Written by Prathit Singh
Research Associate at Law & Order
The Heritage School, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The geopolitical scenario in Asia has always been influenced majorly by the balance of power between two of Asia’s largest influencers –– India and China. Although the economic relations between the two countries have been closely interlinked, Sino-Indian relations have seen spurs of conflict as well as cooperation, over time. As Alka Acharya (2014) puts it, “The yin and yang of India-China relations may be stated in terms of a paradox: on one hand, there is a visibly expanding and deepening multi-level engagement and a remarkable increase of trade, and on the other hand the low-level of mutual trust and confidence. The mistrust most noticeable pervades the strategic communities on both sides, resonating in public perceptions as well as the Indian media, which interrogates China’s actual intentions and stresses the areas of competition within a framework of rivalry and conflict of interests”. Ever since 1962, the territorial tensions and an unending quest to establish hegemony over Asia have governed a large part of Sino-Indian relations.
Over the years, the disturbances over the Sino-Indian borders have continued over disputed territorial claims and occasional military standoffs between the two powers. However, an increasing attitude of appeasement has been repeatedly observed from the Indian side that has mainly sought disengagement from China instead of de-escalation over border disputes (Chellaney, 2020).
The root of China’s expansionist tendencies over frequent territorial claims and military standoffs, especially over the recent years can be traced to its idea of Chinese sovereignty and warfare as was elucidated in early 2013 when President Xi Jinping linked sovereignty with the accomplishment of his ‘China dream’, proclaiming that no foreign country should expect China to trade away its core interests or expect China “to swallow the bitter fruit” of encroachments upon its sovereignty. The impact of this idea has been evident in China’s action towards its neighbor (Fravel, 2020). Furthermore, since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice: “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” He further stated that all warfare is based on deception. The Indian idea of warfare completely contradicts the Chinese ideology. India’s idea of warfare does not adhere to de-escalation or ending hostilities through demobilization of forces, but rather prefers disengagement or appeasing the opposite power by creating buffer zones.
This gives China more leverage in terms of territorial gains (Chellaney, 2020). Another factor seen in the Sino-Indian conflict is that economically, the impact of such conflict is hardly visible because Sino-Indian relations no longer follow a sequential (normalization after resolving a dispute) approach. Since then Rajiv Gandhi years, the relations between the two countries have been guided by a simultaneous approach of normalized trade and cooperation even during a conflict (Acharya, 2014).
The attitude of Indian appeasement towards China has been visible over the years, regardless of the Chinese attitude towards Indian issues. An instance of this historic appeasement has been the fading hope of Tibet. While India felt a degree of responsibility towards Tibet and considered giving refuge to the Dalai Lama as an obligation, China considered this as an Indian intervention in its internal matter (Bajpai, 2015)(Garver, 2001). However, instead of upholding this responsibility towards Tibet in accordance with international law, India chose to give up on its obligations for the sake of Chinese appeasement. Under the Vajpayee government, India recognized Tibet as a part of China, thereby not just losing the hope of Tibetan people and shuddering from its moral responsibility but also losing its ‘Tibet card’, that could have perhaps been used to negotiate with China on the border agreement, considering China’s presence at the Indian border was through Tibet. Appeasement towards China with regard to Tibet also reached a new height when in early 2018, the Indian Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi halted any official contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile (Chellaney, 2020).
The Indian appeasement in the case of Tibet is not only a part of larger irresponsibility but it is also a miserable failure considering how in comparison to India, China constantly meddles into Indian internal affairs vis-a-vis Kashmir, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. China has long supported ‘self-determination’ in Kashmir and had even seen the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution as a violation of China’s sovereign interests, as well as a violation of bilateral agreements to maintain peace against the background of the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ (Pant, 2019). The Chinese behavior of interference in India’s internal matter is not just confined to Kashmir. At the time of Sikkim’s integration into India, the Chinese media labeled the event as a ‘naked annexation’. The granting of statehood to Arunachal Pradesh also resulted in a military standoff at Sumdorong Chu (Acharya, 2014).
At the same time, instances of Indian appeasement are not just limited to the issue of Tibet. While India became the first non-communist nation to recognize the People’s Republic of China, thus initiating the ‘One China Policy’, New Delhi has been extremely hesitant and cautious towards maintaining relations with Taiwan. The policy of appeasement has been so evident towards China that the 2018 Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee report on Sino-Indian Relations noted that India had strangely shied away from cooperating with Taiwan, whereas Taipei and Beijing continued to maintain active trade and investment ties despite their political disagreements (Rajagopalan, 2020).
These instances clearly portray how a failed Indian appeasement has been leading to a stronger China that in turn is posing larger challenges to India and its security.
Not only does the Indian attitude of appeasement come with a cost to India's hegemony in South Asia, but it may soon impact the attitude of its neighbors towards New Delhi as well. The standoff between India and China in 2017 in the Doklam plateau was one such instance where India’s responsibility as the de facto protector of Bhutan was lost to China, due to India's appeasement-oriented approach. The disengagement and withdrawal that came into effect after the 73-day standoff led to the permanent establishment of China’s presence in the plateau, only leaving the face-off point-free (Menon, 2020). While the Indian Prime Minister cherished a propaganda victory, India definitely lost the confidence of its close ally –– Bhutan. Thimphu was pushed to establish closer relations with Beijing as the standoff established a loss of faith in India. The appeasement saw no end there, as the standoff was also followed by a spectacular show of an apparent ‘Wuhan Spirit’ with Prime Minister Modi proposing and China relenting to an ‘informal bilateral summit’, the very same year (Chellaney, 2020). Perhaps another display of this spirit in October 2019 in Mamallapuram (The Hindu, 2019), led to the recent military standoff in Ladakh which led to casualties on the Sino-Indian border for the first time in years.
For its neighbors, the Indian appeasement to China has also exposed its weaknesses, thus also emboldening India’s long-standing allies like Nepal to move towards China, make unprecedented claims to Indian territories, and directly challenge its South Asian hegemony.
Over such turbulent times with all attempts being made by India’s neighbors to draw out the hegemonic advantage of its position, the Indian diplomatic stance towards China needs a serious shift. Perhaps it is time for India to end its silence and draw out strategic advantages by molding situations to its favor. While this may involve taking emboldening steps towards China, for instance refurbishing the ‘Tibet card’, ending neutrality on aspects such as the growing Chinese control over Hong Kong and the South China Sea, and showing a more assertive stance vis-a-vis Taiwan under the ambit of the ‘Act East Policy’. This might be a better way to handle the Chinese threat. Deterrence by playing on China’s weaknesses might be the only way to re-establish India’s authority over the growing Chinese leverage. For example, there was a unilateral Chinese withdrawal from Ladakh, that came into effect a few days after India voiced its opinion on the disturbances in Hong Kong at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the banning of Chinese owned mobile apps (The Indian Express, 2020)
With a ‘cold peace’ prevailing between India and China presently, it remains yet to be seen if India switches to status quo ante or switching its if it abandons its policy of appeasement to stand up for the larger cause of upholding peace in Asia by strategically opposing the expansionist and oppressive ‘bully’ of Asia –– China.
1. Acharya Alka; 2014, The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy edited by David M. Malone, C. Raja Mohan
2. Chellaney Brahma; 2020, China may win, without fighting. The Hindustan Times https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/china-may-win-without-fighting/story-4M3g3EhhwmYlxKRMxc7GUN.html?fbclid=IwAR3HOjH4LmFa1tKYkZfqdP6NJ0QR9WEkD4303DX2x2z-5lJv2mb3Hmoeiuc
3. M. Taylor Fravel, 2020, China’s Sovereignty Obsession. Foreign Affairs https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-06-26/chinas-sovereignty-obsession
4. Chellaney Brahma. 2020. China Throws Down a Challenge to India. Open Magazine https://openthemagazine.com/cover-story/china-throws-down-a-challenge-to-india/?fbclid=IwAR0QitIeDUoB_jA8TS-Q-kuN4nVXkxnxVzTloqZiWDaAUwhWVmjkNcu_xqQ
5. Kanti Bajpai. 2015, The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy edited by David M. Malone, C. Raja Mohan
6. Harsh V. Pant. 2019. The China Challenge. Observer Research Foundation
7. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan. 2020. Calls for India to play the Taiwan card grow louder. Observer Research Foundation https://www.orfonline.org/research/calls-for-india-to-play-the-taiwan-card-grow-louder-69530/
8. Menon Shivshankar. 2020. India-China ties will be reset after the LAC stand-off. The Hindu
9. Modi- Xi Informal Summit- Key Takeaways. The Hindu. 2020 https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/step-by-step-on-india-china-lac-stand-off/article31782064.ece
10. After banning Chinese apps, India raises Hong Kong at the UN. The Indian Express. 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/after-banning-chinese-apps-india-raises-hong-kong-at-un-6485891/