What Home Minister Amit Shah proposes, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar disposes. That’s because international realpolitik is hardly subservient to the domestic needs of the Narendra Modi government.
Just because the BJP shouts from the rooftops as well as in Parliament that it won’t rest until it takes over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as well as Aksai Chin – even as it unilaterally integrates Jammu & Kashmir into the Indian union – doesn’t mean that it can.
Which way you look at it
The limits of Narendra Modi’s much-vaunted foreign policy on both Pakistan and China were unusually exposed Monday during Jaishankar’s conversation in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. It would be nice to know who stared who down, even if they don’t do things like that in real life anymore except in Bollywood movies.
That is one way of looking at it.
The other would be to see whether the Chinese are simply displaying a cardboard anger, which its client state Pakistan expects from it, but is hardly going to follow through where it matters most, that is in the UN Security Council.
The state-run Global Times, for instance, was simply whipping up the froth. It quoted the Chinese foreign minister telling Jaishankar that Delhi’s announcement of Ladakh as Union Territory posed “a challenge to China’s sovereignty and violated the two countries’ agreement on maintaining peace and stability in the border region…India’s move is neither valid to China nor will change the status quo”.
Whichever view you prefer – whether the Chinese scolded, rebuked, chided or reprimanded India or had to proforma raise its voice, given the Hong Kong protests at hand – the irony of ironies is that the last time foreign minister Wang Yi delivered a tough message to India was when he was a mid-level official in 1998 after India’s nuclear tests.
Dragon flexes its front paw
This time around, Jaishankar and Wang Yi seem to have had mostly Kashmir on their minds. Even before the former went to Beijing, the Chinese had criticised India for “unilaterally” changing the status quo on Jammu & Kashmir and asked both India and Pakistan to resolve the issue “based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreement”.
See how the Chinese dragon flexes its front paw. See how Amit Shah, hardly versed in the minutiae of China-India relations fell into the ‘all Kashmir is mine’ trap that was actually laid, ironically again, by the Jawaharlal Nehru government in 1954.
If you look at the map of India, the eastern ear – Aksai Chin – is controlled by China, while the western ear – largely Pakistan-occupied Kashmir – is controlled by Pakistan. As he integrated Kashmir into the union, Shah could hardly deviate from the RSS’ “Akhand Bharat” script by leaving out Indian claims on both pieces of territory.
Except that Amit Shah should have been briefed by Jaishankar’s ministry a bit better. Nobody told the home minister that in 2005, India and China signed a set of “guiding principles” that would help both resolve their contentious border issue that dated back to the 1962 war.
Certainly, Jaishankar is believed to have done that with Wang Yi – although it isn’t clear if Wang Yi was listening. That’s because the Chinese believe they are much too powerful and in a much better place today to conduct foreign policy, including with recalcitrant and noisy neighbours like India.
India, on the other hand, need not remind Beijing that it held off PLA troops during the Doklam crisis in 2017. And that even if the 2018 “Wuhan consensus” on focusing on the positive side of the relationship is fraying, there is much Delhi can remind Xi Jinping’s Beijing on the eve of his own October visit to India – for example, the “strike hard” policies by China in Tibet and Xinjiang, for starters.
Still, Modi may want to bring the temperature down quickly. He knows he cannot or will not conduct surgical strikes inside Aksai Chin the way he ordered them inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Jaishankar, meanwhile, is seeking to assuage Wang Yi by saying that India “has no additional territorial claims” on China, not beyond Aksai Chin in any case, and that “Chinese concerns in this regard were misplaced”.
All depends on how Kashmir unfolds
As for the Chinese support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council, it will all depend on the price Delhi wants to pay to keep Beijing close. Question is, how much can India mitigate the affection that China has for its client state Pakistan, which insists on internationalising the Kashmir issue?
That’s why it all depends on how Kashmir unfolds. If protests continue and the security forces try to put them down with a heavy hand, and there is loss of life, then the internationalisation of Kashmir will be a heavy price to pay for development in the rest of the country.
India is, of course, a changed country since the US and other western powers slapped sanctions on it in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests. Except for the Chinese, no other big power has made any critical statements – the Americans have declared the abrogation of Article 370 to be an “internal matter”, the Russians are openly on board with the Modi government, while the British Conservative and Labour parties are fighting among themselves as to how best to deal with the crisis.
Kashmir is not an international or a bilateral issue, the Modi government says – even if ambassadors to the US (Harsh Shringla) and France (Vinay Kwatra) are defending Modi ji’s Mission Kashmir on TV.
But if things fall apart, as W.B. Yeats said, and the centre doesn’t hold, then all bets are off.
The piece has been updated to reflect a correction.