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Chinese lessons in diplomacy

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 12, 2013

    The Ladakh border incident in Sino-Indian relations is seemingly over. Diplomacy appears to have won. Salman Khurshid, the Indian external affairs minister, visited China where he met the top Chinese leaders and, at least for the time being, successfully diffused the tension. Even the Chinese media hailed the outcome of the visit. An official media commentary said that the two countries are “blazing a new trail for positive interaction”. The western media has been blamed for casting Sino-Indian relations in the mould of “strategic rivalry”. Giving a positive assessment of Salman Khurshid’s visit and underplaying the seriousness of the border incident, official Chinese media has called for a “new type” of cooperative partnership between the two countries.

    Following the visit, both sides seem to have made up and committed themselves to work towards the betterment of bilateral relations. Prime Minister Li Keqiang will visit India as scheduled. This being his first official visit abroad, it has a special significance for Sino-India relations.

    Notwithstanding the restoration of bonhomie and normalcy in the two countries relations, the uneasy feeling persists that all may not be well. After the Ladakh episode, the cloud of uncertainty will hover on the bilateral relations for a long time to come.

    Despite this seemingly happy ending to the sordid border incident, inconvenient questions persist. Why did the Chinese intrude deep inside Indian territory thus risking the very first official visit of the Chinese new prime minister to India? What did they gain by doing so? What message were they trying to send?

    According to media accounts of the external affairs minister’s visit, the Chinese told the visiting guest that both countries should continue to work together and handle their differences “properly”. Nothing wrong in that advice except that it came after the Chinese troops dug in the Indian territory for a good four weeks. It took several flag meetings and probably a threat of cancellation of the Chinese PM’s maiden official foreign visit before the issue could be resolved.

    There are several lessons for India in this stand-off. First, the Ladakh incident should be seen as an example of Beijing’s pressure diplomacy. China is becoming assertive towards its neighbours in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Now its assertiveness is showing vis-à-vis India as well.

    Second, China, quite clearly, will try to remain in the driving seat and in control of the situation. Its actions are calculated and calibrated. By first forcing the issue and then ‘resolving’ it at the time of their choosing, China has succeeded in putting India on the defensive and in a reactive mode.

    Third, the Chinese have the propensity to take calculated risk and would not hesitate to up the ante. Often, their opponents are left guessing. In the South China Sea and in the East China Sea, the Chinese naval ships aggressively patrol the area harassing even the powerful US navy. At the same time they respect firmness and at some stage India must show resilience.

    The fourth lesson is that the Chinese behaviour may seem irrational but it has logic which the opponents struggle to understand. While the Chinese intrusion into Ladakh, a few weeks before the visit of their PM, seems an irrational behaviour, the deeper reason could be to send across a wider message that they have an uncompromising position on the border issue. The adjustments like withdrawing of the troops are probably tactical. One might expect that during PM Li Keqiang’s visit the Chinese may make some new proposals.

    The world will probably appreciate India’s restrained response and mature diplomacy towards the incident, which otherwise could have escalated into a major showdown. But, how did the Chinese assess Indian response? Did the Indian response come out as firm and determined or did they assess it to be a weak response of a government distracted by numerous internal issues? Was the Indian response a coordinated one? Were the various options debated? What are the long-term implications of the manner in which the stand-off was resolved? This needs to be extensively debated based on authentic information. The lesson for India is that its responses should safeguard the country’s long-term interests.

    India cannot afford to be complacent in spite the fact that the issue has been resolved in a win-win manner, as the Chinese media claims. In fact, the Ladakh border episode will be regarded as a watershed in the bilateral relations. India is faced with a new reality of having to deal with an assertive China, which often sets the rules of the game. Knee-jerk response aimed at short-term palliatives is certainly not the answer. India needs to carefully assess Chinese intentions. Unfortunately, even after the recent high level contacts in Beijing, India will still have to ponder as to why the Chinese intruded deep into the Indian territory and dug their heels for such a long time. India will need to ensure that it remains an equal partner in the backdrop of growing power asymmetry between the two countries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.