China is not only a much bigger, richer, more populous, and powerful country than India, but enjoys one more significant political and diplomatic advantage. It does not have to worry about democracy, dissent, human rights, or even decency, when it comes to enforcing its interests. It can, as one astute commentator observed, “bluff, bully, bluster,” and one might add, misbehave its way into achieving its geostrategic objectives. Many of its victories, in keeping with Sun Tzu’s dictum, are won without firing a single shot. Now at Doklam, the high-altitude tri-nation junction of China, Bhutan, and India, we find ourselves locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff. What is the way forward?
China has unleashed a barrage of nearly 150 recent write-ups that not only brand India as the aggressor, but warn of dire consequences, including war, if India doesn’t withdraw. China uses aggressive media campaigns, disinformation, cyberattacks, and a host of other low-cost but high-outcome techniques, constantly to assert its often untenable or unjustifiable claims. The recent record shows that it has achieved much more than any other great power has, without losing men, material, or money, through such hard and soft diplomacy. For instance, in less than a decade, it has built and militarised thousands of acres of real estate in the South China seas, giving it unprecedented ascendency in the area.
Rather than complaining about its methods or resenting its successes, India should carefully study and try to understand them. One of our problems is that since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, India has always worried about its image in the world. Its intention has been to occupy the high moral ground rather than fight for its rights or needs. India supported China’s entry into the Security Council of the United Nations though it was not to our advantage. That didn’t stop China from invading us. Nehru’s moralising was only seen as a weakness and delusion; it hardly secured any real benefits for India.
Morality, when not backed by real power, is usually seen as weakness. It has taken us decades to correct course, to inject a level of realism into foreign policy. This new-found hardheadedness is reflected in our swift and decisive intervention in Doklam. After all, our own security interests are threatened by the proposed Chinese road. We have intervened and pre-empted the Chinese ploy. China is smarting over being thus out-manoeuvred. It wants us to withdraw unilaterally. Else, it threatens to out-gun us to take revenge. Should we be cowed-down?
Our problem, which is actually a long-term advantage, is democracy and dissent within the country. As soon as we decide to take tough measures, we have our native detractors raising a chorus of protest. For instance, newspaper headlines have quoted Asaduddin Owaisi as saying, “China has said it has reduced the number of soldiers (at the Doklam border in Sikkim). Why is the government keeping quiet on that?” Another report, this time by the CAG, saying that we are not adequately prepared. The release of such information at this time can only weaken our morale, if not resolve, making us more susceptible to China’s intimidation. But the strength of democracy is precisely the culture of freedom and debate. It can empower us much more than dictatorial resolve. At least we must hope so, since we have no other choice.
Our newly found friendship with the distant US hasn’t helped much in our present dispute with China. Nor has our moving away from our only reliable and time-tested military ally, Russia. Though Russia is no longer a superpower, have we made a mistake by not according the primacy that our time-tested partnership deserved? After all, we have nothing else to counter China in our neighbourhood, given that Pakistan and China have a closer alliance than ever before. Is it time, therefore, to course-correct?
Without succumbing to China’s ‘psywar’ (psychological warfare) or giving up on our strategic objectives, India must strive to rebuild good relations which China. Escalating conflict suits neither of us. This China knows. Being the most pragmatic, it is also the wisest great power in the world. Our two civilisations have not fought a single war for 5,000 years, barring Chairman Mao’s exception in 1962, which the Chinese themselves would not like to repeat.
India must accord China the respect due not only to a great power but great friend and ally. China, in turn, should accept the inevitability of India’s ‘peaceful rise’ in the world, rather than trying to block it. That would be the way forward for the benefit of both our countries, for regional stability, and peace in the world. Prime Minister Modi has shown the way by using Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging platform, to reach out to the Chinese people after the earthquake in Sichuan province.
China must give up plans to attack or humiliate India. There are no bitter lessons to be taught on either side. If, on the other hand, it does choose to attack us, as some hawks have predicted on or about 15 August, our Independence Day, our defence, if not retaliation, should be strong, hard, and befitting.
The author is a poet and Professor at JNU. Views expressed are personal.