How Can India & China Move On From Doklam? Easy: Soft Power
A focus on soft power in areas like trade can help both India and China treat Doklam as a thing of the past.
(India and China on Monday signalled an end, though not yet fully clear, to the three-month-long standoff in Doklam. The Ministry of External Affairs in a statement said the two countries have agreed to an "expeditious disengagement" of troops in the disputed border area. China, on the other hand, claimed the Indian troops have withdrawn, and that the Chinese would continue to patrol the Doklam region. The following piece – originally published on 29 July 2017 – is being republished in the backdrop of this development.)
Clearly, these being the trends, China’s obvious response to a rising India would be to limit or somehow derail its future economic and military trajectories.
In fact, Beijing has been making every move in recent years to block the arteries to slow or cripple India’s growth trajectory, as well as curb its growing international standing. Therefore, China’s sudden indulgence in war rhetoric would be clearly aimed at tying India down on the security front so that it is compelled to spend more on defence than economy.
The abrupt war rhetoric and belligerence on China’s part this time also seems to be a sign of confusion as to how it wishes to deal with India.
Young Chinese Not Buying Their Govt’s Hawkish Stance
The impression gathered on this author’s recent visit to China was that the Chinese were seriously worried about the implications of the current border standoff. Their willingness to reconcile the differences was glaring, as they also seek moderation to remove each other’s misperceptions. There was a noticeable admission of the role of media in creating exaggerated paranoia and tensions between India and China.
Privately, they admit that there are not many takers among ordinary Chinese, especially the younger generation, to the call made by certain hawkish official media against India in the Doklam stand-off.
However, India’s decision to be cautious, or its unwillingness to come out with details on the face-off may have given the Chinese the impression that India is in the wrong.
Reaching Out to China
- China’s sudden aggression over Doklam seems to be a sign of
confusion over how it wishes to deal with India
- India’s unwillingness to come out with
details of the face-off may have made Chinese think they’re in the right
- Chinese in favour of resetting the foundation
of the relationship to achieve a degree of ‘balance of interest’ instead of
‘balance of power’
- India must build a vast network of resource
contacts inside China either by economic means or through cultural penetration
- Government of India should consider opening multifaceted
Indian culture and trade centres in Kunming and Chengdu
Mutual Consensus Over Zero-Sum Game
An important impression carried home was that India was gaining considerable importance in Chinese thinking now, as they greatly expressed appreciation for India’s remarkable success in economic and social development. India’s rise is a reality for them.
The Chinese now tend to view India in the global power context to seek a common ground and push the future agenda, ie: protect the free trade and globalisation process necessary for sustaining China’s growth vis-à-vis the rising protectionist rhetoric in the West.
Yet, the key determining factors are the simultaneous ascendancy of both China and India that would result in a certain competitive relationship. As the two countries pursue strategic aspirations, there would be geopolitical contestation in areas considered their common zones of influence. Hence, the feeling among the Chinese was in favour of resetting the very foundation of relationship so as to at least achieve a degree of ‘balance of interest’ (by mutual consensus) instead of ‘balance of power’ (by zero-sum pursuit).
Keeping India Close, but Pakistan Closer
The broad impression gathered finally was that the Chinese were optimistic about seeking a strategic convergence with India, but at the same time they showed no interest in severing China’s strategic ties with Pakistan.
However, on India’s part, while it has sufficiently experienced various levels with Pakistan, ie: media, proxy war, cross border terror actions, diplomatic pressure, socio-cultural, psychological aspects et al, the same hasn’t been adequately experienced while dealing with the Chinese mindset as yet.
From India’s perspective, Pakistan is and will always remain the main adversary because that country intrinsically seeks to harm and bleed India. Whereas the issues with China are totally different, perhaps more in the form of problems.
India and China share certain mutual interests and concerns despite occasional friction due to prolonged unsettled border disputes.
In fact, there are actually no drivers for a serious conflict with China except for flare-ups like the present one due to misperception about each other’s intent.
Yet the relationship remains complex, competitive and full of contradictions. Perhaps it is also time for both the countries to bridge the prolonged geo-cultural disconnect experienced since the 11-12th century. As a result, our responses and actions vis-à-vis China has so far remained inadequate or perhaps impromptu by nature.
Know Thy Adversary
Possibly, we have been a bit complacent in our thinking about China. The Indian mindset in recent decades has been driven more by the rather ill-conceived and imprudent notion of putting our weight behind the Tibetan cause – which is going nowhere as its goal is not in sight.
Quite clearly, dealing with China can no longer be treated as ‘business as usual'. India needs to overcome the deficiencies and be aware of China’s thresholds, gain better confidence in gauging the Chinese mindset, especially how they bark with bite, their rhetoric, posturing and actions.
India needs to start building a vast network of resource contacts inside China whether by using the economic means or through cultural penetration. The opportunity for India to develop its own constituency inside China seems to be growing. The trend of Chinese liking for Bollywood movies and the popularity of Yoga is being described as ‘phenomenal’, which should be further harnessed through Indian commercial enterprises.
The practice in the past has been to be restrained while talking to our Chinese counterparts. Exposure to dialogue this time has triggered the suggestion that engagements with the Chinese need to be followed in a balanced manner involving academic, military, political and economic channels. A lot more needs to be done to enhance the scope of India’s engagement with the Chinese.
Capitalise on Popular Indian Culture
India certainly needs to be more proactive in building a body of good scholarship so as to have a better and more balanced understanding of China in all domains. This is essential to ensure better preparedness for facing unpleasant scenarios while dealing with China, the most important country for India to have relationship with in the future.
India should start having regional focus on China to begin with the immediate Yunnan province. Surprisingly, Chinese carriers are operating daily flight services from Kunming to Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mangalore. Surprisingly, the flight to Delhi carried its full capacity.
The Institute in Kunming suggested closer cooperation in the pharmaceutical industry. They talked about the growing popularity of Yoga, philosophical practices and Indian movies amongst vast sections of Chinese society. Given our geographical proximity to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, Government of India should consider opening multifaceted Indian culture and trade Centres in Kunming and Chengdu.
(The author is a former Ambassador. 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.)
(This is the second part of a two-part series on the Doklam border standoff. You can read the first part here, in which the author talked about Xi Jinping’s domestic compulsions.)
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