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Moving beyond inanities

Last Updated : 03 May 2023, 19:57 IST

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When we learn that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu that China’s violation of border agreements “eroded” the entire basis of ties between the two countries and that all issues relating to the frontier must be resolved “in accordance with the existing pacts”, it sounds predictable. The inanity of diplomatese fills the air.

The meeting between the two defence ministers followed close on the heels of the 18th round of military talks between the Indian and Chinese armies on ending the border row. In the Corps Commander talks on April 23, held at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Chinese side of the LAC in eastern Ladakh, the two sides agreed to stay “in close touch” and work out a “mutually acceptable solution” to the remaining issues in eastern Ladakh at the earliest.

Thanks to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), we learnt that the two sides had a “frank and in-depth” discussion on the resolution of the “relevant” issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western sector and “maintain dialogue through military and diplomatic channels”. Diplomatese is like that, high on platitudes, short on details and clarity.

Beyond diplomacy and symbolism, therefore, it matters what happens on the ground. In 2014, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out a red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping in India, a new Chinese incursion in the mountainous region of Ladakh took place, leading to a standoff that lasted for 16 tense days. China seems to have got the message that it can keep up whipping passions across its borders with India, despite the fulminations of India, and at no cost to it. It can, time and again, keep renaming locations in Arunachal Pradesh, six locations first in 2017, another 15 in 2021, and 11 more recently, under the illusion that Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims as South Tibet, is theirs for the taking and this renaming is just a formality before they militarily occupy it.

Apart from the prime ministerial disavowal in 2020, when we learnt that the Chinese had “neither entered our territory nor had taken over any post” (and so there is only one conclusion – that it was our soldiers who had intruded into Chinese territory, and got killed), we had our External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar suggesting earlier this year that it was imprudent for India to pick a fight with China because the latter was a bigger economy, to which military veterans took umbrage accusing the Narendra Modi government of having a “defeatist attitude” and “bowing down to a bully”.

Repeated border incursion attempts and skirmishes along the LAC continued apace, which underlined that China had no intention of salving our frayed nerves but would rather love to play the poking games. Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar has pointed out repeatedly, including earlier this week, that China has increased its presence not only along India’s land borders but also in the maritime domain with “a large presence of Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean” on which India is “keeping a close watch.”

An astute analysis of the mind games that are played in a relationship as fraught as between India and China might make it evident that large-scale warfare is unlikely given that China and India are two nuclear powers. Chinese strategists, particularly after Jaishankar’s capitulation, might see that their belief that India lacks the will and military might to pick a fight with Beijing stands validated. Beijing must be happily convinced by now that New Delhi developed nuclear weapons in pursuit of deterrence and international prestige, not to threaten China.

The agreement to create buffer zones within Indian territories in eastern Ladakh as part of the disengagement process, thus ceding further territory to China, has been called into question. A few weeks after expressing India’s inability to pick a fight with China, Jaishankar said the situation along the LAC in eastern Ladakh remains “very fragile” and “quite dangerous” in terms of military assessment. If we take this to be an understatement, combining the minister’s earlier comment with the latest one, one can’t be blamed for having to infer that India would not dare pick a fight with China despite the provocations in eastern Ladakh.

If the former Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to New Delhi in March last year is any guide, self-denial seemed to be the primary impulse, because Jaishankar significantly did not demand the restoration of status quo ante of pre-April 2020 in Ladakh then, settling instead only for disengagement from the remaining “friction points” as the precondition to return to normal ties with China.

The border settlement has been put off for far too long a time. The hard part for India is to grow and to narrow the gap, given that China’s economy is more than five times the size of India’s (China’s GDP is $17.73 trillion, compared to India’s $3.18 trillion). Compared to China having a per capita economic output of almost $13,000 a year, the average Indian settles for less than $2,500. And when it comes to human development indicators, India lags way behind China with a lower life expectancy, less prevalent access to sanitation, and much higher infant mortality rates. If one needs more, China’s unemployment rate is at 4.8%, India’s is 7.7%; annual inflation rate in China is barely 1%, compared to India’s hovering about 6%. India’s infrastructure, despite improvements, continues to lag China’s, hindering foreign investment, which has stagnated in recent years. There is greater gender disparity in India in terms of education, employment, digital access, and various other parameters. The Indian military continues to fall behind China’s expanding conventional military power and has struggled to deter the PLA’s growing intrusions into Indian territory.

Jaishankar is sadly right. The real way for India to deal with China is to get even with it. It is time to move beyond inanities.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based
commentator on geopolitics,
development and culture)

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Published 03 May 2023, 18:14 IST

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