Judging by the invectives and humiliation heaped on India, the state-run Chinese media is signifying that Beijing is displeased with New Delhi. For nearly a month there has been a standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction after India stopped China from building a road deep into Bhutanese territory (according to Indian and Bhutanese calculations). While New Delhi has asked Beijing to restore the position as it was prior to June 15, 2017, China wants India to withdraw troops from the Doklam area. The crucial point to determine is, despite the decibel level of Chinese anger honed by years of Mao Zedong-style indoctrination, the cause of Beijing’s fulmination. There are several strands to it, among them Beijing’s response to its ambitious One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative, snubbed by New Delhi for the good reason that it is built on a route through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There are wider reasons for Indian scepticism as Beijing is proclaiming that it is a superpower that can disregard Indian interests as it takes its place at the high table for two (the other being the United States).
China is also expressing its opposition to India’s closer defence and strategic relationship with the US (inevitable given New Delhi’s troubled relations with two neighbours) — witness the joint maritime exercises with the United States and Japan in the Bay of Bengal. Another factor is Beijing’s increasingly close links with Pakistan, a key link in the OBOR concept, becoming in effect a Chinese colony with massive road and port works and injection of thousands of Chinese workers, particularly in the troubled Waziristan area. The Chinese moves come at a propitious time for it, with US President Donald Trump upholding his “America First” policy, and the anti-Chinese rhetoric of the campaign days giving way to his references to President Xi Jinping in reverential terms. Apart from Japan at one end and Australia at the other, with Vietnam standing out as a sore thumb, Southeast Asia has largely fallen under the sway of China for economic and political reasons. India stands in the way of Chinese dreams.
These factors present a complex problem for India because on one hand it must try to maintain relations on a civil course while on the other safeguard its interests. New Delhi has made it amply clear that China’s forward movement in Doklam would adversely affect safeguarding the “Chicken’s Neck” area that links the Northeast to the rest of the country. There is also the close Indian historical relationship with Bhutan, which has no diplomatic relations with China, although the wife of the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi reportedly recently made a visit to Thimphu, apart from the super-active ambassador himself recently calling on Rahul Gandhi, to the Congress Party’s acute embarrassment. Given Bhutan’s delicate position, it can only hope and pray that its two major neighbours would ultimately resolve the tri-junction problem primarily affecting its territory amicably. There are no early prospects of a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval is due to attend a multilateral Brics meeting in China soon, with one Chinese expert (traditionally used as unofficial spokesmen) suggesting that there would be no official-level bilateral talks, with severe weather forcing the two sides to withdraw from their present positions on Doklam. The withdrawal of Indian troops is a Chinese condition for holding talks.
Although New Delhi is largely holding its tongue. China’s effort to incite Indian passions by reminding it of the disastrous brief border war in 1962 is of a piece with its attempt to intimidate and humiliate India. China knows that without New Delhi’s cooperation, its OBOR ambition cannot be fully realised. It has still to discover that its propaganda offensive honed by years of revolution and chaos wi-ll have a contrary effect on Indian psychology. New Delhi has no option but to plod on in the hope that sooner than later Beijing will realise that though it can browbeat its smaller neighbours in Asia and now on the African continent, these bullying tactics are unproductive. China is quite happy to leave the larger border question with India unresolved in the belief that a future stronger nation could strike a more advantageous deal. One has also to look the India-China relationship against a wider canvas. The world is living in a very uncertain age, with President Trump’s accession to power posing a host of questions relating to the entire post-World War II superstructure built on the US providing protection to its allies in Europe and elsewhere. For a time, he cast doubt on the Nato and other alliances even as he has been gradually brought to a grumbling acceptance of reality.
Western Europe for one has taken note of the change in Washington, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel fam-ously suggesting that Europe had to take care of protecting its own security. Although Mr Trump is obsessed with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in terms of threatening mainland America in the future, he has few options and is still pleading with China for help. On the other hand, Beijing has its own interests to safeguard in North Korea. President Xi has his own domestic problems and is in the process of consolidating his own powers at the forthcoming Communist Party meeting, held once in five years. Reports suggest that he is looking beyond the next five years — the traditional two terms for a leader — and might disregard the age rule for senior rulers to retain his loyal supporters in the politburo. As a modernising middle-level country, President Xi has new problems to contend with in a technological age while keeping a lid on dissent. The death of Nobel Peace Prize activist Liu Xiaobo from cancer even as he was removed from jail to a hospital while serving his 11-year sentence for speaking out for freedom was a reminder to the world of how the country aspiring for superpower status really works as a one-party dictatorship.