Beyond Doklam: No room for complacency
In dealing with China, we have generally sought to follow a conciliatory approach of calibrated engagement, focussing on areas of convergence and showing readiness to work together on world issues. There is a misconception in our country that China is far too powerful for us to exercise any effective leverage and that it is not in our interest to annoy the Chinese unduly. It is of paramount importance to wage a fight against the defeatist mindset for the sake of our dignity and confidence and for securing a rightful place in the Asian as well as the global strategic landscape
The peaceful resolution of Doklam standoff with China brought an understandable sigh of relief in India. Clearly, nobody in India seemed interested in military conflict with China given the all too obvious disastrous consequences of such a course of action. Surprisingly such sobering sentiments are present even in China as we learn from the many posts on Chinese social media Weibo. Apparently, sections of Chinese military too were not favourably disposed to escalation of tensions with India.
India’s military advantage in the Doklam area was all too evident to China and that may well have compelled it to resolve the matter, by halting their unilateral road widening activity in a disputed territory which was the real bone of contention. But, significance of the resolution coming just a few days prior to the impending BRICS Summit could not have been lost on anyone. China was naturally keen to ensure that the summit went ahead smoothly without any hitch. Chinese are, quite clearly, sensitive to any criticism in multilateral fora and we have seen them in overdrive, prior to the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou China in September last year, for preventing any discussion on the adverse judgement by UN-backed tribunal on South China Sea.
Meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen lacked warmth and personal chemistry as was evident between the two leaders in their earlier encounters, more particularly during Xi’s visit to Modi’s home turf in Ahmedabad. Description of the meeting at the official briefing as “forward looking and constructive” was nothing more than diplomatic inanity. Chinese commitment to work with India and “to seek guidance from the principles of Panchsheel” seemed quite ironic given repeated instances of China employing coercive tactics in dealing with her neighbours in complete disregard of the Panchsheel principles of non-aggression and respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Xi’s acknowledgement of India as an important country also lacked credibility since China has never been quite reconciled to the idea of simultaneous rise of China and India. Its world vision is characterised by China’s complete and uncontested dominance not only in Asia but also beyond.
China does not see much role for India in the region and mocks at the legitimate aspirations of India to play a rightful role in the world which explains its active opposition to India’s claim of NSG membership and a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. There is a long list of issues on which China has not only chosen to ignore our
sensitivities but taken an antagonistic position.
In dealing with China, we have generally sought to follow a conciliatory approach of calibrated engagement, focussing on areas of convergence and showing readiness to work together on world issues. There is a misconception in our country that China is far too powerful for us to exercise any effective leverage and that it is not in our interest to annoy the Chinese unduly. It is of paramount importance to wage a fight against the defeatist mindset for the sake of our dignity and confidence and for securing a rightful place in the Asian as well as the global strategic landscape.
Our traditional China experts who have generally advocated a weak-kneed approach towards China were also against India completely boycotting the OBOR Summit in May this year, arguing that it was a tremendous economic opportunity from which India stood to gain a lot. While any judgement with regard to economic dividend to recipient countries remains highly contested since OBOR essentially seems to have been designed to serve as an instrument for Chinese expansionism — we just have to look at the experience of many African countries who have accused China of backdoor economic imperialism — it is surprising how anyone in India with even the slightest sense of national pride could overlook the fact that Chinese have scheduled a number of infrastructure projects in POK under the CPEC/OBOR
programme in flagrant disregard of our protestations and sovereignty concerns.
I am happy that India took the logical course of action in boycotting the event. That decision and subsequently the principled and resolute stand on Doklam standoff bore a clear stamp of Modi himself. Situation this time was markedly different from 1962 and militarily we were fully prepared to deal with any misadventure from the Chinese side. This may well have played part in the eventual peaceful resolution of the standoff, but that did not desist China from launching an aggressive psychological warfare against us. Commentaries in the Chinese media, which were obviously run at the behest of the Government, were outright offensive and even talked about teaching India a “lesson”. Under these circumstances, our obsessive emphasis on the need to avoid war with China may well have conveyed an impression of our weakness. In fact, when I was invited to a TV talk show entitled “how to de-escalate the tensions with China” right in the middle of the crisis, I did question the wisdom of organising such a show arguing that we had taken a principled stand and that we had to stay firm without buckling down in any manner.
What do we stand to lose if tensions with China were to rise? I have heard arguments about huge trade with China making it one of our largest trading partners and ‘considerable’ investment opportunities which we would be missing out on even though the total investment from China may only have reached $ 1b, which is a miniscule portion of the total FDI attracted by India.
Overall trade figure of $70 billion/year may sound quite impressive but when one looks at our trade deficit of over $50 billion and our exports being under $10 billion and that too comprising mainly primary and intermediate products, it is clear that that trade is not of much benefit to us.
In fact, import of cheap consumer products from China has emasculated our manufacturing sector making a travesty of our “Make in India” campaign. Our solar panel manufacturers are shutting down due to low capacity utilisation even as the demand for the product is rising due to ambitious solar power generation programme in the country. Overdependence on China in such a critical sector of our energy security could have grave consequences for us. Toy industry in India is almost dead. The list is endless — electrical goods, cell phones, handicrafts, idols of gods, hardware items, diverse consumer products. One can see the “Made in China” label on almost everything in our stores. Indian manufacturers are just not able to withstand aggressive pricing, state subsidy and cheap financing in China. This is far serious a matter than what has been acknowledged by the Government so far and an urgent detailed survey needs to be undertaken to assess and quantify the full adverse impact of Chinese predatory trade policies on us.
China on its part continues to impose non-tariff barriers on imports from India. Lack of transparency regarding technical standards and differentiated testing requirements for domestic and imported products are all designed to restrict imports from India. There are phytosanitary issues facing our agricultural/meat products and regulatory hurdles have continued to impede export of generic drugs from India in which we have a world leadership position. India’s pitch for greater market access in another of our strength areas, IT sector, has also likewise not made much headway.
Chinese only pay lip service to the need to rectify growing trade imbalance, whenever this matter is taken up with them. But they rarely follow up with any concrete measures. It is high time that we tightened imports from China, in retaliation, since that is the only language that would be understood by it. This can be done in a variety of ways without violating WTO obligations. Many Chinese products would attract the anti-dumping provisions and we should not hesitate in aggressively initiating requisite action wherever possible. Social media campaigns to boycott Chinese goods as seen during last Diwali are fine but for effective results, Government intervention would be required. This would not be detrimental to our overall economic interests. In fact, restrictions on cheap Chinese imports might well help resuscitate our manufacturing sector.
India’s credibility and standing in the region and the world at large has gone up because of our deft handling of the Doklam standoff. No other country has actually had the courage to stand up to China in this manner so far. In fact, China may have underestimated our political resolve. Our success at the BRICS Summit in getting LeT, JeM and Haqqani network named as terror organisations in the declaration may well have been the result of our newfound standing. While we can draw comfort from the fact that Bhutan was unwavering in its support for us throughout the crisis and that there was a lot of support and sympathy for us all around, we will do well to remember that when it comes to the crunch we are left all alone to safeguard our interests. Ethics and morality hardly play any role in the big power game from which we cannot shy away if we are serious about wanting to craft a legitimate role in regional and global affairs.
Finally, we have to guard against any complacency because of satisfactory resolution of Doklam standoff. China’s hostility towards India derives from the evolving geo-political dynamics in Asia-Pacific. Given India’s size and rapidly growing economy, China sees it as a challenge to its objective of unhindered dominance of Asia.
China is bound to get further agitated by India cosying up to Japan since apart from the huge economic opportunities between India and Japan, which have intriguingly remained untapped for so long, there are obvious strategic security dimensions in that relationship. Japanese PM’s visit to India earlier this month was notably characterised by unusual warmth and there appears to be willingness on both sides to take the relations to a higher strategic level. This would not have been possible without the “C” factor looming large in the background. As the USA begins to partially vacate the strategic space in the Asia Pacific region, it too would encourage India to have greater engagement with Japan and other countries in the region so that it could act as a possible counterweight to China.
(The writer retired from the Indian Foreign Service recently. He served as India’s Ambassador in manycountries, including Tanzania, Trinidad & Tobago and South Africa. He is associated with several NGOs and comments regularly on international relations)
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