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.
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.
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.
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.