Script: Dr. ASH NARAIN ROY, Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi
The continuing India-China stand-off at Doklam plateau and Beijing’s bellicose pitch over the issue are both intriguing and baffling. Strategic analysts point to the unusually harsh language used by the Chinese media. The scale of mobilization of troops in the region is also unprecedented. The current standoff began on 16 June when a column of Chinese troops accompanied by construction vehicles and road-building equipment began moving south into the Bhutanese territory. Bhutan has close military and economic ties with India and it was at the request of Thimpu that India has sent forces to resist the Chinese advance.
It is quite apparent that the Chinese media are ramping up the rhetoric against India at the instance of powers that be while India’s response has been firm but with an effort to lower the heat. Reasons for China’s coercive approach on the issue are not hard to find. China under the helmsmanship of President Xi Jinping has been provocatively assertive on various issues including in its dealings with over dozen neighbours. Beijing’s belligerence on South China Sea has also rattled its neighbouring countries.
The era in which the motto of Chinese leadership was “bide our time and focus on building ourselves” and “hide brightness and nourish obscurity” is over. Going by the recent experiences, it is equally clear that China no longer takes seriously what it often stresses, “its peaceful and harmonious rise”. European Parliament Vice President Ryszard Czarnecki has made this point forcefully by saying that China has been following a foreign policy that squarely infringes on internationally accepted norms. Beijing’s assurance of the international community that its ‘peaceful rise’ will not threaten the international order stands exposed.
The world has seen President Xi Jinping’s marshalling strength and weight behind what he calls “Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Some scholars recall imperial China’s past behaviour of trying to expand frontiers by claiming suzerainty over smaller neighbours. Chinese empires were never apologetic about their military conquests.
Domestic factors too have been cited for the present confrontationist behaviour. President Xi has established himself as the core leader which is an intimidating signal of his power and influence. He became the national leader in 2012 and has since streamlined the Chinese economy and the military. His ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative has given him a very high profile internationally. Many see a link between the forthcoming Communist Party’s 19th National Congress which is likely to endorse him for another term and the provocative behaviour on the border tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan.
India’s response in the wake of provocations from the Chinese media has been sober, measured and mature. The media coverage of the stand-off has been restrained. New Delhi has maintained that diplomatic channels are available to address the situation. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar has said recently, that he saw “no reason why the two countries will not be able to deal with the issue”. Despite the measured tone of Mr. Jaishankar who said “India and China should not let differences become disputes”, Chinese state media continues the hype. Xinhua’s strange formulation, “borderline is the bottom line” and that there was “no room for negotiations unless Indian forces are withdrawn, is unhelpful in resolving the issue.
Nevertheless, given the size and level of commercial relations both sides have, they must find mechanisms to lower the temperature. Reports suggest some government–supported think tanks are having informal exchanges to de-escalate tensions. In the mist of charges and counter-charges, senior Indian ministers participated in BRICS forum meetings in Beijing. Prime Minister Modi met President Xi Jinping in Hamburg and had a conversation on a “range of issues”. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is scheduled to visit Beijing for the BRICS NSA’s meeting.
The Indian government has done well to assure the opposition that India will be “patient” and “peaceful” in dealing with the situation. All said, China’s coercive behaviour can be understood in terms of its foreign policy strategy, “when you are on the top of the mountains, you are unable to stand up to the cold”.