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The ridge to nowhere

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on August 04, 2017
Tiger meets the dragon: Bilateral trade today stands at close to a fifth of India’s total foreign trade. China is also a substantial investor in India. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Tiger meets the dragon: Bilateral trade today stands at close to a fifth of India’s total foreign trade. China is also a substantial investor in India. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt   -  The Hindu

Cut the cord: In a bid to embolden India’s stand against China, RSS has often called for the boycott of Chinese goods that have flooded Indian markets.

Cut the cord: In a bid to embolden India’s stand against China, RSS has often called for the boycott of Chinese goods that have flooded Indian markets.   -  Reuters

The confrontation with China at Doka La signals the resurgence of security anxieties that seemed long banished

A month after India and China locked eyeballs in the Himalayan vastness, top officials in Delhi’s foreign policy establishment called in news analysts and reporters — including several retired diplomats now active in media commentary — to urge restraint. A mood of public bellicosity had built up, which played on the familiar theme of China as an implacable foe of India’s rise to global eminence.

The confrontation at the Doka La ridge was portrayed as a piece with China’s disturbing policy of expansionism into the Indian Ocean, its menacing territorial encirclement of India through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and its continuing coddling of the truculent western neighbour.

Nerves were not settled one bit when China soon afterwards concluded a billion-dollar deal to buy over a controlling stake in the Hambantota port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The port offers a transit and trans-shipment point for China’s trade and investment ambitions in the African continent, West Asia and beyond. It was part of the Sri Lankan government’s infrastructure building effort as the country’s brutal quarter-century long civil war drew to a close, and offered China a channel to plough back the surpluses earned being the workshop of the world. At some point, inevitably, Sri Lanka found that the economic burden of debt that came with its infrastructure plans was beyond its capacity to bear.

India stated its reservations up front as Sri Lanka yielded ownership of Hambantota, and trade unions within, irked at the unwelcome reprise of a 19th-century imperial practice, called a nationwide strike. But the Sri Lankan government brushed these aside in a broad stroke of the argument of economic pragmatism.

As the bitterness mounted, surrogates of the ruling party in India began an accustomed political refrain: pragmatism would necessarily have to yield to strategic interest. Bodies associated with the ruling party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), have often called for the boycott of Chinese goods. Official agencies have likewise sounded frequent security warnings about Chinese-sourced products and technology in sectors such as telecom, power and transportation.

None of these has gained traction since the power that China deploys out of its growing hoard of dollar denominated assets, sweeps everything before it. This is best symbolised by the sponsorship deal over that symbol of nationalist pride — the Indian men’s cricket team — that Chinese phone manufacturer Oppo secured in March this year, after beating out another Chinese bid.

What really gives between India and China? From negligible beginnings, China overtook the US as India’s largest trading partner in 2008. Bilateral trade today stands at close to a fifth of India’s total foreign trade. China is also a substantial investor in India.

Political dialogue in contrast, has languished. A Joint Working Group (JWG) set up in the wake of the 1986 visit to China of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has met intermittently, but with negligible forward movement. This track of dialogue was set back immensely by the rhetoric that followed India’s nuclear tests in 1998, which named China as a strategic threat necessitating a credible deterrent.

Analysts of India’s security doctrine have identified three kinds of anxieties that have in large part moulded it: the McMahonian and Radcliffian (after the British bureaucrats who respectively, laid out the borders with China and Pakistan) and the Kashmirian (arising from the circumstances of that region’s accession to India). As long as Pakistan existed in two wings on India’s western and eastern flanks, these three anxieties merged in a nightmarish scenario. A Pakistani military incursion to seize Kashmir, it was feared, could occur alongside an operation coordinated with China to cut off the Siliguri corridor, the narrow territorial strip through which India accesses its north-eastern states.

Altruism and democratic commitment have generally been read as the leitmotifs of India’s war for the liberation of Bangladesh. Equally important perhaps was the compulsion to end the possibility of this manner of coordinated military assault. It was never a risk-free enterprise, which is why Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1971 prepared for India’s military master stroke by concluding a treaty of “friendship and cooperation” with the Soviet Union.

The merger of Sikkim in 1975 seemingly administered a final quietus to anxieties over the Siliguri corridor. Subsequent efforts at establishing a new compact with Kashmir’s leadership, notably Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, built upon these accomplishments.

The confrontation at Doka La signals the resurgence of these anxieties and the potential for their merger in an acute neurosis. It is a curiosity of the current confrontation with China, that even commentators who believe India completely justified in entering territory it has no claim over, deny that Doka La could be staging post for any manner of a strategic threat to the Siliguri corridor. That leaves India with no justification, except possibly the questionable one of imposing its will upon tiny Bhutan.

The Himalayan kingdom which by all rights should be the sole aggrieved party by Chinese actions on Doka La, has been silent, except for one statement that broadly endorsed India’s stand. Bhutan’s continuing allegiance though, cannot be taken for granted. There is a distinct possibility that like Sri Lanka, it may succumb to the temptations of pragmatism, rather than stick with the rigidity of dogma.

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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Published on August 04, 2017
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