India-China Ties: Rest in ‘Pieces’, Mahabalipuram Spirit!

“Words don’t matter to China. Even at the highest levels, commitments are made lightly,” writes Vishnu Prakash.

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“Words don’t matter to China. Even at the highest levels commitments are made lightly,” writes Vishnu Prakash.
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During the second informal Mahabalipuram bilateral summit (11-12 October 2019), President Xi Jinping said something sensational – “We must hold the rudder and steer the course of China-India relations, map out a hundred-year plan for the relations from a strategic and long-term perspective, inject a strong endogenous impetus into bilateral relations, and work together to realise the great rejuvenation of our two great civilisations (emphasis added).”

Little surprise that the engagement was deemed successful and termed “Chennai Connect” on top of the “Wuhan Spirit” which had all but perished at the altar of the the UNSC.

On Pakistan’s behalf, China had sought to get India censured for amending the temporary provisions of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution (on 5 August 2019) according a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. China too had opposed Ladakh being made a Union Territory, despite India’s clarification that her external boundaries or territorial claims remained intact.

“Great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is the grand vision/dream that President Xi has spun for his nation. To bracket India with China was nothing short of seismic. And it was not a slip of tongue since it was carried by Xinhua on 13 October. The remarks did not get sufficient play in India or China, by accident or design, and mercifully so. Because the Chinese disposition towards India is the mirror opposite!

What History Tells Us

Strobe Talbott, former US Deputy Secretary of State, observes in his book Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, “There’s China, which treats India with total contempt... ”

Delivering the VP Dutt memorial lecture at the ICS (Institute of Chinese Studies) on 7th of this month, former foreign Secretary Shyam Saran observed that China regarded “India as a teacher by way of negative example -- a case study of what not to do. Indians were considered lazy and soft. India was viewed as a fallen power which buckled without a fight to the British. That after independence India joined CHOGM betrayed her slave mentality.”

Contrast it with India’s behaviour! There is now circumstantial and archival evidence that the UNSC seat was indeed offered to India by the US in 1950 and by the USSR in 1955, writes Ambassador Rajiv Dogra (India's World: How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy).

Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the then India's Ambassador to the US, wrote to PM Nehru in August 1950: "One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a permanent member in the security council and India being put in her place".

The Indian prime minister replied saying interalia, “So far as we are concerned, we are not going to countenance it. That would be bad from every point of view. It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China”.

Why did he discard the first and most important principle of diplomacy that your national interests are supreme, wonders the author! All the same, at Mahabalipuram, the Chinese President did not raise the Ladakh issue. The joint statement in fact reiterated the understanding of the two leaders that “efforts will continue to be made to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas, and that both sides will continue to work on additional Confidence Building Measures (CBM) in pursuit of this objective”.

Within months, China had amassed troops along the LAC. On the night of 15/16 June, twenty Indian soldiers lost their lives while defending the Indian territory in the Galwan valley. Forget the promised additional CBMs, all gains and agreements of the preceding three decades were trashed by China.

What led to the 180 degree turn from Mahabalipuram to Ladakh? Why did President Xi say what he did, if the real intent was to mount an aggression on India? Clearly it was in the works even prior to the Mahabalipuram engagement.

Words Don’t Matter to China

The Chinese foreign office spokesperson disingenuously stated on 13 October, “China doesn't recognise the so-called ‘Ladakh Union Territory’ illegally set up by India or the ‘Arunachal Pradesh’. For a while, the Indian side has been stepping up infrastructure building and military deployment along the border with China. This is the root cause of tensions.”

The reality is that words don’t matter to China. Even at the highest levels, commitments and statements are made lightly, only to be forgotten or recanted.

During his first state visit to the US in September 2015, President Xi looked Obama in the eye and said, “Relevant construction activity that China is undertaking – (in Spratly Islands) – does not target or impact any country and there is no intention to militarise.” On ground China was furiously engaged in setting up missile batteries and other offensive capabilities.

By the same token, foreign office spokesperson Hua Chunying asserted on 1 September: “China never provoked any war or conflict and never occupied an inch of other country’s territory. China border troops always strictly abide by the LAC and never crossed the line.”

While the real motive of the Ladakh misadventure may or may not surface in due course, it appears that the Chinese side wanted to cut India to size, convinced that she is a ‘weak’ power.

In the past India appeared to have blinked when challenged by the Chinese. For example, India downplayed the April 2013 incursion near Daulat Beg Oldi, with the then Minister of External Affairs terming it as 'acne' that could be addressed by "simply applying an ointment". However, they were in for a surprise this time.

The ‘lazy and soft’ Indians gave a taste of their own medicine to the Chinese with the pre-emptive action on 29/30 August in occupying strategic heights in the southern Pangong tso area. India also started inflicting economic/diplomatic costs on China besides exposing Chinese perfidy to the world at large.

China has been forced to hit the pause button in order to re-examine its strategy. The Chinese President is riding a tiger and is apprehensive of dismounting. Meanwhile the Chinese stock is at the lowest ebb the world over and a pushback has begun, even if a majority of the nations are hedging their bets. India is on the right track in continuing with a dialogue while digging in to handle any eventuality.

(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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