Narendra Modi shakes hands with Xi Jinping, China's president | Photo: Graham Crouch | Bloomberg
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Xi Jinping, China's President | Photo: Graham Crouch | Bloomberg
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The 22nd anniversary of India’s nuclear tests, on May 11, went unnoticed mostly because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But some with elephantine memories did look back at that hot summer of 1998 when the Bill Clinton administration leaked a letter to The New York Times, written by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, telling the US president why India had gone overtly nuclear in the first place.

India’s “bitter” relationship with its neighbour up in the north, Vajpayee wrote, had been the driving force for the nuclear tests at Pokhran, surprising many in the Western world who believed that India was largely driven by its preoccupation with Pakistan next door. But Vajpayee and his team of strategic thinkers, once they had dealt with the 1999 Kargil invasion as well as the hijacking of the Indian Airlines Flight 814 later that year, had been consumed with how to rethink the unequal relationship between the world’s largest democracy and a Communist nation next door.

If anything, the difference between India and China has only grown — every economic indicator will tell you that. China’s $13.6 trillion GDP (in 2018) contrasts significantly with India’s lowly $2.7 trillion GDP. That’s why India won’t take sides in the ongoing US-China spat about the origins of the coronavirus — in a government-controlled lab in Wuhan or at the wet markets in that city— or whether it should be punished for not telling the world about the coronavirus sooner.

The simple reason why India won’t take sides is because it needs China far too much — despite the RSS’ economic wing Swadeshi Jagran Manch insisting that India should bring down its dependency on China and despite efforts to attract firms shifting out of China. The hugely unequal trade deficit between the two countries, currently at $53.57 billion, is enough to deter the most nationalist of leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

So, when Chinese soldiers barged across a windy mountain waste at the Naku La pass (not to be confused with Nathu La) in north Sikkim over the weekend or engaged in fisticuffs with Indian soldiers in Ladakh’s Panggong Tso lake a week ago, it was time to wonder why the Chinese were behaving so aggressively across two sites on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separated by more than 2,500 km.

China had succeeded in demonstrating one fact — its military’s ability to mount angry expeditions on high-altitude terrains across large distances. It brought back memories of the 73-day-long standoff on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan in 2017. The standoff was resolved by both sides withdrawing their troops. Neither side won, but India held its nerve. That was already a victory.


Also read: Indian, Chinese soldiers injured in Sikkim’s Naku La after ‘exchanging blows’, stone-pelting


Conflict map that China draws

So, what to make of the recent skirmishes? First, they are not new. They have been taking place over the last several years, including the final years of the Congress-led UPA-2. Second, they are a violation of agreements, written down in black and white, which delineate how both sides will deal with differences on interpreting the undemarcated LAC (first disengage, then return to your bases). Third, the Chinese soldiers walking into Indian territory in Sikkim and Ladakh — which they believe to be Chinese territory — seem very angry and very eager to pick a fight.

As former national security advisor and China expert Shivshankar Menon said during the Institute of Chinese Studies-ThePrint Conversation last week, “When do leaders shout? When they are nervous and uncertain.”

In Sikkim for instance, the border between India and China is settled, including in the maps that the Chinese have put out since 2005. But because both sides have still not been able to demarcate the LAC as a four-grid line on a map — despite the fact that since 2003, special representatives from both sides have had annual conversations on what to do about this — Chinese PLA troops decided they would walk across the Naku La pass and rough up the Indian soldiers.


Also read: India’s labour reforms trying what Bangladesh, China, Vietnam did — swap income for security


Why Naku La matters

What is interesting about Naku La is that it was the subject of a British expedition as far back as 1902 and directly dealt with Tibetan representatives on territorial claims. The Political Officer for Sikkim, J.C. White, travelled there on 15 August 1902 and again, three years later, to finalise the subject of grazing rights between the people of the Lachen valley (inside Indian territory, just south of Naku La) and the Tibetans.

“I would interfere very little, if at all, with the old customs, and would allow the Tibetans to bring in their yaks to graze at certain times of the year, provided they allow the Sikkim people to do the same in Tibet, as was formerly done,” White wrote to the secretary of the government of India in the foreign department.

The number of pillars needed to demarcate the boundary would only be 10, including one on Naku La. In the end, 23 “cairns,” or piles of stones all along the ridge line, were placed.

Nearly one hundred years later, when Vajpayee went to Beijing in 2003  and the question of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector of the LAC came up, the J.C. White school was resurrected as both sides discussed, not just the possibility of exchanging maps along all sectors of the LAC but also allowing Tibetan pilgrims to cross back and forth across a possibly porous border.

Nothing came of it, of course.

Vajpayee would be more successful on India’s western border with Pakistan, by pushing for an opening across the Line of Control — even though it would be a Congress-led UPA that implemented that decision in 2005, by sending the first bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad.


Also read: Modi reviving NAM won’t be enough in post-Covid world. India must reconsider joining RCEP


Testing the waters

Fifteen years on, as the world grapples with the coronavirus, it is interesting that the Narendra Modi government has all but abandoned Vajpayee’s thinking on Pakistan, but continues to take a leaf out of his “trust but verify China” book by refusing to join the US-led blame game on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and demonise China.

Perhaps the skirmishes in Sikkim and Ladakh are the Chinese testing the waters, looking to see what India will do and how far it will go in handling these provocations. The Doklam standoff should be a good ready reckoner in that Delhi will refuse to budge on sovereignty issues, but leave one door open for diplomatic conversation, even if the conversations, either in Wuhan or in Chennai, don’t even begin to resolve any of these issues left over from history.


Also read: India looks to lure US businesses from China as Trump keeps up tirade on coronavirus


It’s China’s choice

Perhaps the real problem is that China refuses to recognise the shades of grey in its relationship with India and the rest of the world. Compromise is seen as weakness, give-and-take as vulnerability. The Chinese believe they are on the right side of history and can afford to play the long game. That’s why they debunk all the historical records written by the British, on Naku La and elsewhere and believe history is written by the victors.

But in the brave new world being reshaped by a mere virus, Beijing needs to understand that the old rules may no longer work. Much is being made of Shanghai’s Disneyland reopening Monday, as if China has won the first prize in the global consumer sweepstakes, but the fact is that its reputation of being a responsible power is at stake. Can China bully its way into the new world order? Will the Chinese people demand answers from their leadership, like the Soviets did from their own in 1991?

Or is Covid-19 the anvil on which a new hegemon will rise?

Views are personal.

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10 Comments Share Your Views

10 COMMENTS

  1. india can not opt to antagonise china inspite of the border bickerings. India’s trade with china is important and US china friction dipoes not force India fully into US camp. india although is much stronger military than what it was in 1962 , India can not force an armed confrontation for obvious reasons. India will play cool as it can not afford a serious fight with china as we are no match to PLA. they can always field more troops than the usual 1:3 and PLA can field six times more than us if they plan to attack. We stand no chance against them. Nuclear arms do not matter now for the border rows unless china wants to run over Arunachal pradesh once for all as did in 1962.

  2. The statement ” unequal Trade deficit of Rs 53 billion USD ,makes India help less” is incorrect ,fallacious and bombastic only. Half of this deficit is accounted by low grade plastic,rubber and paper items from China which India was itself making earlier.Importantly the Trade deficit gives leverage to India to armtwist China.Author obviously is ignorant or deliberately trying to obsufacate .

  3. The statement that ” unequal Trade deficit of Rs 53 billion USD ,makes India help less” is incorrect ,fallacious and bombastic only. Half of this deficit is accounted by low grade plastic,rubber and paper items from China which India was itself making earlier.Importantly the Trade deficit gives leverage to India to armtwist China and not the other way around.Author obviously is ignorant or deliberately trying to obsufacate the fact .

  4. Raise the autonomy or even independence of Tibet.
    That buffer state is a MUST for peace between two giants of nations.
    Incursion of Chinese soldiers was a subtle warning from China about not joining US camp. India should work only for national interests and do not pay any attention for these sham tactics.

  5. As usual, a no-sense article from Jyoti. What she is trying to convey is not at all clear. The skirmishes with China are a yearly usual show as snow melts and soldiers assert their understanding of the line of control.

    Post Covid, India will certainly not go overtly antagonistic with China irrespective of US China spats but if actions of Modi are to go by, his line of thinking is very clear and he has demonstrated it. The trade deficit will come down drastically soon and self reliance will be the mantra especially with China. Beyond this, nothing changes in our relations with China. long live Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai!

  6. Paragraph #3 …. China’s $13.6 trillion GDP (in 2018) contrasts significantly with India’s lowly $2.7 trillion GDP.
    How incredible is this after 73 years of independence.
    This is the gift to India from the Nehru-Gandhi-Vadra families after 70 years of Congress mis-rule, corruption & communal divisiveness.
    This is why it is time that people of India wake up and permanently send these traitors into the electoral sunset.
    It is very critical that all Indians UNITE irrespective of religion or caste and take India forward.

    • More than Gandhi Vadra Vajpayee etc India’s caste system and feudal mindset are pulling it back. You can’t progress with a 3000 year old political and social agenda.

  7. Despite the rather important considerations prevailing in India-China relations the fact remains that China is the most reviled nation across the international arena at present.The Covid-19 Pandemic will continue to cause untold miseries and havoc both in terms of human lives and the functioning of the individual country economies as well as the Global economy.China is trying to repair the damage through large amounts of medical supplies to the affected countries.Yet,it is indeed a tall order.The post-Covid-19 world will haunt China for the foreseeable future.China escaped the responsibility for the SARS epidemic because its impact on the rest of the world was limited.All considered,India should be able to make some diplomatic gains,since China is very much on the defensive in a hostile international environment.

  8. China may be guilty in this matter, but siding with a mercurial, totally unreliable and maverick Trump in this tiff will be most unwise and stupid in internationsl diplomacy stakes.

  9. As far as the virus is concerned, it is now beyond dispute that President Trump is making a desperate effort to shift the blame for his failures to China. God be merciful but America’s toll will be well into six figures before this ends. India has its own issues with China, but Donald Trump – now trailing Joe Biden in most polls, including those commissioned by his campaign – is not the man who will pull our chestnuts out of the fire. If anything, there has been an inappropriate mixing up of foreign policy with America’s domestic politics that needs to be wound down.

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