India-China Relations: A Rethink in Foreign Policy
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Jun , 2020

It is said that if facts of the virus were known, the world could have been better and it would have been 90% safe. Enough to say, that the Chinese leadership, because of their conference of the Communist Party in Wuhan, January 2020 kept it secret for two major reasons: they did not want the world to know; also the Chinese leadership at this time was not feeling and even now is not too secure. There was a lot of protest against the Communist Party President Xi Jinping in particular.

Giving the Chinese the benefit of doubt, they may not have really known the hugeness of the problem. This is being generous at best. Because of this about 7 million Chinese fled Wuhan and the Hubei Province. One has to contend conflicting theories whether China used dictatorial means in the lockdown (every country now does) but far more horrendous and petrifying as sealing buildings or putting up barricades in an inhuman manner. China projects that it had contained the virus and now there are cases only of foreign imports. It is now getting back to near normal.

Two binaries make their way – firstly the idea that China was testing bioweapons of terrorism, not 20 kilometers from Wuhan; secondly, was holding back itself till the trade deal with the US would be signed and in place.

How could the US have been completely unaware of this? An important question is that with in-built structures of national security like the FBI, the CIA and other agencies, how could the US be innocent of all this. This is very hard to fathom.

In effect, India was fighting its own battles to get seriously into the post COVID-19 pandemic world scenario. But maybe because of this India will have more of a chance, the main reason being that the rest of the world is anti-China pulling out its companies since China kept the spreading of the virus secret. Both Western and South East Asian nations have never been too close or fond of China because of its trade dominance and nuclearization. Currently, the US and the European nations are reacting violently towards it to the extent that President Trump has announced diktats against China.

India’s foreign policy could have been put on the back burner for a longer time except that among other nations China became an important nation begging attention.

As the isolation of China took root with connivance with the World Health Organisation laid at its door, China seems to have become even more aggressive in its stance towards India, a sign of its own weakness clothed now in anger with the result that tension is building up between Indian and Chinese armies in several areas in Ladakh and North Sikkim along the undemarcated Sino-Indian border with both sides bringing in additional troops days after both were involved in violent skirmishes.

The areas are in sensitive locations like Demchok, Daulat Beg Oldie, and areas around Galwan river as well as Pangong Tso in Ladakh it is said. Troops were deployed around these places where clashes took place with even iron rods and stone pelting. In a separate incident another face-off near Naku La pass in the Sikkim sector took place on 9 May 2020. It was said that ten soldiers from either side were injured. Both the Army and the Ministry of External Affairs were discreet and said they were committed to maintaining peace along the border with China.

Yet it is known that India has rushed troops as an answer to aggressive posturing in fact against distance safety norms in true style of current safety situation.

The Chinese bolstered their troops too,. in the Aksai Chin area. In its wake also begin a row with Nepal over a road linking Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand. Officials here in India mentioning of external forces instigating the claim  fueled Nepal’s row with India over the area of Kala Pani.

In 2017 India and China were engaged in a 73-day standoff in Doklum which portended even a nuclear war between the two nuclear powers. The India – China border dispute covers the 4056-kilometer-long International Boundary/Line of Actual Control, the defacto boundary between the two. Moreover, China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of Southern Tibet while India contests it. Yet both nations agree that it is imperative to maintain peace and security in the border areas being responsible powers.

Two summit meetings were held to bring peace and give strategic guidance one in April 2018 in Wuhan after the Doklum incident; the second one was held in Mamallapuram, Chennai to strengthen communications among the respective militaries to further build trust and understanding and broadening bilateral ties.

So why this and why now? It goes back to the fact that China is blamed for the COVID-19 virus not being revealed to the world at large for the reasons already mentioned. Even its medical aid is looked at as askance.

The trust deficit even showed in its relations with India which was trying to have restrained and quiet diplomacy despite China’s doubtful position in the world, contrary to the thinking that China won the first round in the third  world war without firing a single shot. The major reason for the so-called standoff is that China wants to primarily assert itself again as a world power giving the US competition for its position. Also, the same motivation vis-à-vis regaining position with India and Line of Actual Control. Furthermore, China perceives the US as pushing it to the brink of a new cold war and India not giving it the position it deserves pandemic or not. The joint talks to resolve some of the issues taking place since 1988 does not seem to have assuaged any of China’s apprehensions unfortunately. Moreover, the showing of its muscle power seems to reiterate its second position in world power politics or presumably even the first. This aggression seems to be to arm twist India in not opposing its decisions during the pandemic that is to appear not to be in connivance with WHO and not have India voting with other nations to confront or oppose China.

In essence China losing the world’s trust following its cover up of COVID-19 virus has shaken its own capability. As Taleb had used the phrase “the black swan” as a metaphor to cope better with random mounting events. His arguments are in-depth and not random at all except for the fact that one should be able to preconceive the crisis which is what China seems to be doing. With India as one of its closest neighbours China has made it fair game.

2018 and 2019 Prime Minister Modi’s efforts at conviviality with Xi Jinping, China’s President in his visit to India gave tenuous indications of a gentle wave of good relations. It almost came to naught very quickly.

China has always considered Pakistan an all-weather ally. Arising from this, it is mostly suspicious of India’s intentions. The latest incidents in the upper reaches of the Himalayas shows this. It is China’s way of putting India in its place, waving its own flag of declaring hegemony in this region threatening India to travel beside China and very consciously trying to sabotage India’s friendly relations with the US.

India must reset its priorities. It needs to restructure its foreign policy norms, have a friendly but firm menu to deal with important nations. There is no denying that under the Modi government India was aspiring to world leadership and the pandemic is but one obstruction and economics the other. However, even the after effects of this will be felt politically for a long time. India would need time to recover and in this regard China has a comfortable lead. Recent talks on the border issue have shown that both nations can and have to behave responsibly. Already European nations are talking about the dawn of an Asian century. They definitely mean China. They are planning to have a strategy to deal with it, so should India. The dance between the elephant (India) and the dragon (China) must not turn into the dance of the black swans.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Veena Ravi Kumar

was a senior faculty member at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. She taught international relations, India’s foreign policy and comparative politics. 

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