Hanging tough on China : The Tribune India

Hanging tough on China

President Xi Jinping’s initiative on Ukraine needs to be factored in by India

Hanging tough on China

TIGHTROPE WALK: The geopolitical reality is that Europe cannot easily afford to align itself with the US on China. AP

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

WELL-KNOWN international affairs analyst Alexander Mercouris, who co-hosts popular online news channel The Duran, has put China’s mediation in the Ukraine conflict in a historical perspective — that the last time Asia ‘mediated’ in a European conflict was over 2,500 years ago.

China is pursuing a role in global diplomacy and cannot be excluded from the defining issues of the world order.

In 449 BC, the Persians attempted to aggravate the growing tensions between Athens and Sparta in a strategy to keep the Greeks distracted with infighting, and thereby stop the tide of their attacks reaching the Persian Empire. The strategy got the Persian Empire over a millennium of peace until the early Arab conquests of the 7th–8th centuries AD led to the fall of the Sasanian dynasty and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion.

These are early days to fully savour the profundity of President Xi Jinping’s initiative on Ukraine, but it is unwise not to factor it in India’s diplomacy. That is one good reason among others why the chill blowing into the India-China relationship is worrisome.

It appears that Indian officials were hanging tough at the 18th round of the India-China Corps Commander-level meeting at the Chushul-Moldo border on the Chinese side on April 23. A retrogression has appeared in the absence of a joint statement, unlike on such previous occasions. The tone of the Indian readout was at variance with that of the written statement released by China's Ministry of National Defence a few hours earlier in Beijing. The “friendly and candid exchange of views on relevant issues” in the Chinese perception was characterised as “a frank and in-depth discussion on the resolution of the relevant issues” in the Indian readout.

The Global Times cited a prominent Chinese commentator as saying that the meeting was “fruitful, as it showed the two sides are willing to further ease the border situation and realise normalisation of bilateral ties amid the current international and regional situations” — and, importantly, that the China-India border issue “is now gradually shifting from a conflict and a standoff to a normalised management phase, and the situation on the border is expected to become steadier and calmer in the future.”

Conceivably, the hype was to be expected in the run-up to the visit by Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu to New Delhi on April 27-28. But the defence ministers’ meeting further confirmed that the Indian reserve and refusal to lend credence to false expectations was a true reflection of the state of play. The Indian readout underscored that “Raksha Mantri categorically conveyed that the development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquillity at the borders… He reiterated that violation of existing agreements has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations and disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation.”

In the near term, at least, tensions will continue and the focus will have to be on avoiding escalation by seeking to put the border issue under control. Given the high complexity and difficulty in resolving the border dispute, a breakthrough will take time. Indeed, conditions do not exist on the Indian side to make compromises due to the polarised internal political atmosphere in the shadow of the crucial General Election next year.

Meanwhile, the Indo-Pacific environment has become a compelling factor in the calculus — more than ever before — and it is complicated, as evident from the warning by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the SCO meeting of Defence Ministers on Friday that “NATO is willing to establish dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, that is why Quad and AUKUS are integrating into the NATO.”

Unfortunately, a section of Indian opinion, including some politicians in the Congress with a ‘liberal internationalist’ outlook, favour bringing the India-China territorial dispute into the ambit of America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. To what extent the US intelligence is fuelling this dangerous train of thought is a moot point. Indeed, the leaked Pentagon documents are yet another stark reminder that the US spies on the political elites among even its close allies — be it in Berlin, Kiev or Seoul — in the current push and pull to create Cold War-style alliances.

There is delusional thinking among some sections of Indian opinion-makers that China is being contained and suppressed by the US while India is being assiduously courted by Washington, and this puts India in an advantageous position while putting pressure on China to make concessions. Indeed, the string of high-level engagements with Japan, Australia and the US in the coming months will also create misconceptions that Indian diplomacy is riding on the wings of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China — G7 and Quad summits in May, followed in quick succession by PM’s state visit to Washington in June and President Biden’s participation in the G20 summit in September, while the US-China tensions are steadily moving toward a point of no return.

The geopolitical reality is that Europe cannot easily afford to align itself with the US on China, as it would be damaging for its economy and politically unsustainable; but, call it ‘decouple’ or ‘de-risk’, without Western allies sanctioning China, Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy won’t fly. The vast majority of countries do not want to take sides in a US-China confrontation, either. Again, the US failure to ‘erase’ Russia will have far-reaching consequences for the Indo-Pacific power dynamic.

The two-fold salience is that China is pursuing a role in global diplomacy and cannot be excluded from the defining issues of the world order, while its military alliance with Russia impacts the global strategic balance, as Shoigu’s forthcoming visit to Beijing foretells.

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