By Vipin Pubby
China lost little time to respond positively to an olive branch held out by India three weeks after the Doklam standoff at the tri-junction of disputed border among India, Bhutan and China. However, as the Chinese have proved time and again, they can’t be trusted and India can ill-afford to reduce its vigil.
External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, speaking in Parliament, had said that the solution to the standoff lay in dialogue and not war. The very next day, Chinese Counsel General in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, said that “shared interests” between the two countries “far outweigh any differences”. He went on to say that the two countries need to resolve issues through “rational, objective and constructive means”.
Indeed China can ill-afford to go for a full-scale war with India for two major reasons. Firstly, despite the reports of inadequate equipment and weaponisation, India is no pushover and has come a long way from 1962. Besides better preparedness and motivation, India also has the nuclear deterrent and has the advantage of topography.
Secondly, as the Chinese envoy had indicated, trade and economics would not allow China to vitiate the atmosphere. There is currently a huge trade imbalance between India and China with the latter in a hugely advantageous position. India’s trade deficit with China mounted to a whopping $46.56 billion last year. This despite the fact that the bilateral trade marginally slowed down during the year by 2.1 per cent. India is, therefore, a highly lucrative market for China. Sushma Swaraj had also pointed out that China had been contributing to India’s growth story and that mutually beneficial cooperation was the key to success.
Yet, at the same time, China cannot be trusted given its past actions, not just in relations with India but with their neighbouring countries as well. It has been having disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia and other countries in the region. Pakistan is called virtually a colony of China.
In fact it is the only country in the world which has extended its territorial jurisdiction at the cost of neighbouring countries since it turned communist. Besides spreading its rule over Tibet, it has already annexed Aksai Chin, almost the size of Switzerland, in Ladakh region. It was keen to annex Bhutan and claims several parts of Arunachal Pradesh as its own.
China had been following what is called “salami slicing policy” to annex land of its neighbours giving the argument that the area was once part of the ancient China. Going by the same theory, India can well claim Pakistan, Afghanistan and more. China was a set pattern for its “salami slicing policy”. It would first place a claim and then mention it at every conceivable platform and then would flex its muscle. Recently it also annexed some islands in the South China Sea and extended its maritime boundary. It has laid claims to 80 per cent of oil-rich South China Sea in challenge to the international maritime laws.
Diplomatic and security experts point out that current flexing of muscles by China could also be rooted in the internal affairs of the country. China’s president Xi Jinping would be seeking a second term in September and would like an image of a nationalist and “strong leader”. Some security experts rule out any immediate flashpoint but believe that the standoff could be testing of waters or a trial balloon to see India’s response.
Mercifully India’s “North Korean TV channels”, as a Congress leader Manish Tiwari put it, or the “warrrior channels” as most of the so-called news TV channels are now called, have restrained from adopting an aggressive posture (as they do while talking of Pakistan). One reason could be that most of these are under the influence of Modi government and may have been instructed to pretend as if nothing was happening at Doklam.
Chinese media, which is considered the mouthpiece of Chinese government, on the other hand, had adopted an aggressive attitude evidently at behest of the government. Thus even when there was little reaction from Chinese government. Experts had been trying to read between the lines in the Chinese media.
Given the economy and trade involved and interplay of international factors, it would be foolhardy on the part of China to escalate the issue. Yet India already having burnt its fingers by breaking of trust after slogans of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” in 1962, cannot afford to lower its guard by turning a blind eye to the moves by Chinese.