Our boycott of the One Belt One Road Forum in Beijing is a milestone in India–China relations. It is a watershed in India’s overall foreign policy as well because China is not only capable of overtaking America as the world’s most powerful nation but also happens to be the country which George Fernandes, defence minister in NDA 1, publicly called India’s enemy number one. And lest we forget, China was cited by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the principal reason for India’s 1998 nuclear tests in a classified communication to Bill Clinton.
After sizing up Xi Jinping, PM Narendra Modi is known to keep a hawk’s eye on China with Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval ably assisting him. Even before the laudable boycott of the OBOR Forum, the Dalai Lama’s recent prolonged sojourn in Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims), deepening engagement with Taiwan and the pampering of Uighur political activists bore the triumvirate’s signature. The trio clearly believes in looking China in the eye without blinking.
China, of course, is unable to digest our new policy. Within days of the OBOR snub, it retaliated by killing whatever little prospects India had of gaining admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group at Berne next month, by insisting on the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty yardstick, clubbing us with Pakistan. Notably, Pakistan is the common denominator in every India–China discord—from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor responsible for our OBOR boycott, to Chinese opposition to UN listing Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and of course NSG membership.
Against this background, is it really wise on India’s part to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation—a Eurasian security grouping which China dominates—at its forthcoming Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 8–9? Largely due to Beijing’s tactics, it has taken India two long years to sign 28 mandatory conventions and draft documents for upgrading its observer status to full membership of SCO.
It certainly seems to me that signing up in today’s tense scenario—characterised by the chill that has set in after our OBOR snub and Beijing’s retaliation—is like walking into the tiger’s lair, or let's say the dragon's den. Modi’s presence in Astana is a given. Nawaz Sharif too will surely attend as Pakistan, like India, will be promoted from observer to full member. The stage is now set for the media to start speculating about the possibility of a Modi–Sharif meeting on the sidelines of SCO to break the dangerous India–Pakistan stalemate. But regardless of a Modi-Sharif tête-à-tête in Astana, it is time for New Delhi to re-examine the wisdom of joining SCO at this juncture when besides China, Russia—the other superpower which calls the shots in SCO—is no longer the “all-weather friend” India could blindly trust.
I understand that New Delhi is so angry with Moscow over military exercises with Islamabad and sale of defence hardware, not to speak of Russia ganging up with China, Pakistan and Iran to legitimise the anti-India Taliban in Afghanistan, that it has read Russia the riot act. According to my information, India has bluntly told Russia that unless it somehow convinces China to expedite our NSG entry, India won’t sign the MoU with Russia for developing units 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam nuclear plant. Our stand is a financial blow to Moscow. Clearly, India now has enough self-belief to treat Russia as an arms dealer or nuclear energy expertise provider instead of a UN Security Council veto-wielding superpower we played second fiddle to for decades.
We can cope with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But China, against whom India has now taken a tough, principled stand, poses a mega-threat for two reasons: Its perpetual quest for opportunities to humiliate us and its nexus with Pakistan; it is seething after the OBOR snub. By my reckoning, it will not stop at sabotaging our NSG prospects at Berne.
That is why I do not subscribe to BJP ideologue Ram Madhav’s optimism that “there is no reason to assume that India’s decision to boycott OBOR will affect bilateral relations with China adversely. Both India and China have a mature leadership under Modi and Xi.
They will work together in multilateral forums like the SCO, Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and BRICS”. Rather than trust Madhav, India should take very seriously ex-Navy Chief Arun Prakash’s warning that China might “re-enact a 1962 in the Bay of Bengal to cut India down to size again” by inflicting a “Pearl Harbour” in the Andamans. Seconding Prakash, retired Vice Admiral P K Chatterjee says that “as India can ward off a Chinese attack from the northern border, I can vouch that they will attack in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea region.”
I would also attach equal importance to former IB chief M K Narayanan’s cautionary note that “buoyed by its defence budget of $151.5 billion (2017) which is much larger than that of all other nations with the exception of the US, China is no longer willing to remain a status quo power, or play by existing rules governing the international order. India must realise this, and avoid being caught unawares.” According to another defence expert, P Sawhney, China could unleash “cyberwarfare where it has unparalleled offensive capabilities; or, with proven anti-satellite capabilities, it could shoot Indian satellites in both geosynchronous and low-earth orbits—it has plenty in its arsenal to embarrass India.”
Clearly, Modi’s India doesn’t see China as a challenge but a threat. And we have stood up to the threat with full faith in our capabilities as manifested in our new-found resolve not to take China’s aggression, territorial or otherwise, lying down. When the battle lines are so clearly drawn, joining a China-led grouping honestly doesn’t make much sense—particularly as we were made to wait two years before being let in halfheartedly.
S N M Abdi
An award-winning journalist and commentator based in Kolkata