The Xinhua news agency and China Daily newspaper, two authoritative platforms of Chinese policies, held out warnings this week over the military standoff with India near the Sikkim border.
China Daily starkly wrote that the “window for a peaceful solution is closing. The countdown to a clash between the two forces has begun….” Xinhua said China’s “restraint has limits and with every day that passes the tether shortens.”
Should these warning be taken seriously? India stubbornly ignored similar warnings 55 years ago in a border war it resoundingly lost and the rest is history.
A war between India and China is improbable since neither side wants it. But below that threshold is a vast space where miscalculations can occur. Indians and Chinese are patriotic people, driven by nationalistic leaderships, and “territorial sovereignty” is a highly emotive issue. What’s alarming is that both governments have successfully rallied domestic opinion.
In China, perhaps, this wasn’t particularly difficult. But in India where a hundred flowers normally bloom, opinion is polarizing at an exceptional rate. It seems all Indians are rising in anger over Facebook posts supporting China’s position. But how could there be a contrarian opinion?
This holds dangers because hubris is a self-devouring monster. The plain truth is that India’s post-Cold War foreign policy calculus will be severely put to test for the first time if a conflict with China ensues. No country has backed India in its seven-week standoff with China. Indians all along fancied that they were leagues ahead of Chinese in “soft power” – yoga, Gandhi, snake charmers, etc. Apparently, that is not so.
It is particularly galling that the United States has not taken any posture favoring India. India’s post-Cold War strategic discourse is heavily laden with the blithe assumption that the US regards India as a “counterweight” to China. Meghnad Desai, a high-flying opinion maker in the English-speaking Delhi circuit, said last week:
“All things that follow now will have a lot to do with what happens in the South China Sea. The US has sent out enough signals. If there is war, it will be a US-China war, with India on the US side, in the South China Sea and in the Himalayas. This trio (India, China and the US) is a very combustible mixture right now.… Ultimately, you have to understand that India cannot stand up to China without American help and support. America cannot stand up to China without Indian help. That is the symmetry in this relationship.”
The sheer naiveté in the above passage sums up India’s misfortune. The Indians refuse to see the geopolitical realities. It doesn’t occur to them that US President Donald Trump will fight wars only if America’s interests are directly threatened. Why should he order the Pentagon to send the marines to the Himalayas or to dispatch a carrier battle group to hunt down Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean?
The one thing emerging out of the meeting in Manila last Friday between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is that the two top diplomats did not waste time on the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean.
Tillerson told the media that North Korea was the main topic in his discussions and whatever extra “bit of reflection on the relationship” with China that took place was devoted to the four high-level dialogues between the two countries last April at the summit at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. That meeting, he said, is “really advancing our two countries’ understandings of the nature of this relationship … and how we should strive to strengthen this relationship so that it benefits the world in terms of maintaining a secure world absent of conflict.”
Interestingly, the White House released a press release on Saturday thanking China for its cooperation in securing the passage of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council on increased sanctions against North Korea. Trump is expected to make a state visit to China in November and Wang disclosed that preparations have begun.
Indian analysts simply do not get the point that the US-China relationship is in an altogether different league. Simply put, the single most crucial template of India’s strategy against China turns out to be delusional – that the US will confront China on India’s behalf.
Equally, Indian strategists never expected that post-Soviet Russia would bounce back on to the world stage. Through the past quarter-century, successive Indian governments have pursued a policy of benign neglect of relations with Russia, which are today in a state of atrophy. On the other hand, Russia-China relations are today at their highest point in decades.
Sadly, India’s “soft power” took a lethal blow during the past three-year period of the Hindu-nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is so not only in liberal Western opinion but also in the Muslim world. The violence against Muslims, the erosion in India’s secularist foundations, the mass upheaval in Kashmir have all received attention internationally. It is also useful to remember that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation represents 54 member countries of the United Nations.
Suffice to say, all these factors will come into play if a war ensues between India and China. India is not a match for China militarily, and in soft power too China may already have an advantage. By cocooning themselves in a fantasyland, Indians are too full of themselves in their refusal to be judged by international opinion – leave alone Chinese and its smaller South Asian neighbors’ opinions.