India’s recalibration of its ties with China continues apace even as the situation along the Himalayan frontier remains tense. From Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi targeting China at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to external affairs minister S Jaishankar talking of the need to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty at the East Asia summit, New Delhi is now more vocal than ever at articulating its frustration with Chinese behaviour.
The irony in the Chinese leadership extolling the virtues of rules and norms in the conduct of international relations at various global forums is not lost on a world that is struggling to come to terms with Beijing’s aggression and a newfound sense of entitlement.
India has also mounted a vigorous challenge to China across sectors — political, economic, military and diplomatic — though it is not readily evident if Beijing is cognisant of how far to the brink its reckless behaviour has taken the Sino-Indian relationship. At the same time, military talks between the two sides have continued and, for New Delhi, the objective remains complete disengagement and full restoration of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the western sector.
Earlier this month, there were reports that at the eighth round of corps commanders meeting, China had proposed moving its troops back to Finger 8, and a mutual return of Indian and Chinese troops to their original locations on the south bank of Pangong Tso. The aim, it seems, is to reduce the possibility of inadvertent clashes and incidents at a time when harsh weather conditions are exacerbating an already volatile situation.
This three-step disengagement and de-escalation process is to include removal of armoured personnel carriers, withdrawal of troops from specific areas on the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh, and a verification of the disengagement process by both sides.
The fact that this proposal came from the Chinese side should be viewed in the context of Indian Army occupying all the dominating heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso and Chushul in August, positioning itself on Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rechin La and Rezang La. This strengthened New Delhi’s bargaining position and underscored for Beijing that India remains willing and able to fight its way out of the crisis if needed.
Chinese military superiority is real and growing, but the Indian military has much greater exposure to fighting at high altitudes. Military gains on the battlefield are key to diplomatic outcomes at the negotiating table, despite India’s lacklustre record in this regard. In the current crisis, India has been able to alter the tactical calculus of the Chinese military and so disengagement is now much more of a serious consideration. Beijing is signaling that it doesn’t want to go any further, at least in the near future. There is a new administration in Washington and the Chinese leadership will be reluctant to start with it on a sour note by initiating a crisis with India.
So, all eyes are now on the next round of corps commanders meeting where India’s position will be spelt out more clearly.
But the larger challenge remains one of reducing the trust deficit which is widening by the day between the two Asian giants. It is striking that PM Modi has been interacting with key world leaders on a regular basis bilaterally, but one leader is missing in that matrix. Xi Jinping and Modi have been part of a number of multilateral platforms, but Modi has challenged Chinese actions without naming the country.
India’s decision to keep itself out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) should also be viewed through the strategic lens. New Delhi had announced its decision on RCEP last year when it had misgivings about the trade pact and about the role China would have in it. Those misgivings have become sharper post Covid-19 and border tensions. The use of trade policy for geopolitical ends has been trademark Chinese behaviour and India is trying hard to reduce its vulnerabilities vis-à-vis China.
China’s rise and its attendant consequences was the central determinant of Indian foreign policy even before the border crisis of this year. But after the military standoff across LAC, it is clear that Indian policymakers will have to ascertain the China factor and assess its implications for all major policy choices they make. After all, as Jaishankar has underlined, the choices nations make today will have deep “strategic implications” tomorrow. India’s policy choices today will have a great bearing on its future global role. And as Chinese behaviour spurs greater clarity in Indian actions and choices, a more confident New Delhi should hopefully be better able to shape its strategic environment in consonance with its priorities.
India’s military and diplomatic responses to Chinese aggression have made it clear that is India neither without options not is it reticent in choosing them. It is now for China to make up its mind about whether it wants a permanent foe in India or a neighbouring country with whom it can do business with.
Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal