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What Modi now needs to do with China

By B S Raghavan
September 01, 2017 08:49 IST
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'Modi and Xi can solve the India-China border problem in a single sitting by keeping the big picture before them, by sweeping away the cobwebs of the past, and by mustering a statesman-like spirit and a long range vision,' says B S Raghavan, the distinguished civil servant.

Indian border patrols along the Line of Actual Control that separates India from China

India has coyly described the basis of resolution of the nearly three month- long tense face-off with China at Doklam as 'disengagement understanding'.

China has been somewhat brusque in its official statement, claiming that the end of the face-off followed India's withdrawal of 'all its border personnel and equipment that were illegally on the Chinese territory to the Indian side'.

It has asserted that 'Chinese border troops continue with their patrols in the Dong Lang area,' and that 'China will continue to exercise its sovereign rights and maintain territorial sovereignty in accordance with the provisions of the historical conventions'.


Reading both texts together, it is not at all clear whether, as part of the deal, there has been a corresponding withdrawal of Chinese troops from the disputed area and whether China has specifically agreed to drop its plan for any road construction in the area.

Hence, it is naive on the part of the Indian media and even some regular commentators to go overboard hailing the outcome as a victory for India.

On the contrary, anyone familiar with the nuances and subtleties of the use of language in diplomacy will be left with the impression that India has agreed to withdraw its troops, in the fond hope, whether or not supported by some informal understanding, that China will reciprocate by reverting to the status quo ante, and not resuming its construction activity.

The arguments advanced by India's euphoric chest-thumpers are also disingenuous. None of them passes muster.

The first is that the Chinese position was vulnerable compared to India's which was at a higher elevation and capable of easily overrunning it.

They forget that China could effectively launch a diversionary attack at any other place of its choosing and put India in a spot.

The second argument derives from India's sense of self-importance, leading to the belief that China was eager to bring the face-off to an end as it was keen to avoid the embarrassment of India keeping away from the forthcoming BRICS meeting at Xiamen.

Again, this doesn't take account of the by now firmly established fact that China is almost paranoidal in safeguarding what it deems to be its core interests at the heart of which is its perception of territorial integrity and sovereign rights.

For all that it cares, India can go take a walk if it doesn't want to attend the BRICS meeting.

The third argument is even more far-fetched, namely, that China does not want the National Congress of the Communist Party of China scheduled for November to be overshadowed by the face-off.

Actually, in the estimation of those attending the congress, the face-off would be a feather in the cap of the Chinese leadership as proof of its stern and uncompromising stand by way of protecting its national interest; a military offensive by China would have in fact got a standing ovation from the congress.

Thus, China could have sat pretty and let India stew in its juice.

If anything, it was to India's interest that the impasse was resolved as early as possible.

Being already plagued by so many problems on the political, economic, social, internal security and overall governance fronts, it was woefully lagging behind in carrying out its development agenda.

Getting involved in any kind of confrontation with a country like China would have eaten into its vitals and left it financially and functionally crippled for a long time to come.

That apart, on another plane, any prolonged stalemate would have sorely tested Bhutan's patience, resulting in India's standing taking a hit in Bhutan's eyes.

In a sense, therefore, it is to the credit of India's political leadership that it deployed all its diplomatic skills to steer the back-channel negotiations with Chinese interlocutors to a culmination.

India deserves plaudits all the more for the reason that it kept its head while China was brashly going hammer and tongs against it.

In this perspective, it is pointless to waste time on finding out who blinked first or who won or lost.

There are no winners and losers in this sort of settlement; it is a win-win deal for both sides.

What is more important now is to find ways of building on the achievement to the best advantage of both countries. It is going to be a challenging task.

For one thing, it will be up against China's unyielding possessiveness in regard to any territory that it has decided to be its and the monumental hauteur and coarseness of its dealings.

All these traits and more were in full display in the official and media psych war that it unleashed in the run-up to the 'disengagement'. Even now, it is flaunting its utter insensitivity by seeking to project the deal as some kind of a climb down by India.

For another, constraining India to walk on egg shells is the fact that the interested party in this dispute is really Bhutan.

Till now, it has played its cards with admirable adroitness, observing extraordinary reticence and dignity. It certainly deserves rich tribute as the unsung hero of the whole drama and denouement.

It must be remembered, though, that Bhutan had already had some 32 rounds of talks with China pertaining to claims on both sides, exploring various options of exchanges of slivers of territories, including the Doklam bit.

India should on no account seem like playing the Big Brother, masterminding Bhutan's moves or taking Bhutan under its wings.

Any public expression by Bhutan of its disapproval of India's meddling with its independence will make India persona non grata of all the neighbouring countries for all time, and all the efforts so assiduously made by India so far to win their trust and respect will come crashing down.

Handling the aftermath of Doklam will thus require an enormous degree of sophistication and deftness.

What must be clear to the meanest intelligence is that China and India cannot afford to have recurrent spats and go through the same treadmill again and again.

It is no use pretending that groups of officials, going by whatever high-sounding appellations, will ever be able to untangle the tangled skein of the India-China border which had been ill-defined, un-demarcated and disputed from as early as the 19th century.

No amount of time spent on study of maps, delving into treaties, dissecting of minutes of discussions, or poring over proceedings of conferences will be of help in establishing or demolishing with finality whatever claims are made.

Also, there can be no definitive solution without give-and-take on either side.

No negotiations at any level below that of the president of China and prime minister of India, even if carried on till eternity, will ever dare to grasp what indubitably is a political nettle.

The agreement has to be at the level of the two heads of government. They can solve the problem in a single sitting by keeping the big picture before them, by sweeping away the cobwebs of the past, and by mustering a statesman-like spirit and a long range vision.

In this, Modi has before him the example of Richard Nixon who just upped and landed in Beijing one fine day and by linking arms with Mao, imparted a u-turn to US-China relations, performing a feat which was till then regarded as unthinkable and impossible.

The BRICS meet at Xiamen is a golden opportunity to broach the idea with Xi Jinping and Modi should grab it with both hands.

B S Raghavan is a former member of the Indian Administrative Service who held charge of the Political and Security Policy Planning Division at the Union ministry of home affairs and was a member of the Joint Intelligence Council.
He is the patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are his own.

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