China and India’s move towards candid messaging

American Secretary of State Antony  Blinken’s recent visit to India signals the possibility of a permanent course-change in our nation’s policy towards China, if not Pakistan.
Image of China and India flags used for representation
Image of China and India flags used for representation

The recent Delhi visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his signalling the use of Indian territory to fire the Tibet political salvo at China may have sharpened trilateral equations further. The Blinken initiative was closely preceded by President Xi Jinping’s maiden Tibet visit and Ladakhis celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday, to which Beijing took exception—but they did not scare away anyone.

It is anybody’s guess if these political developments had something to do with China agreeing with India at the 12th round of Galwan-centric military redeployment talks that followed a week later. Nor is it clear why the Chinese media simultaneously released pictures of the gruesome, gangster-like attack that took the lives of 20 Indian soldiers in June 2020. 

From an Indian perspective, all of it is also indicative of India shifting gears from the tradition of cautious optimism to candid messaging. Consciously involving the US-led West may be due to the assessment that the days of surgical strikes against Pakistan have to give way to a larger, global matrix on China. The signs of this have been visible for long. 

Calibrated pressure: At the US-sponsored inter-faith conference in a New Delhi hotel, Blinken came face-to-face with Buddhist monk Geshe Dorji Damdul, Director of Tibet House in Delhi and former interpreter of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As if in retaliation but targeting Blinken’s Indian hosts, China may step up the Doklam-Galwan kind of calibrated border pressures, especially in Arunachal Pradesh and post-370 Ladakh. 

At one stage, China seemed to have realised that the Quad-led Indian initiative had neutralised its ‘String of Pearls’ and it needed to return to the land border, where it was relatively stronger. Doklam and Galwan followed. Now, however, Beijing may have to take into account US-led global pressure of the Taiwan/ Southeast China Seas kind on the Tibetan front too. 

The new America-led ‘Tibet signal’ could also lead to the reopening of the long-forgotten issue of Chinese annexation of Tibet, which happened when post-Independence India was politically friendless and militarily weak. It may also put paid to China’s extended claim on Arunachal and Ladakh being a part of Tibet—and hence its territory. 

India should be prepared as revitalising the lost Tibetan cause may culminate in the internationalisation of the India-China element therein, as if it were a part of the larger Tibet issue. Such internationalisation would militate against the long-held pan-India consensus that all disputes with China and Pakistan are bilateral, and there was no place for any third-party involvement or intervention.

Post-Cold War, the West is wholly with India. Tibet could bring East and Southeast Asian nations that are suffering Beijing on the South China and East China Seas, and also Taiwan, closer to India. On the other side, too, there could be realignment, from Myanmar and westwards to Nepal and Bhutan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iran and Russia. There will be consequences for all stakeholders. Either way, India’s will be the biggest.

Tibetan conundrum: Sooner than later, Tibet may once again occupy more politico-diplomatic and hence media space in this country and elsewhere, as Taiwan has done all along, and the South China and East China Seas in recent times. In his book, Nehru, Tibet and China, Avtar Singh Bhasin, the indefatigable collator of original archival material, has attributed India’s China fiasco to Nehru’s vacillation and continued misjudgement, flowing from his desire for eternal friendship with China.
Opinions differ, as Nehru is also accused of escalating the India-China border dispute, independent of Tibet’s freedom, when India’s armed forces were ill-equipped—leading to the humiliating defeat of 1962. If nothing else, Nehru proved prophetic on India and China together re-emerging as global powerhouses. 

Inherent and inherited inadequacies at the time of Independence guided India’s constant deployment of the geopolitical terminology ‘cautious optimism’. The Bangladesh War in 1971 set the tone for an image makeover on the geopolitical and geostrategic fronts. It also upturned memories of the politico-military debacle in the 1962 war with China. 

Yet, cautious optimism continued to govern New Delhi’s policy towards China and Pakistan in particular. Its usefulness became known, in the reverse rather, after Zia’s Pakistan launched the ‘thousand cuts’ war of terrorism, despite positive commitments in the post-war Simla Agreement, 1972. New Delhi should now be prepared even more for increased Chinese interest in Left militancy and also the revival of inter-ethnic strife across the Northeast.

Period-specific: In the era after the Nehru-Gandhi family’s political prominence, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP undertook the now infamous Lahore bus trip. It was followed not by permanent peace, but the Kargil War months later in 1999.

Independent of Narendra Modi’s multiple visits to China as Gujarat chief minister, as prime minister, he breathed in fresh air by receiving Xi in a state capital, Ahmedabad. The Wuhan Initiative-2018 and Chennai Declaration-2019 followed Modi’s ‘Jhoola diplomacy’ of 2017. Leadership chemistry too seemed working—but not for long. 

The chemistry appeared to work when Modi made a quick stopover to celebrate Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s birthday in Lahore in late 2015. But in about a week’s time, the Pathankot air base came under terror attack. The rest is all history—a history that remains constant even as it changes. 
In context, the Blinken visit signals the possibility of a permanent course-change in India’s policy towards China, if not Pakistan. With that, the nation may be in for interesting, and possibly intriguing and challenging times. 

N Sathiya Moorthy
Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation-Chennai Initiative

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