PM Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping | Commons
PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping | Commons
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India’s diplomacy to resolve the border standoff with China appears to be focused on linking peace at the Line of Actual Control with the broader India-China relationship. According to the official Indian readout of the meeting between foreign ministers S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Moscow, New Delhi’s position is that “the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border areas was essential to the forward development of ties”. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh asserted the same in his statement in the Lok Sabha. India’s threat is a simple one: if China aggresses at the LAC, it will pay a cost in worsening ties with India. But the value of the threat, and hence its credibility, is questionable.

The linkage between peace at the border and political relations may seem clear to New Delhi, but it is based on two possibly debatable assumptions. The first assumption is about linkage between the border issue and the larger relationship, which China does not appear to share. The second is an assumption nested within this, that a relationship with India is important enough to China for it to be a credible threat.


Also read: Lesson from Ladakh — India & China were both rising together until China just raced away


Not on the same page

The first problem is the linkage itself. Despite India repeating it, the five-point joint statement issued by the two sides after the Moscow meeting does not reflect the linkage between the border confrontation and bilateral ties. The statement simply notes that the LAC standoff “is not in the interest of either side” rather than the Indian position that the situation will affect their bilateral relations. And the Chinese readout of the meeting not only appeared to delink the two, but even emphasised Jaishankar’s view that the relationship was not dependent on a “settlement of the boundary question”.

While this accurately reflects the Indian position – India also accepts that the overall LAC border problem itself cannot be resolved immediately – note also that the Chinese readout ignored the linkage that the Indian side had made between peace at the border and the bilateral relationship. That the Indian readout of the meeting came after the Chinese put theirs out also seems to suggest that India wanted to reassert this linkage. But this only serves to demonstrate that the linkage is not mutually accepted.


Also read: Keep talking, disengage fast, keep distance, ease tensions — India-China plan for LAC peace


Negotiating with a dead hostage

The second issue is the value of this linkage. The linkage can be seen as an Indian attempt at deterrence, a threat that the broader relationship is a hostage to a satisfactory resolution of the current Ladakh confrontation. India has been backing up its words with action: the banning of Chinese apps, the effort to limit Chinese investment, Quad meeting announcements, hints about inviting Australia for the Malabar exercises and about banning Huawei from India’s 5G infrastructure — all appear designed to send a signal that China will pay a cost elsewhere.

Implicit in India’s message to China is also a promise that at least on the political front, the relationship can go back to status quo ante if the position at the LAC also goes back to status quo ante or, at the least, there are no future efforts to change the status quo and the forces at the LAC are thinned out.

But the threat works only if the hostage has the value that New Delhi presumes it does. If China is not interested in investing much for improving the political relationship, India’s hostage may already be dead. To give the obvious example, in 1962, China was certainly aware of the consequences of the war for the relationship with India, but they did not hesitate. This does not mean that China is not interested in good relations with India, but just that it is unwilling to pay very much for this particular hostage. Put another way, China wants good relations only if it is offered for free and unconditionally. Just look at India’s recent experience.


Also read: Why India needs new confidence building measures to clarify LAC issue with China


India’s advantage lies elsewhere

India’s current offer to China to end the Ladakh standoff was the same that was on the table after the 2017 Doklam standoff. In the aftermath of the 73-day military face-off, India sought to demonstrate the benefits of a peaceful LAC with the Wuhan Summit, and other efforts at reassurance, including slowing down the Quad. But clearly this did not work. Even by the second ‘informal’ summit at Mamallapuram, the relationship was fraying.

It would be prudent to examine why the Wuhan bargain did not work, before attempting to strike the same bargain yet again. After all, China did join India in developing an architecture of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the 1990s that lasted a good two decades. Why will this not work again?

A good hypothesis might be that China was simply using the CBMs and peace at the LAC to ensure that its economic development was not derailed and that the strategy has now run its course. This could explain their broader behaviour, in the South China Sea, towards Japan and Australia and others, and their aggressive ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’. Peace was the consequence not of the CBMs but of China’s strategy. Any attempt to return to the old CBMs, and even add more, may simply be fool’s gold.

Indian interest may be better served by recognising that there is little chance of a political bargain with China and acting accordingly. If India has an advantage, it actually comes in the military arena. Though India may not have the capacity to retake the territories lost since April, India’s recent actions south of the Pangong Tso demonstrate to China that the military equation is not as lopsided as they might have assumed. Moreover, anything less than an outright victory will probably be seen as a loss for China and will badly damage the People Liberation Army’s reputation. Indian strategy may be better served by leaning on this equation.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

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16 Comments Share Your Views

16 COMMENTS

  1. So many “IFs”; One big IF, the author ignored (may be intentionally) is gauging the strategy of Modi which I am sure is beyond the thinking of this Leftist Professor. When Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits happened, it was following an already laid out path since 1990. Now the path is destroyed and the path which Modi is going to travel is nobody’s guess. and particularly to this Professor.

  2. For as long as the Indo China conflict came into the fore we have been trying to understand what China wants or how China /CCP operates. And all we have been trying to do is trying to figure out China. Perhaps we have been asking the wrong questions all along. I dont think we must devote too much of our time into figuring out what China wants. The question we need to ask is do we really want to become a world player? If yes we need to change our self doubting mindset. I dont care if its BJP or Congress frankly all the political parties are the same more or less good manipulators .. one quality among many these parties share. China changes its stance to suit itself. As simple as that. We need to send a clear message to China that we are ready to see this conflict to the end. Once China realizes that, thing would eventually start to change. We must have a serious dialogue vis a vis our China policy, which I feel is wrong right from day 1. We must rise above left vs right debate which I feel is a waste of time. Militarily we must not back down whatever be the cost. Army’s job is to fight under any circumstances. If we cannot take losses then we must not pretend to be a rising power.

  3. Typical leftist leaning mindset which fails to recognize deep Bharatiya civilizational thinking at play here under current government. At its root its always about “Sama Dana Bedha Dhanda”. The Indian govt’s big dhanda this time will be a gradient and incremental vacuity of face saving options for the Chinese regime if their hara-kiri persists. The CPC had a face saving formula on offer on table by the Indian govt. THe Indian govt has already made it amply clear that they will pull the plug on it at a time of their choosing. The Bedha was the threat of economic decoupling. Governments prior tried Sama and Dana and as expected resulted in little.

    A long drawn eye ball to eye ball confrontation will send a signal to the rest of Indo-China that this strategy actually works and can call China’s empty bluffs. The biggest fear in Chinese dictatorship circles now is the absence of a face saver formula. Loss of face for China is actually worse than military defeat. In the case of the latter, a purge is justified and fingers pointed at the “Capitalist Bourgeoisie”. Loss of face is a clear unveiling of the lies that the system is built upon. The Indian govt knows this all too well and will bide its time turning the heat up and down with impunity at a time and place of its choosing. The Indian govt also knows that it can comfortably handle a battle of attrition in terms of deployment, after all it has ground Pakistan to dust in the Siachen glacier. The CCP is now between a rock and a hard place with a face saver option window slowly being closed on it by Indian govt. My condolences to the powers that be in China.

  4. JNU eh!!! A bit surprised that folks at JNU harbor such opinions. Interesting read nonetheless. Indeed India should use all tools at its disposal against China. Make it expensive affair. Internationally it is not as easy to make China a Pariah. It may happen as the demographics of he nation changes. Wait and keep the pot boiling to a time of your advantage. Liberation of Tibet should be tacit goal. Unsaid, but on our minds all the time.

  5. I think most of us are missing the point.
    In the end, as China itself has taught to the world, future relations will depend on the perceptions we project to the opponent and to the world at large. Our taking a stand and refusing to back down from preserving our territory and staring a much stronger China in the eye, despite obvious threats of war and annihilation have stumped China, which had got used to the perceptions we projected earlier of a weak state willing to eat the humble pie and desperate to pursue peace even in face of grave provocations.
    This is probably the reason we have been chosen to message to the world at large that the Chinese have arrived in the arena as a powerful alternative to Europe and US and that any resistance is not only foolish but also futile.
    That this proved to be a miscalculation, with Modi standing firm unlike earlier when in face of worries of Chinese displeasure we were even unwilling to visit Tawang, our own area.
    Now that the Chinese have committed themselves, they are in a situation that if they are unable to force a step down by India on seemingly their own terms, the war of narratives will be lost and they will face immense resistance in every other theater of expansion / enforced trade. That this will have huge implications to Xi’s and in fact the CPC’s position internally is an added factor.
    I feel that viewing the present contact only in terms of a few billion dollars trade or a few Km of land is wrong. The game and the prize at stake is far bigger.

  6. Aman ki ASHA 2.0

    So the logic is to let the neighbor bleed you by challenging your national interest and sovereignty but nothing should come in between business interest.

    This reminds me of people to people contact with Pakistan. Pakistan can kill Indians at will, attack India at will but business should not suffer.

    Another gem of JNU cabal.

  7. To know the level of importance China attaches to India, you need to open Global Times. They have the following sections on their website (in order)
    – China-US
    – China-India
    – China-Europe
    – Other Regions (includes Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia, SE Asia, Mid East, Africa, Latin America etc)

    Additionally, anyone who understands even basics of Game Theory will know that to get a favorable outcome you have reduce the payoffs for the opposite side and raise costs for them by acting seemingly irrationally. The fact that we’re indicating to China that there will be implications for the larger relationship is the perfect strategy.

    The alternative is that we let them assume primacy in the relationship and let them threaten us militarily as and when the please.

  8. The writer is quite correct. China no longer cares for good relationship with India. But, India wrongly presumes so – that peace at border is essential for good relationship between the two countries. How can there be any relationship with China which no longer cares for relationship with India? But, Modi government is behaving like a good school boy, who adheres to rules and expects a pat on the back. This government ought to be more assertive, even agressive while dealing with China. Our soldiers occupying unoccupied heights in Pangong Tso is hardly assertiveness or aggressiveness.

  9. So if tomorrow India heats up border and changes status quo, we should expect China to keep good relations with India? If we consider current relation good anyways – UN permanent seat issue, Nuclear Supply group issue, Support to Pakistans terrorism, illligal construction in POK, no respect of One India policy….. hmmm why would India not care much? My wild guess also says, China making $65 billion from India isn’t such a bad deal.

    I can’t believe such shallow articles find space on ThPrint, brings the who standard of this platform down.

  10. The author says linking border peace with relationship may not yield anything, but does not suggest an alternative.

    Also the fact that there was peace in the border for 2 decades is a wrong notion. There was peace because we ignored china’s salami slicing game. We have woken up to its implications only now

  11. Among all the views and opinions on India-China relations, this one is closest to the pragmatic and realpolitik relationship between these two nations. You cannot trade horses for bulls, where the power balance is heavily tilted towards the owner of the horse.

  12. India must stick to zero trade till border dispute and demarcation is resolved. China does not care for India’s sensitivities. But India must learn to move on without importing anything from the Rouge state, only then it will earn respect from China.

  13. India may not be big enough market TODAY for China but despite all the hiccups there is a broad international consensus on potential size of Indian market over next 2 decades – see the response of middle eastern nations and US tech giants’ keenness on India.
    Political ties once damaged will take a very long time to repair …China will easily miss out on investing dozens of unicorns in India and be a large part of this consumer economy.
    And we won’t be a military pushover either…as China has done so is the case with us…once the border infrastructure is upgraded – as is being rapidly done – all the sly behaviour of past by China may not be as effective. …
    I would argue we govt is the right track here handling China…and our market will be our biggest strategic weapon..

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