India searches for way out of border standoff with China

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A soldier stands guards at a disputed border region between China and India. Photo: Xinhua.

The Indian Defense Ministry has contradicted reports of Chinese troop mobilization on the border. In a statement on Wednesday, the ministry said there had only been a general state of alert on the Chinese side and a routine annual military exercise was held near Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in June.

This is despite a report by People’s Daily on Wednesday citing “expert” opinions that China’s “recent military moves along the Sino-Indian border … have sent a strong message to India amid the two nations’ standoff”.

The daily assessed that “Chinese experts believe that the actions showcased China’s strength and sent a strong signal to India. Though India has more troops scattered along the disputed area, China’s rapid deployment of troops, its powerful weaponry, and its advanced logistics support give China the edge over India.”

However, New Delhi is studiously playing down the border tensions. The government has taken exception to Indian media hyping the standoff with China.

Unnamed army sources in Delhi disclosed on Wednesday that no flag meetings as such had taken place between local commanders and that the standoff was being discussed at the “highest level” of the government.

Indeed, Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs in Delhi on Tuesday that diplomatic efforts were under way to end the standoff.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is due to travel to Beijing next week to attend a BRICS event on security issues. Doval, who reports directly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is also concurrently India’s special representative on border talks with China.

It is entirely conceivable that Doval will sound out the Chinese side on some face-saving formula that ends the standoff, devolving upon pullback of Indian troops from Chinese territory.

On the Chinese side, too, a lowering of rhetoric has been discernible for the past several days after a Xinhua commentary took note of the “positive remarks” by the Indian foreign secretary from a podium in Singapore last week to the effect that “India and China should not let differences become disputes”.

The Xinhua commentary, however, revisited the Chinese refrain that a condominium of Hindu nationalists and the hawkish Indian military is fueling tensions.

In an unsparing commentary on Wednesday, the Global Times newspaper drew a fairly accurate picture of the ascendancy of Hindu nationalists since Modi came to power and the latent groundswell of zero-sum opinion in India vis-à-vis China, laced with a sense of pain over the defeat in the 1962 war, disquiet over China’s rise and an “ingrained suspicion of Chinese strategy”.

The commentary warned that Indian “strategists and politicians have shown no wisdom in preventing India’s China policy from being kidnapped by rising nationalism…. India should be careful not to let religious nationalism push the two countries into war.”

But the salience lies, perhaps, in the Chinese commentary differentiating Prime Minister Modi himself from his “core constituency” of Hindu extremists.

What lies ahead?

The Modi government is doubtless keen to end the standoff, but a face-saving formula needs to be found. It takes two to tango.

However, looking further ahead, it is difficult to anticipate any significant shift in the trajectory of India-China relations. The relationship has become adversarial and, arguably, the Modi government’s foreign-policy compass of “muscular diplomacy” toward China (and Pakistan) is not happenstance.

There is an entrenched opinion within India’s strategic community that shares Defense Minister Arun Jaitley’s recent barb aimed at Beijing that today’s India is not “the India of 1962”.

A thoughtful Indian military analyst, Ajai Shukla, wrote this week that “border incidents are increasingly triggered by India’s increasing military strength and an increasingly assertive posture on the border”.

Shukla explained the paradigm shift this way: “The little-known upshot is that India’s military posture has become significantly stronger than China’s on the 3,500-kilometer Line of Actual Control. This is enhancing confrontation between the two sides.

“For decades, India maintained an insignificant military presence in Daulet Beg Oldi, in Ladakh…. But when India’s thickening troop presence blocked Chinese patrols into the area, a prolonged confrontation ensued in 2013. One general involved in that standoff says: ‘The Chinese demanded to know why we were blocking them now, when they had been patrolling that area for years.’

“A similar confrontation took place in Chumar, in Ladakh, in 2014. Now, in Doklam, Chinese anger stems from being blocked in 2017, after facing no resistance between 2003 [and] 2007, when they tested the waters by building the existing track.”

Of course, it takes gumption for an ex-army officer to acknowledge with such brutal candor the ground realities. But Shukla’s opinion is shared silently by many within the Indian defense-policy community.

However, Modi’s dilemma lies elsewhere. Indian strategists have a habit of spouting opinions from the ivory tower, whereas Modi is ruling an increasingly unmanageable country through choppy waters with eyes set on the 2019 elections. And the plain truth is that the Indian economy will crumble if a war is thrust upon the country.

Because of a clever change in the methodology of calculating gross domestic product, the Indian economy’s growth rate looks impressive, but in actuality, under the combined pressure of the recent policy moves on demonetization and goods and services tax (GST, a unified tax structure for the entire country), an economy that had already been slowing is now virtually crawling.

The disruption has huge consequences for short-term growth. On top of it, if a war is thrust upon the country, the political economy will enter crisis zone.

Modi understands this, which explains why the standoff with China is handled at the “highest level”. As the European statesman Georges Clemenceau, who served as France’s prime minister during World War I, said famously, war is too important to be left to the generals.

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