The nineteenth round of Indo-China talks at the military level held last week at the Moldo-Chushul border outpost was a rare two-day event. Much was expected as these were held just days before the Indian PM and Chinese President come face-to-face at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. Both are also expected to be present in New Delhi next month for the G20 summit. There was hope in some quarters that any progress could signal a possible bilateral between the two leaders. However, that was not to be.
The joint statement issued at the end of the talks simultaneously by both sides was meaningless and a repeat of earlier versions. The subsequent Maj Gen level talks were equally valueless. China, which is currently close to its 1959 claim lines in Demchok and Depsang, as also feverishly building its infrastructure in the region was anyway unlikely to accept Indian proposals. It is open to all other suggestions less in these regions.
China continues to insist on its claim on Arunachal. It issued stapled visas for three Wushu players from Arunachal selected to attend the world university games in Chengdu, compelling India to cancel the participation of the complete team.
In retaliation, India has also begun to change its goalposts when it comes to China. PM Modi greeting the Dalai Lama on his birthday last month drew Chinese anger. Its Beijing spokesperson mentioned, ‘(India) needs to fully understand the anti-China and separatist nature of the 14th Dalai Lama.’ India’s anti-China stance was equally visible in the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit when India refused to endorse China’s BRI (Belt Road Initiative) and Beijing backed Economic Development Strategy (EDS). While India has always rejected the BRI, it’s refusing the EDS was the first.
Simultaneously, India has blocked multiple Chinese investment proposals in India. It is targeting Chinese companies bypassing the law. The manufacture of I Phone 15 in India has caused heartburns in China. The CCP mouthpiece, the Global Times, commented, ‘(India) benefited from the expertise and investment by Chinese smartphone makers in its speedy development in making smartphones.’ It added that India, which imported 180 million units of I phones from China, would no longer need to do so, a major saving of foreign exchange.
The presence of the three ex-service chiefs at Taiwan’s Ketagalan Forum’s Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue a fortnight ago was another firm message to China, that India may reconsider its one-China policy. The three ‘unofficially’ represented the Indian government. Comments by the former naval chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, who is also Chairman of India’s National Maritime Foundation, which is a quasi-government body, were officially published.
Karambir stated that ‘a conflict in the (Taiwan) straits would have a serious, direct and second order effects related to geopolitics and economic security on India,’ adding that the stand-off at the LAC ‘have sharpened India’s competitive instincts vis-à-vis China.’ India is assessing what could be its actions in case of a China-Taiwan clash, hinting India may not remain a mute spectator.
India, which normally maintained neutrality, supported the Philippines in its recent standoff with China in the South China Sea (SCS). The Indian spokesperson mentioned, ‘(India insisted) on the need to adhere to international law in the context of issues relating to the SCS and also for a rules-based order. (We) underline the need for peaceful settlement of disputes.’ India arming China’s adversaries in the region sends a message of confrontation.
The presence of General Naravane, India’s ex-army chief, at the 6th International Rangzen (Independence) Conference in Delhi was another signal of India’s changing goalposts. He shared the stage with leaders of two groups which China abhors, Geshe Lobsang Pende, representative of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, and Umit Hamit, a noted Uyghur freedom fighter.
The aim of the conference, as per the website was, ‘focusing on strategies to collectively resist and counter the CCP’s repressive measures while also seeking ways to strengthen the global Tibetan independence movement.’ This subject in itself is enough to rile China.
General Naravane stated, ‘It is a historical fact that Tibet has been and is, the rightful neighbour of India and that the common border was open and peaceful, allowing not only free movement of trade and people, but also the flow of the finest thoughts of human civilization.’ He also countered China’s claim of Tibet being a part of it since 7th Century AD by terming it as ‘incorrect and an attempt to rewrite history.’
General Naravane stoked China throughout his address. He mentioned, ‘Even though China has grown in strength, strength comes with its vulnerabilities. China operates with centricity of coercion and fear whereas India with centricity of cooperation and trust.’ The message to China, through this ‘unofficial participation’ was clear. India is confident of standing upto China and will respond in kind to Chinese behaviour.
India’s recent decision to ban export of non-Basmati rice also has a Chinese angle. India commands 40% of the global rice market of which non-Basmati rice is 15%. Last year, Indian private exporters provided China with 30% of its rice imports worth USD 777 million. With widespread floods this year and limited arable land, China would need to import even larger quantities this year.
No other global exporter of rice would be able to meet Chinese demands. With a ban on exports, except on a case-by-case basis, only approved by the government, Beijing would be compelled to approach New Delhi. This is not something China would like to be subjected to but there is no choice except to grovel before India.
India is also pushing Chinese influence away in Africa and the Pacific by its soft power diplomacy. India, which earlier provided free vaccines, is now providing food stocks, opening educational institutes and becoming a partner in development, while China is seeking to grab strategic assets by its debt diplomacy.
Indian is portraying its growing confidence in tackling Beijing beyond the military threat. It may be seen as provocative but convey India’s determination to look Beijing in the eye. This flows from India’s ability to militarily hold China at bay. China, in the future, can no longer expect a neutral and meek India.
The author is Major General (Retd)