As China changes border script, India can’t afford to back down

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If there were any doubts that China is systematically changing the famous ‘tao guang yang hi’ (TGYH) approach that underpinned its foreign policy since the late 1980s, the ongoing military standoff in Doklam — which started with the People’s Liberation Army trying to change the status quo at the border tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China — has laid them to rest.

The TGYH approach, created in the context of a China that was wrestling with domestic discord after the Tiananmen Square massacre and what it saw as an existential global threat as other Communist regimes crumbled, was summed up in Deng Xiaoping’s Twenty-Four-Character strategy of 1992: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” That diffident era is now clearly over.

The current Bhutan standoff, which started with the Chinese starting to build a road towards the Bhutan army camp in Zompelri on June 16, illustrates how the internal Chinese foreign policy debate between the pragmatists who emphasised a low profile and the muscular nationalists who want the ‘Fen Fa You Wei’ (striving for achievement) approach is being won by the latter.

Ironically, Geng Shuang, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, recently accused New Delhi of having “trampled” upon the principles of ‘Panchsheel’ outlined by Nehru in the heyday of Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai. Yet, on the ground, Beijing’s actions are seemingly being driven by what a witty TOI cartoon pithily described this week as the spirit of “Punchsheel”.

Admittedly, the absence of mutually agreed-upon clarity over large parts of the Line of Actual Control on the map — like we have on the Line of Control with Pakistan on the western border— in what is the world’s largest border dispute stretching over 310,800 sq km of territory, has often led to periodic disputes. Even so, the current Chinese rhetoric is best characterised by the old colourful Hindi metaphor, ulta chor kotwal ko daante (the thief, instead, scolds the policeman).

The Doklam incident is significantly different from recent ones in Depsang (Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh, 2013), Chumar (eastern Ladakh, 2014) or Demchok (Ladakh, 2016). First, this time China is attempting to change the status quo as it has existed since the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement, as former NSA Shivshankar Menon has argued. The Chinese gambit of building a road in this strategically important sector pushes Chinese de facto control below Bhutan’s claim-line, about 5km southwards, thus changing the status of the border tri-junction.

Beijing’s claim to the additional territory invokes the old 1890 Britain-China border convention relating to Sikkim and Tibet. It argues that India accepted this as the basis for border demarcation in 1959 and 1960. Yet, this claim is belied by letters written by Nehru in the same period, as foreign secretary S Jaishankar told opposition leaders this week at a meeting at home minister Rajnath Singh’s residence. Also, in 2012, as Menon has said, special representatives from both sides “had a broad understanding that tri-junctions will be finalised in consultation with the third country concerned.”China is now unilaterally trying to get away from that.

Second, this incident is not just about India and China, but about a third country: Bhutan. Though Thimpu did ask on June 29 for status quo on the boundary to be maintained, the fact that it took two weeks for this public statement to be issued and Delhi’s measured tone indicate what is at stake: India’s strategic equation with Bhutan itself.

While Bhutan has long been an Indian ally and virtually a military protectorate, it has been having separate border talks with China and several observers have noticed subtle shifts in its stance on a final border settlement. The debate within Bhutan seems to be towards equidistance between India and China and the matter of fact manner in which its media has covered the issue so far is instructive.

Third, unlike in past incidents when both sides mutually agreed to withdraw troops, this time China is setting preconditions for talks. It didn’t expect Indian troops to intercede in Bhutan, and for India to back down now would be a strategic disaster.

Previous incidents with China have shown that diplomacy works, but only if it is backed up with strength on the ground. In that sense, the symbolism attached to the Indian navy’s biggest-ever participation, with nine warships including aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, in the ongoing India-US-Japan naval exercise, Malabar, in the Bay of Bengal becomes even more potent.

With bilateral trade worth over $70 billion annually, China is India’s biggest trading partner but the fact is that despite recent moves over greater market access, it has been aggressively moving to reduce India’s strategic space — from blocking its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group to stonewalling efforts for a UN ban on Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar, to propping up Pakistan as a client state.

The fundamental drivers of Delhi’s Beijing policy are inexorably changing and as a stronger China shifts its strategic calculus, so must we.
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