Chinese President Xi Jinping. (AP)
Whatever else Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may or may not achieve, it has killed the myth of a "new world order" brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. In fact, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s reference at a recent Paris conference to China’s attempt to grab "the global commons" (presumably the Indo-Pacific region’s South China Sea extension) recalled the realpolitik underlying such developments as Panama’s secession to provide the United States with an international waterway and Sikkim’s absorption by India for strategic reasons. It is in this age-old context that India and China must accommodate each other in an emerging Concert of Asia instead of bickering over rocks and rivers as during the latest abortive 14th round of military talks on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.
Understandably, both sides are weighing up costs and opportunities as they try not to fall off the diplomatic tightrope. India is anxious to avoid American sanctions over its $5 billion purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system without jeopardising ties with Moscow as it tries to ensure Indo-Pacific security with possibly reduced Western participation. For China, the priorities are Taiwan, its island claims against Japan and several Asean members, business with Russia and the global space it covets. It was unrealistic to expect the UN Security Council to solve these problems; it would be equally unrealistic not to factor in the impact on Asian economies of the higher cost of fuel, soaring inflation, tightening interest rates, and the need to abandon many budgetary premises.
It serves little purpose in the circumstances to brand China a rogue state. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew often warned Dr Manmohan Singh to speed up economic reforms and catch up with China while there was still time.
For whatever reason that didn’t happen, ruling out the use of coercive force despite the brave boasts of our politicians. India must therefore look to persuasion and cooperation as it works towards peaceful co-existence just as Europe’s historic arch-rivals, France and Germany, did in the European Union. It is the only practical option.
M.K. Narayanan, our former national security adviser, had warned nine years ago that President Xi Jinping’s stress on "the renewal of the Chinese nation" left "little room for doubt that China would be uncompromising in defending its core national interests". It is in India’s interest to attempt some understanding of those supposed interests in Nepal, Bhutan, the Indian Ocean, Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Both Mr Narayanan’s warning, and the consequent need for India to take appropriate action, remain even more pertinent today but need not mean everlasting enmity. What they do demand is an awareness of the long-term basis of what China calls its "peaceful rise", a thorough understanding of the impact of these needs on India’s own requirements, and a comprehensive and coherent response that recognises China’s centrality in Asian affairs. Bombast is no substitute for pragmatism in diplomacy.
Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s famous comment that China had never "intruded into our border", it was hardly surprising that the last rounds of talks ended in failure. If the Chinese had never transgressed, what was there to discuss? What in fact were India’s military leaders, politicians and the media bleating about? But why blame the Prime Minister alone? After his first visit to China in 2003, the late George Fernandes, defence minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government, announced in Singapore that his new slogan would be "Chase China". And to think that for years until then the Chinese had refused him a visa because he had called China "India’s Enemy Number One"! The switch from undying hostility to fervent admiration recalled the old gag: What did the politician eat yesterday? Answer: What he had said the day before.
China was reduced to just another item in the short-term stock-in-trade of India’s political rhetoric.
However, this enigmatic ambivalence was moderated when Qi Fabao, a Chinese soldier who was involved in the Galwan clash of June 2020, was selected as one of the 1,200 torchbearers for the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The title of "hero regiment commander for defending the border" conferred on him by China’s Military Commission indicated that Beijing attached far more importance to the Galwan Valley conflict than Mr Modi’s earlier cavalier dismissal had suggested. Unfortunately, India’s belatedly sharp rejoinder only confirmed the impression of trying to be all things to all people at the same time.
Consider the sequence. Mr Modi did not attend the Games’ opening ceremony unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, India also refused to join the political boycott that the United States organised in protest against China’s treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population and other human rights abuses. While Japan, Australia, Canada, Britain and a number of European countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the Czech Republic supported the US stand, the trilateral Russia-India-China virtual meeting that Mr Jaishankar hosted in November 2021 issued a joint statement which "expressed support to China to host Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games".
After Qi Fabao’s appointment New Delhi did announce that India’s charge d’affaires in Beijing would not attend either the opening or closing ceremonies, and that state-owned Doordarshan would not cover either event. But in a classic case of eating your cake and having it, it was also announced that Arif Mohammed Khan, a skier from Kashmir, would remain India’s solitary participant in the event. Did the belated token boycott delight the Americans? Were the Chinese gratified by Mr Khan’s participation? Both are open to doubt.
India should be able to assess the neighbourhood’s reactions in a more tranquil light after Sri Lankan foreign minister G.L. Peiris’ reassuring February visit to New Delhi. But a similar awareness should also extend to China. If nothing else, knowledge of the adversary can only be an advantage in the negotiations to which both sides are committed. The dozen or so Chinese correspondents in India may write little but obviously report much to justify their employment. It would be in India’s interest to match their industry and expertise as the decks are cleared for the 15th round of talks on the Line of Actual Control while China further consolidates ties with Russia without reducing the economic integration that makes it invaluable to the United States.