By Indrani Bagchi
The atmosphere in the room was slightly tense. Not angry or sullen, just uncomfortable, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping faced each other in Xiamen, the caterwauling of Doklam still echoing in their ears.
Both leaders of big powers with thousands of years of statecraft behind them, they crested that particular wave together and engaged in “forward-looking” discussions. We might have another border agreement/ understanding, which will be good only until the next crisis pops up, which it will, because China’s expansion hunger is not easily satiated.
For ten weeks, India and China provided a rare spectacle for the world. By the end, the number of ringside spectators had grown exponentially. The resolution, when it came, brought with it life hacks for every country with a China-sized challenge.
It’s possible to deter China, by almost Gandhian means albeit 21st century style. It’s possible for a non-Chinese narrative to prevail, especially if it is borne out by history, international law and an ability to see through the Chinese game. There is a new template out there for different countries to use as they deem fit, if they seek to tame Chinese expansionism. As Shyam Saran says, a China-centric world is not inevitable, it can be successfully contested.
And some clearly are contesting it. While our attention was trained on a windswept plateau, Botswana’s President Ian Khama thumbed his nose at Beijing over Dalai Lama and declared “we are not a colony of China” – Beijing had threatened to recall its ambassador if Dalai Lama set foot in Botswana. German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel shocked Europe when he accused China of trying to “divide” EU by paying off individual countries where they are major investors, for example Greece and Hungary.
He may also have been referring to Spain – which bent over backwards and amended its laws to throw out human rights cases by Tibetan litigants. And last week, Beijing threw a diplomatic fit when Indonesia renamed its sea the North Natuna Sea – areas China claims under its “nine-dash line”. That issue comes even as Singapore, in an unprecedented move, threw out Chinese academic Huang Jing for alleged lobbying for China.
The Brics declaration naming Pakistan and its terror groups was a bonus – though one suspects that had less to do with India and more to do with China’s own irritation with Pakistan on terrorism – remember, in Astana, Xi refused to meet Nawaz Sharif after two Chinese were murdered in Pakistan. China has grand plans for Pakistan, from agriculture, tourism, pipelines, power, etc. Pakistan’s proxy terrorists, including the ETIM, running tame are not part of that plan.
Moreover, as a result of the new Afghan policy, if Trump’s US populates Pakistani skies with attack drones and surveillance aircraft, it would put China’s nose seriously out of joint. In all the years America has begged, threatened, paid Pakistan to kick the terror habit, American economic interests were not involved. China is getting into the weeds, literally, which will affect how Pakistan lives and thinks, and prays.
On the other hand, a Kim Jong Un running riot is fine for Xi. As long as the Americans don’t attack, China remains an important player, and everybody else is off kilter. Xi is essentially playing the same card Pakistan did for 15 years – running the Taliban in Afghanistan while positioning itself as the only broker of peace. This strategy has a definite sell-by date. China is playing master puppeteer on many fronts, but it’s unclear how many Xi will win.
Notwithstanding all this, Doklam could have turned out very differently, and we could have been licking our wounds. Chinese commentators rightly said “China is five times India’s size”, and unlike India they have not been wasting their time. Even if they did not physically attack in the eastern or western sector, China has enough tools to incapacitate India – a high quality cyber attack, perhaps on the Aadhaar ecosystem; an anti-satellite attack to immobilise Indian communications … the list can go on.
Every crisis is an opportunity. India should not let a good crisis go waste. Doklam has notched up a big achievement – the average Indian is now convinced China is an enemy. This is actually China’s biggest loss vis-à-vis India. It would have taken years to get Indian companies, states, entities to sharpen awareness of the dangers China poses. Doklam has done that in two months.
Anecdotal evidence shows growing numbers of companies reviewing their China-buy decisions, state governments becoming more vigilant, etc. It’s interesting the government accepted the Shekatkar committee report on military modernisation soon after Doklam, recognising the dangers of its present attitude.
What will be more important would be to opt for joint development of defence equipment with Japan, as suggested by the just completed defence dialogue – it’s time to look beyond the US-2, and turn the strategic convergence into reality. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be here next week, all eyes should be on that visit.
Bhutan should get a lot more Indian attention because, in some ways, we owe Bhutan. Bhutan has made its own strategic choice, we should be worthy of it. So stop the meaningless bickering over rupees and hydro projects. Time to invest big in Bhutan.
Watch Wolf Warrior 2, China’s Rambo flick breaking box office records. Wu Jing, the Chinese Rambo, personifies the new China – willing and able to inflict costs on those that thwart it. India played a sophisticated game in Doklam. It needs to keep playing it.
Times of India, September 8, 2017