Beijing wants to “act as if nothing had happened”. But Delhi ain’t got none

Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations is well known. His other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, while equally influential, is less well known. Smith evokes a hypothetical scenario of ethical conflict, asking what a European would do if the great Chinese empire were to be swallowed up by an earthquake. He would obviously express his grief, make “melancholic reflections” on the precariousness of human life, and could also speculate on the impact of this disaster on trade in Europe. “And when all that fine philosophy was over, he went on with his business or his pleasure, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened,” Smith concludes.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, wanted to do something similar when he visited India last week. After all the disasters in bilateral relations, he quietly traveled to Delhi to tell Indian leaders that the two should get along with “business as usual”. Wang was at his best pontificate, as if nothing serious had happened between the two countries. “As large, mature and rational developing countries, China and India should not let the border issue define or affect the overall development of the bilateral relationship,” he told his counterpart S Jaishankar. He spoke of a three-pronged approach: viewing bilateral relations with a long-term view, developing a win-win mentality on each other’s development, and cooperating in multilateral processes. India responded with its three points: mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interest.

This style is typical of China and has been played many times in the past. The 1993 peace and tranquility agreement was also a product of this Chinese trickery. After making inroads into Indian Territory in the winter of 1986 in the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, they dug their heels in for seven years before imposing a treaty which provided for a principle of peace and tranquility but did not protect India’s sovereign interests. Even this principle has been repeatedly violated over the past three decades.

The Chinese follow the formula – “what I occupy is mine, what I claim is up for debate”. Wang Yi’s proposal for a “long-term vision” was for India to accept the current stalemate as normal. Fortunately, Indian leaders refused to buy this “new normal”, with Jaishankar insisting on peace and quiet along the LAC as a prerequisite for normalcy.

The Narendra Modi government has effected a significant shift in India’s border policy with China which includes, in addition to proactive diplomacy, a strong posture on the ground. While continuing the military-led disengagement talks – 15 rounds of which have ended – India, during the two-year stalemate, has also participated in at least eight rounds of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC), a process to resolve outstanding border issues. But, he simultaneously maintained his ground offensive by deploying men and weapons in large numbers. If the Chinese moved their field guns and military aircraft, so did India.

Despite Doklam and Ladakh, the Chinese don’t seem to realize that the current regime in India thinks differently and has a different approach. They continue with the old practice of raising the stakes before every major bilateral visit to upset the Indian agenda by introducing new issues. Wang Yi’s visit to Pakistan before coming to Delhi was one of those old tricks they play whenever a senior Chinese leader visits India. Wang attended the Pakistani military parade where the Chinese-made J-10C fighter jets flew for the first time. China recently provided a full squadron of 25 jets to Pakistan.

In a deliberate provocation to India, Wang singled out the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Conference, held in Islamabad on March 22, to make unwarranted reference to Kashmir in flagrant violation of restraint so far followed by the two countries in each other’s internal affairs. India has never publicly expressed its views on Xinjiang or Tibet despite justifiable reasons. Understandably, the Indian side voiced its disapproval of his references to Kashmir forcefully, both through an immediate media response naming Wang Yi in person, and also at the discussion table in Delhi forcing Wang on the defensive.

On the question of relations with China, there are hawks and hyperrealists in India. But the current regime has always taken a realistic and pragmatic approach to its important and troublesome neighbor. Both EAM and India’s NSA were able to firmly but politely convey Delhi’s position to Wang, sending him away almost empty-handed.

Wang Yi’s reference to cooperation at the multilateral level also included India’s co-option on the Ukraine issue. After India abstained in the vote on Ukraine at the UNSC and UN, the Russians and Chinese tried to project it as India’s support for them. Russia’s UN envoy Dmitry Polyanskiy has publicly thanked India for bludgeoning it with China, Kenya and Gabon, “who had the courage to resist the US’s blows before vote”. The Chinese media went too far in suggesting that this was India’s change of heart.

India’s position on Ukraine is markedly different from that of China. China justifies Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in the name of security concerns. However, India takes a different view. India is committed to the international rule of law and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations. It represented a diplomatic resolution of disputes and opposed war. At the time of its abstention from the UN, India made its position clear by calling for an end to the conflict, an immediate de-escalation of tensions and calm and constructive diplomacy.

When Nazi General Himmler defeated Warsaw in Poland in 1944, turning 80% of the city to rubble, Hitler shed crocodile tears, blaming the Russians, French and British for the fate of the Poles. Putin does the same by pounding Ukrainian cities, blaming the West and NATO. Despite multiple rationales on both sides, this is a war for supremacy over Eurasia, and China sees benefits in this new Cold War.

For India, it is as much about principles as it is about interests.

This column first appeared in the print edition of March 28, 2022 under the title “Chinese Ladies”. The author is a board member of the India Foundation

Back To Top