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Nirmala effect: Notwithstanding signs of thaw, India must prepare for assertive China
Updated:Oct 12, 2017
 
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Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s unscripted interaction with Chinese border troops during a visit to Nathu La has drawn praise from several quarters in China. The friendly exchange is being hailed as a sign of normalisation of bilateral ties after the tense 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam. That episode was defused by end of August through a coordinated withdrawal from the dispute site. This allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the Xiamen Brics summit.
 
Against this backdrop, Sitharaman’s interaction with Chinese soldiers makes for good PR. However, that should not lull New Delhi into complacency. Reports have emerged that Chinese troops have amassed behind the face-off site in Doklam and widened an existing road in the area. Although the Indian side has denied any change in the status quo established in August, it’s clear that Beijing will continue to press its claims over Doklam and possibly test Indian positions at other places along the Line of Actual Control.
 
China’s rising economic profile has been accompanied by a narrow focus on what it considers to be its national self-interest, to the exclusion of all other considerations: indeed it is arguable that China’s 19th century style projection of power is responsible for the wave of hypernationalist populism that grips the world today. Indian foreign policy must respond to this challenge on its doorstep with a difficult balancing act: it must simultaneously signal flexibility and willingness to negotiate a win-win solution (as Sitharaman did), alongside preparedness to play the long game (as the Chinese do) and firmness on its red lines.
 
New Delhi must shore up its strategic position by building border roads and infrastructure, as well as by making progress in ties with Bangladesh irreversible. The latter will strengthen access to the northeast and thus relieve Chinese pressure on the Siliguri corridor through Doklam. But above all other considerations, the real game changer will be the economy. Not only does the fact that the Chinese economy is five times India’s enable Beijing to throw far more resources into the border faceoff, GDP growth is an ersatz religion in China. In that context, India’s economic slowdown in a context of global growth does nothing to make Beijing take New Delhi seriously. Given India’s low base, it should aim at a growth rate that is at least double China’s. Else Beijing will continue to hold the cards and outlast New Delhi in any strategic game.
 
 
 
 
 
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