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11/06/2020 7:45 AM IST | Updated 11/06/2020 12:29 PM IST

Modi Govt Has Many Reasons To Stay Mum On China: Expert Explains

It won't be easy for India to push out China's forces if Beijing does not agree to withdraw them, says JNU professor Happymon Jacob.

AFP Contributor via Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Fujian province on September 4, 2017.

The Narendra Modi government has come under severe criticism from the opposition for being tight-lipped about India’s stand-off with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). 

Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor at JNU’s Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament at the School of International Studies, told HuffPost India in a telephone interview that the Indian government may have chosen to stay mum on the situation because it would be a loss of face for Prime Minister Modi and may disrupt trade ties with China, which was India’s largest trading partner till 2017-18.  

According to a source-based report in The Hindu, the situation at the border had been building up since late April and there were clashes between the two sides at Pangong Tso and at Naku La in early May. But senior journalist Coomi Kapoor wrote in The Indian Express that alarm bells started ringing only on 17 May in India. 

“This looks like a repeat of Kargil, when India was caught unawares during an intrusion. While it’s a huge border and difficult to man, what is concerning is that it looks like an intelligence failure,” said Jacob. 

The stand-off may have been triggered, analysts told Al-Jazeera, by infrastructure activities carried out by India along the LAC. Sources also told PTI that the trigger was China’s opposition to India laying a key road near the Pangong Tso Lake and the construction of another road connecting the Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie road in Galwan Valley.

Both countries have been trying to resolve the situation through military and diplomatic level talks, which defence minister Rajnath Singh described as “positive”.

Meanwhile, Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent remark at a virtual rally that “the world was made to realise that encroaching upon India’s borders is not a child’s play”, combined with his statement in Parliament last year on Aksai Chin, shows that he is taking a more hardline approach to China, Jacob said. 

Jacob, whose most recent book was Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India–Pakistan Escalation Dynamics, also said that it won’t be easy for India to push out China’s forces if Beijing does not agree to withdraw them.

Edited excerpts:

1. Why do you think both India and China have remained mum on the stand-off? Both countries have officially only said that talks are going on and they are committed to resolving the dispute peacefully.

One of the reasons both the sides have chosen to keep a tight lid on the situation is because publicity on what is happening at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) can be costly for both India and China, especially the former. In India, given all the chest-beating around national security and national interest by the BJP, it will be a loss of face for Prime Minister Modi and the party if the government acknowledges that Chinese have entered the territory, which is this side of the LAC.

I think this calculation about the costs of adverse publicity is making the government hesitant to explain what is really happening.

The two sides, I think, will choose to speak only when the issue is resolved and both the countries have reached a final deal. The government can, through its friendly media sources, claim victory without letting the country know the details of the encroachment or the deal reached with China. Those who question the government narrative will then be termed as someone who is working against national interest and questioning the Indian armed forces. On the other side, China will also claim victory.

I think there is another reason why the Indian side has kept mum. Despite the fact that China may be India’s biggest strategic challenge in the years to come, Beijing has deep business roots in India. If India publicises what is happening on the LAC, there will be calls to disrupt trade relations with China and that will impact the business community. When the economy is flailing and unemployment on the rise, you can ill afford to lose the trade with China.

China-bashing has no domestic political utility in India. China plays very little role in the electoral context of India, unlike Pakistan. That’s another reason why I think the government has kept mum.

2. Isn’t India trying to move away from its trade dependence on China, given the recent FDI changes? 

Yes, there will be a diversification and newer trade partners. But doing business with other countries is not as easy as doing business with China because products coming from China will be cheaper, it’s next door. 

I don’t think it’s possible to disrupt trade relations with China, certainly not in the shorter term. 

3. Indian leaders, especially those from the BJP, are usually happy to do chest-thumping and rabble rousing when it comes to Pakistan. Why is this not the case with China? 

There is a lot of domestic political utility in bashing Pakistan. Islamabad is seen in the larger Indian imagination as the immediate challenge. Trouble in Jammu and Kashmir, the firing on the Line of Control (LoC) is taking place because of Pakistan and there is also the element of terror. 

Unlike with China, with whom we have a trade relation, there is no trade happening with Pakistan. 

Pakistan is also a militarily weaker country than India so it’s easy for India to carry out a limited military strike and get away with it. But that can’t happen with China because Beijing is far superior to India in conventional military terms.

What is likely to happen is that China may ask for some concessions from India in exchange for withdrawing its forces

4. What do you make of Amit Shah’s cryptic statements at his virtual rallies? Bringing up Uri and Pulwama, he said, “The world was made to realise that encroaching upon India’s borders is not a child’s play”. While some interpreted it as an indirect warning to China, he made similar statements last year as well (see here). 

I agree that Amit Shah’s statement is an indirect reference to China. He is the one who made the statement about Aksai Chin in August last year. If you see both these two statements together, it shows that Shah is probably taking a more hard-line approach vis-a-vis China than his colleagues in the Modi cabinet. I am, however, unsure whether that is on purpose and if it is a well thought-out strategy

5. While the military build-up reportedly began in April, India officially addressed it only in May. Why do you think there was a delay?

It was not the government that brought this issue to our notice. News about military build-up or an incursion has not been brought into the public domain by the government. What information we have has come through journalists and their sources. Even today, the government has not given us the full story. The government only released clarifications or statements after journalists broke the story. 

This looks like a repeat of Kargil, when India was caught unawares during an intrusion. While it’s a huge border and difficult to man, what is concerning is that even the intelligence agencies failed to detect it. 

6. You wrote for The Hindu that Amit Shah’s statement on Aksai Chin could have triggered anxiety in Beijing. Since he made the statement in August, do you think tensions between India and China have been building up since then?

It’s important to understand China’s grand strategy for the region and what’s happening now is not entirely a result of what happened in August last year. 

China has a strategic interest in this region. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which India has opposed in the past. There are also allegations of Chinese soldiers being present in PoK. The statement about Aksai Chin and the infrastructure construction near the border have also irked China. This should all be seen from a broader Chinese strategic rationale. 

7. VK Singh said the activity at LAC could be China’s way of creating a distraction from its mishandling of Covid-19. What do you think is the reason they initiated this stand-off now?

There can be several proximate reasons. One can be, as VK Singh said, the distraction that China wants and the heat it is facing today internationally on the handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Another proximate reason can be the heat it is facing with respect to Hong Kong. China may be signalling that it can handle the pressure from multiple fronts. That said, it is important to consider the larger strategic rationale.

8. How do you view Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between India and China?

I don’t think even the State department in Washington DC, let alone Beijing and New Delhi, takes it seriously. It will probably irk China more than India because by offering to mediate, Trump has put both the sides at the same level.

9. Chinese media, specifically state-controlled Global Times, has taken a more aggressive approach on the border issue. It has warned India against being instigated by the US or looking at China through a US lens. More recently, it said in an article that “by asserting itself with recent conflicts with China on its border, India may hope to shape more pressure toward China from the international community—in particular from the West”. Are Delhi ties with Washington another reason for the stand-off?

American analysts and leaders have been making statements for some time now that India should help contain China in the region. The quad — India, Japan, Australia and US — has been seen by China as a strategy to checkmate Beijing. 

The argument about India being a major actor in the evolving game to checkmate China has been made for a long time now.

10. How do you think this stand-off can be resolved? What is the way forward for both countries?

What is likely to happen is that China may ask for some concessions from India in exchange for withdrawing its forces. If the assumption is that India’s infrastructure construction was the immediate trigger for the stand-off, which would put China’s assets on the border in a vulnerable position at certain points, China may identify these points and ask India to not build infrastructure on its side of the LAC. It’s possible that India will agree to such a demand. 

As far as military options are concerned, it won’t be easy for India, which is a weaker power, to push China’s forces out if Beijing does not agree to withdraw. The other option for India is to go for a tit-for-tat land capture on the Chinese side of the LAC elsewhere. There are certain areas which are not defended by China or where China is weak along the LAC, so India can try and gain territory in these areas. 

People have also been talking about the importance of the quad for India. India can strengthen the quad, try and look for other trade partners and reduce the dependence on China. These are the ways of responding to the Chinese aggression. 

11. The Lower House of Nepal’s Parliament has unanimously endorsed a proposal to consider a second amendment to the Constitution to validate the new map, which includes Indian territory. What do you think India’s strategy is in dealing with Nepal? That country’s Foreign Minister has asked why can’t Delhi talk to Kathmandu when it can talk to Beijing. 

Modi government came to power with a promise to improve relations with our neighbours. We are now looking at our neighbourhood policy in complete doldrums. I think it’s time India reaches out to its neighbours, particularly Nepal. The less India talks to Nepal, the more Nepal will get closer to China.