Xi Jinping’s visit

A lot has been written about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India. Several agreements and MOUs were announced, so it is possible to argue the trip was ‘successful’ whatever that means. PM Modi showed he could be a gracious host and a powerful communicator, even as the visit was marred by the stand off at the border.

Coming to the standoff itself, what was the background and what could have been the objective of whoever it was that ordered troops to do what they did? After all conquering territory was hardly the objective.

Context of the trip

The alacrity with which Chinese leadership reached out to the Modi administration after May 2014 elections, and the fact that President Xi visited so soon after the takeover do convey a message. China is trying to prevent India from actively joining the rival camp – and add to its headache of dealing with aggressive US moves in Far East and Japan’s resurgent foreign policy, not to speak of various troubles with smaller neighbors like Vietnam and Philippines. While any one them can be a nuisance, collectively they could pose serious challenges. India joining up with them will tilt the scales considerably.

China also has huge investments in manufacturing and lots of excess capacity. India, looked at “with a mixture of contempt and condescension” by China, is nevertheless one big market that can absorb a lot of the low quality/cost goods that these factories churn out.

The ‘incursion’ and the reactions

So it was indeed surprising and somewhat confusing that the incursion in the Chumar (Ladakh) sector of the unmarked border happened to coincide with the high profile visit of Chinese president. The situation was ripe for various conspiracy theories to flourish.

S. Varadarajan is of the opinion that the incident was not deliberate but just happened because the border is not demarcated. This conveniently lets both Xi and PLA off the hook and is typical of leftist Indian commentators opinions when it comes to China. After all, even a full fledged invasion by Chinese troops, like that of 1962 is India’s fault in the eyes of our comrades. This ‘random walk’ theory is implausible because even if the border is vague, PLA troops do know they are marching several kilometers away from their usual positions, towards where they surely know Indians are. They refused to withdraw when challenged. And that too when their President was in Delhi – a fact they surely would not be unaware of.  It took several days of behind the scenes talks for the matter to be resolved in New York during the UNGA session.

One has to to turn to Roderick MacFarquhar, interviewed in Indian Express by Ashutosh Varshney to find a more plausible explanation. He pooh-poohs the theory of PLA making moves without bothering to check with the civilian leadership. It has to be deliberate. He even suggests China has hardened its stance on the border dispute, hence a reasonable solution is highly unlikely.

Gordon Chang of National Interest seems to believe in the PLA going rogue theory, suggesting Xi is yet to exercise full control of the powerful military and plant his own men. This makes the Chinese situation closer to that of all weather terrorist ally Pakistan where the military calls the shots and takes its own decisions. It also makes the situation even more complicated.

India’s options

Given these possibilities, what are India’s options? It would be logical to suggest the best option is to keep all options on the table. That would mean India should work with China to resolve the conflict but be prepared for the worst. Obviously strengthening the border infrastructure and defensive capabilities, long neglected, is a priority. It also means building bridges with ASEAN, Korea and Japan to identify areas of closer coordination in the defense arena.

It would make a lot of sense to hold back on some areas of cooperation with China as well send some ‘negative’ signals, making it clear there is a price to pay for playing Confucian mind games and rearing poisonous snakes aka Pakistan Army.  At some point the Chinese, known for their maths skills and game theories, will find the game is not worth playing and adopt a different stance. As India’s economy wakes up from ten years of corruption, scams, sloth and neglect, passage of time is more likely to strengthen India’s hand than weaken it.

America, even under same presidency, is too unreliable an ally to place bets on. Routine regime changes make it even more unreliable. Hence it would be prudent not to join any anti-China chorus orchestrated by Uncle Sam as the lead singer. But careful leveraging of the so-called East Asian pivot, made stronger by the rapid decline of Middle East oil’s blackmailing power over western economies, can bring dividends.

But all along, India has to be clear and make it clear that it has no fundamental or cultural conflict with China, on the contrary it is a friend of Chinese people, and is merely interested in resolving issues and developing its economy and will never be a client state of China or for that matter any other nation.  This is where PM Modi’s warm hospitality and firm words make eminent sense.

Your comments and feedback are welcome!