There are complex relationships, and then there is one that India has with China- not in the binary of agreements and disagreements but convoluted in shades of grey. Until 2015, the most demonstrable achievements of Prime Minister Modi’s first term in office were in the domain of India’s foreign policy. However, over the last few years, and especially the past few months, a series of missteps in Pakistan, Nepal and Maldives have raised questions about the sustainability of this record. One thread running across these cases has been India’s proverbial Achilles heel- relations with China. India’s handling of China during this government’s tenure has varied from a firm and resolute to the very recent- appeasement.
The 72-day long Doklam stand-off along the Sikkim border was one of the major hindrances in India-China relations in the recent years. It brought the forces of the two countries face to face. India was praised for its handling of the standoff as it stood up to the more powerful neighbor, forcing a climb-down. The standoff alone has not been the sole reason for escalating tensions, India’s growing support for an active United States in the Indo-Pacific area, combined with its alliance with Japan and Australia over the controversial South China Sea area have further provoked tensions. Added to this complex mix, are China’s constant support for Pakistan and for anti-India sentiments in Nepal. Over the last few weeks, however, reports have emerged of a radical shift in India’s stance towards China. An Indian Express article indicated that the Indian Government had sent out an advisory to high ranking functionaries, directing them to stay away from events that might be perceived anti-China, in particular, those organized by the Tibetan community. This was followed by the Central Tibetan Administration- the executive wing of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India- canceling two major events in the national capital, New Delhi. All this is making many wonders if the elephant is finally capitulating to the might of the dragon. But before we address this question, a little case by case analysis of the events concerning Tibet, Nepal and the Maldives would be useful.
The 14th and Current Dalai Lama.
Tibet- The Leeward Side of Freedom
One of the major sources of tension between India and China has been Tibet. It became a flashpoint when the Dalai Lama- Tibet’s spiritual leader- was granted protection in India in 1959, along with tens of thousands of his disciples, who were escaping Chinese occupation. The Tibetan community in India has since lived relatively peacefully in enclaves across the country, primarily in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama himself resides, and in the national capital in New Delhi. The people have been advocating freedom for Tibet and have often staged protests, including self-immolations outside the Chinese Embassy and at major events where China is involved.
Although Dalai Lama gave up his support for Tibetan independence in 1974, he continues to highlight the undemocratic and violent machinery of the Chinese state in Tibet. His mass spiritual appeal, with followers across the world, make him a formidable threat to the Chinese in their attempts at legitimizing their hold over Tibet. This has also caused a crisis over the current Dalai Lama’s successor. Tibetan custom dictates that a successor is identified by a person designated as the Panchen Lama, after the death of the incumbent Dalai Lama. However, the current Panchen Lama (the 11th holder of the title selected by the current Dalai Lama) was taken away by Chinese authorities 1995 and has since not been seen. In his place, the Chinese authorities carried out a state-sponsored ritual to select a different person who currently performs the duties of the Panchen Lama in Tibet, against the wishes of the Dalai Lama. This means, that after the 14th Dalai Lama passes, China could interfere in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. It is for this reason that the Dalai Lama has renounced any possibility of his reincarnation, making him the last Dalai Lama.
A missing poster for Gendhun Choekyi Nyama- The 11th Panchen Lama appointed by the 14th Dalai Lama.
Gyaincain Norbu (R)- The 11th Panchen Lama appointed by China.
Given this background, with the upcoming visit of both Sushma Swaraj (India’s Foreign Minister) in April and Prime Minister Modi in June, the Indian Foreign Secretary advised senior leaders and government members to not attend the “Thank you India” function designated for celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight to India, being hosted in Delhi by the Central Tibetan Administration. Many have postulated that this could have been India’s change in tone could be an attempt to nudge Chinese acquiescence for listing Masood Azhar on a UNSC list of terrorists. Azhar leads the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a UN-designated terrorist group operating out of Pakistan. He is also an important figure in the politics of the country making him valuable to the state apparatus, and blocking India’s moves to corner him is China’s way of supporting it’s all-weather friend- Pakistan. Azhar is accused of carrying out several attacks against India, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks and a diplomatic admonishment of Azhar and Pakistan at the UN would be politically invaluable for Modi at a time of tense elections scheduled in India throughout 2018 and 2019.
The Maldives- An Island Lost
The Maldives, an island archipelago in the Indian ocean is in a period of political turmoil since President Abdulla Yameen declared an emergency. The emergency was declared in response to a Maldivian Supreme Court order to release nine imprisoned opposition politicians, on the ground that their trials were politically motivated and flawed. This led to the arrest of the Supreme Court judges and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been an opponent of President Yameen. The opposition, led primarily by exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed blamed China for backing President Yameen. Former President Nasheed, currently in exile in Sri Lanka, went as far as to call for Indian intervention to save democracy on the island.
Maldives is strategically located on the Indian Ocean and has long been a zone of influence for India. In the late 1980s, India mobilized its troops in an operation designated ‘Operation Cactus’ to save President Gayoom from a coup initiated by Tamil militants with support from Sri Lanka based erstwhile LTTE. Back then, India’s steps have lauded the world over and there was no match for India’s stronghold in the region. However, since President Yameen took office, China strategically developed deeper relations with the country. Today, Maldives is part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, against India’s wishes, it also braved India in a dispute over an airport development concessionaire to an Indian private sector conglomerate- GMR. Furthermore, over the last few years, China has come to own vast swathes of real estate in the country and very recently, the Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement with China after a suspiciously quick approval from the Parliament. Despite its longstanding relationship, India and Maldives have no Free Trade Agreement till date.
President Abdullah Yameen with President Xi Jinping.
While the emergency has been lifted, the tensions seem to be far from over. The present government Maldives doesn’t seem to be as transparent about their deals with both China and Pakistan as the previous governments have been. A recent visit planned by Pakistan’s military chief was not discussed with India, by President Yameen, in a break from historically established convention. Despite this, India squatted an opportunity to intervene and establish pro-India President Nasheed or Gayoom in the country. Furthermore, by refusing to intervene, India seems to have bolstered Chinese appetite for meddling in other countries that India has regarded as its backyard.
Nepal- The two mountainsides
Perhaps no Indian relationship has seen a bigger slide than that with Nepal. When PM Modi came to power in 2014, one of his first visits was to Nepal, which had been in process of developing a republican constitution for more than half a decade. Back then, Nepal was promised Indian aid and advice but with respect for Nepal’s sovereignty. As the constitution drafting process got underway, fissures in Nepalese society began emerging over the drawing of provincial borders. The Madhesis people, who share their ancestry with India and reside primarily in the Terai region on the border with India were keen to ensure their place in the Parliament. On the other hand, the people of the hilly regions wanted to assert their dominance and alleged Indian interference in the process. The relationship nosedived after the five-month (September 2015- February 2016) long blockade with supplies from India into the interior of Nepal being blocked. Nepalese politicians alleged that the blockade was a result of India’s propping up of the Madheshi tribes, while India denied the allegations. The blockade caused severe shortages in a country that was reeling from the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. This led to the shift of public opinion towards stronger ties with China which allowed Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli to defeat the pro-India Nepali Congress.
Prime Minister KP Oli of Nepal (L) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L).
As late as 2008, China rebuffed Nepali Maoists who had sought its aid to hedge against India. It famously retorted, “There are two sides of a mountain, you should know which side you are on.” However, with the series of missteps in 2015, India left the door open and the dragon seized the opportunity. China made its presence felt in Nepal in 2016 when it tacitly backed KP Sharma Oli for Prime Ministership. PM Oli responded by joining China’s Belt and Road Project and opening the country to Chinese investments. Since then, the relations between China and Nepal have blossomed. KP Oli’s victory under the new constitution this year has given a further boost to the ties between the two countries and spells bad news for India’s attempts at controlling the narrative in its backyard. To add insult to the injury, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Nepal in 2018- the first foreign head of state to visit the country under PM Oli’s new term. Furthermore, Pakistani Prime Ministers are not frequent visitors to the hill country and this only accentuates the narrative of a larger Indian encirclement by China.
The Trampled Elephant?
In this background, India’s recent shift in stance has been noteworthy and could be criticized as being timid. An Indian official was recently quoted by the Indian Express as saying in the context of Maldives,
“We can’t stop what the Chinese are doing, whether in the Maldives or in Nepal, but we can tell them about our sensitivities, our lines of legitimacy. If they cross it, the violation of this strategic trust will be upon Beijing”.
This is perhaps the most direct admission of inability to control the flow of events ever presented by India. Analysts and policymakers the world over have been confounded by the change in narrative. The ramifications of the same are far-reaching. If policymakers arrive at a conclusion that India has lost the appetite for standing up to China, it could risk losing support from Japan, Australia and the United States, who would then begin to minimize losses by fortifying themselves in the South-China Sea region, which is of more immediate concern to them. This would not just be restricted to physical military movements, it would extend to arms deals and international diplomatic support as well. For India to continue to attract support, it will be important that it displays a willingness to act as a balancing power in the region- and fortunately or unfortunately for India, there is no candidate for this role. Japan suffers from an aging population and a slowing economy, Russia neither has the ability to confront China nor the congruence of interests with the west to form a meaningful partnership, while Australia does not possess the military or economic potential that India has on offer, even if its geographical remoteness is overlooked. India is perhaps the only candidate in Asia that can aspire to and has the ingredients for reigning in Chinese ambitions.
The recent change in stance must, therefore, be looked at from this perspective. Indian leaders are surely aware of these advantages they possess and the ramifications of their actions. It is therefore likely that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Perhaps, India is wary of the massive infrastructure build-up that China has been able to accumulate on its side of the land border with India. It could also be that the elephant feels increasingly lonely and without a reliable ally. Russia, which had been India’s fail-safe buffer until the late 2000s seems to be increasingly dependent on China owing to Western sanctions. It has also opened channels of communication and military relationships with Pakistan, something that had never been done earlier. An absence of a reliable Russia would explain India’s insecurity over its military arsenal. As one of the largest military suppliers to India, Russian reliability is crucial not just for new technology, but also for consumables such as ammunition. This would explain why over the past few years India has been frantically opening military procurement channels with Israel, Canada, USA, and France among others. Maybe, the generals are telling PM Modi something we don’t know, yet…
By Palakh Dutta and Prashant Khurana
This article has also been published in Polemics and Pendantics Magazine.