limit the consequences of the growing power imbalance with China will remain one of India’s biggest challenges in the coming years.
Compounding the problem is a new feature of Sino-Indian relations. Until recently, Delhi believed that whatever the difficulties on the bilateral front with Beijing, India has unlimited space for regional and international cooperation with China. After the Cold War, Delhi convinced itself on the importance of working with Beijing to limit the dangers of the unipolar moment marked by American dominance of the world. Recent developments that severely dented these assumptions include China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and its willingness to let the Pakistan army off the hook on cross-border terrorism. India has also been wary of China’s efforts to undermine India’s privileged position in the Subcontinent through a variety of means including its One Belt, One Road project.
Where does that leave India in relation to China at the BRICS forum, for long the main political expression of India’s quest for a multipolar world? In the past, India seemed to just drift along in support of China’s agenda for a non-Western global order.
As Delhi comes to terms with the negative impact of Beijing’s rapid rise, it has begun to ask itself a consequential question: Should India jump from the frying pan of Western primacy into the fire of Chinese hegemony? A twin criteria should help India find the right answers: One is to assess any issue on the BRICS agenda for its impact on India’s national interest; the other is to insist on strict reciprocity. India’s support for China’s agenda must necessarily be matched by Beijing’s backing for Delhi’s international aspirations. Self-assurance and pragmatism of the kind that marked India’s approach to the Doklam crisis must define multilateral engagement with China, rather than vacuous slogans of solidarity or political pique at a rising China’s new assertiveness.