Consider a couple fighting during the day and sleeping together at night. Just to prove a point this couple start flirting with another couple in the neighbourhood, who have a relationship that is worse than themselves. How to explain that situation? Both spouses know not how to defend their own overtures to another partner, but know how to incriminate their own partner. The couple believe their own partner would never turn back on them, but considers their flirting with another one is just a routine matter. In a nut shell, this is the story that defines Indo-China relations at present.
Both India and China accord importance to the relation they have with one another. Then, they have to display that their relationship is not so much sacrosanct and because of trust deficit. Both have genuine needs to have a relationship with others. India needs support of US in issues ranging from armament to support in anti-terror operations. China needs Pakistan to have an access to the western waters. Both India and China understand the importance and criticality of relationship the other country has with the third country. Yet, they try to accuse the other of being stubborn.
Is China really concerned about India’s apparent leaning toward US? The answer is NO. US may be wanting India to be the pivot so that a leverage against China can be obtained. But, independent of US-Indian relations and much bigger and important for US are relations with China. For China, however placating Pakistan is a necessary headache they have to endure in the course of CPEC and OBOR.
With America retreating from the world politics and concentrating more on growth at home, China is expanding its areas of influence. Like all nations that experience their global influence increasing, China too uses both soft and hard power.
Chinese have started trying their hand at settling international disputes and the first step was to mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last week, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited both countries over weekend. This visit happened at a time when the news from US came about increasing military strength in Afghanistan and pressurise Pakistan. It is a message to United States of America that China too shall have a place on the decision making table led by America. Considering the importance Trump’s administration gives to its relations with China, China is now testing waters how America would respond to share the space with China.
Then happened the visit of Narendra Modi to the White House. The pompous welcome accorded to Modi by the current American government has rattled China. The discussion between Modi and Trump, to put in an unbiased perspective was limited to points that are mutually agreeable to both countries. Not a single point that can cause friction was discussed. The opposition parties in both countries may see this as an escapist attitude, but what underlines is the respect both administrations have accorded to the other.
By not touching any of the frictional points, Modi-Trump duo has displayed a rare maturity level of diplomacy in engaging the other. And, China has read the cards well.
The first observation from China was based on the opinion of American Scholars, who felt India would be the key piece in American jigsaw. With the exception of Pakistan and Bangladesh, no other country in the world understands India like China does. With increased confidence, China commented on the mistake by US in assuming India would toe down its path ignoring self-interests like any other country. To prove China was correct is the fall back plan India has to discuss its military needs with Israel, in case if America responds in negative.
What China needs is to gauge where India stands in the eyes of America. So, the incursion at Sikkim that is a strategic point for India, China, Nepal and Bhutan. Crossing border at Ladakh is easier for China, but they choose to create a problem at Sikkim border only to make a point. India cannot ignore the incursion as the border problem at Sikkim were sort of settled during Vajpayee’s time.
Moreover, China has accused India of being aggressive and trespassing into Chinese territory. This is a first for China to concede before its people that Indian Army could enter Chinese territory. If one keeps the jingoistic cacophony, such a declaration is considered as a negative on its own Army, in normal course. The border between China and India is not a fully marked one and so it is easy to say whatever one wants, irrespective of actual positions.
To add to this, China accused India of not honouring the territorial integrity of Bhutan, where as it was with China that Bhutan has territorial disputes. In fact, already Bhutan has issued a de-marche to China over road building in areas close to Sikkim.
Strategically India cannot allow China to build roads up to border because this border is close to the Siliguri corridor that connects all north east states with other states. Maybe Modi would be forced to use the only weapon he has in his armour i.e., “trade”. Even so, reducing imports would cause temporary repercussions in Indian economy. Maybe China wanted India to experience some sort of economic destabilisation, as they expect China too would experience because of India’s opposition to CPEC.
Quoting the industrial infrastructure and per-capita income, China was trying to expound its economic might. But, that is a proven fact. Indian economy is more resilient. In fact, its resilience was displayed from the way Indians supported the government during demonetisation.
On the other hand, China may think it can fight a war with India and win, even if the war sets to be a fierce one. Where does it leave China? Can China afford an antagonistic India across borders? This would be more detrimental for the long term interests of China. So, in all probability China can have small skirmishes but not a full-fledged war. All China wants is to test India and the international support it can mobilise against China.
How can China make India respond?
Here, China has used the timely available Manas Sarovar pilgrims as pawns by denying them entry into their land, despite valid agreements. The pressure is on the nationalist government headed by Modi to ensure Hindu pilgrims complete their pilgrimage, as planned. However, it is totally Chinese prerogative whether to allow them or not. This would however force Icndia to look for alternate options. At the same time, China started talking of its military superiority and the ineffectiveness of the military replenishments provided by US to India.
Suddenly, why China is talking of war? Do they really mean it? No.
What the alternative Modi government has, except restricting the trade with China? Actually, nothing. Wait, does really China want India to cut-off or reduce business relations? Well, No. China wants India’s help in expanding their IT sector overseas. It is clear China is talking with two tongues and in two languages.
The best response that Indian government can give is to ignore the provocations. But, with opposition breathing fire on its neck, can Modi ignore the border provocation and let pilgrims to return their homes? No. As of now, it is a waiting game for China. They have moved their pawns into places and now it is Modi’s turn.