SINGAPORE: For the first time since 1975, skirmishes at the India-China border have resulted in military casualties, marking a critical juncture in bilateral relations.
This is a key moment for the wider Asian region, with states keenly observing China’s behaviour and attempting to discern its intentions.
Yet, in his much-anticipated address to the nation on Tuesday (Jun 30), Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained conspicuously silent on China – focusing instead on COVID-19 and social assistance schemes.
It may seem like a strange omission, but the Modi government is treading carefully when it comes to this crisis with China, as it has domestic political implications.
THE STRONG BJP
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has historically been more apprehensive about China than the Congress party and it perceives the Congress and other “left” parties in India to be ideologically different to it and more sympathetic to China.
The BJP and other nationalist groups also blame India’s 1962 humiliating defeat to China on the Congress party’s naïveté and misreading of Chinese intentions.
When it was still in opposition in 2014, the BJP openly accused the Congress for the loss against China, based on a leaked copy of the classified Henderson Brooks report of India’s 1962 defeat which blames Congress and then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s failed strategy.
This stance was repeated after the most recent Chinese incursion when BJP's Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad took a dig at the Congress in a virtual rally that "it was no longer the India of 1962, and the country is led by a courageous leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not by the Congress".
Since the BJP’s sweeping victory in the 2014 general elections, the debate within India on China has taken a distinct turn.
In public discussions, many of the BJP’s supporters articulate the view that, unlike earlier administrations, Modi’s government will not capitulate to Chinese tactics in challenging India at the border as well as within South Asia.
Many Indian observers believe that China deliberately drags out its border issue with India and tests Indian resolve through these occasional incursions which also helps it achieve continued territorial expansion gradually.
Even within policy and academic circles in India, those who previously suggested that India and China can and should examine areas of mutual benefit became increasingly scarce.
Previously, it was believed that earlier Indian governments lacked the political will in their dealings with China. But this BJP government, in line with its domestic image and policies, is perceived to be more assertive and bold and could “stand up” to China too. Hence the change in the domestic narrative on China.
This public discourse helps consolidate the BJP’s image as a party that is decisive when it comes to defending India’s interests.
JAISHANKAR’S SUBTLE APPROACH
Meanwhile, within the government, Dr S Jaishankar’s influence has steadily risen – first, as Foreign Secretary in PM Modi’s first term and then, somewhat unexpectedly, as External Affairs Minister in the second administration at present.
Dr Jaishankar’s views on dealing with China can be discerned from his public statements since his appointment as Foreign Secretary and seem to significantly influence PM Modi’s approach to China. This approach consisted originally of three parts as outlined below.
First, there was the realistic acknowledgment that India and China are strategic competitors and the border dispute is a symptom of and not the cause of this strategic competition.
This strategic competition was also not based on misperceptions and thus will not be resolved merely through greater dialogue and exchange.
This did not mean, however, that India and China could not manage this rivalry and it was not inevitable that the two countries will engage in direct military conflict. Prasad himself revealed this approach when he added: “We [India] want disputes to be resolved peacefully.”
India, however, had to make its red lines clear to China and be prepared to act if these were crossed.
This approach was outlined in August 2019, when on an official visit to China, Dr Jaishankar outlined that both countries needed to ensure that “differences between us, if any, should not become disputes” and that the 2018 Wuhan summit between the two leaders had allowed “a deep, constructive and open exchange of views” and he “has seen the impact of that on bilateral relations since”.
Second, and related to the first point, it is believed that that China’s foreign policy is driven by the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) need to make sure its domestic legitimacy is intact and, thus, public criticisms of China or its foreign policy makes the CCP uncomfortable as it is also seen as a direct threat to the CCP’s domestic legitimacy.
Thus, the BJP government mostly refrains from public criticism of China as it feels that such an approach is counter-productive.
In fact, it appeared that the Modi government aimed to communicate Indian views personally at the highest levels, and away from the media, at the various Xi-Modi meetings.
In late June, in the aftermath of the death of soldiers at the border, Dr Jaishankar, in a virtual trilateral meeting between India, Russia and China, made the understated point that the world’s “leading voices” must “respect international law” and “recognise the interests of partners” without mentioning China explicitly.
This understatement was viewed by observers as a continuation of Indian quiet diplomacy with China even during an apparent crisis.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal remarked that Dr Jaishankar’s statement demonstrated that “our firmness of resolve to defend our sovereignty and security has been quietly expressed, without rousing public opinion against China’s unacceptable conduct.”
LITTLE SPACE FOR COOPERATION
Third, the government initially believed there was space, albeit limited, for China and India to work on smaller, niche issues together, including trade and investment in line with Modi’s goals for India’s economic development.
However, by the beginning of Modi’s second term, it became apparent that finding common areas of co-operation, even niche ones, was proving to be unrealistic.
Specifically, the earlier notion of possible win-win economic cooperation with China seemed increasingly unrealistic in the context of the huge trade deficit with China.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was a casualty of this shift in India’s approach to trade relations with China as it pulled out of signing the agreement out of concern that the deal will allow China to flood Indian markets with more of its goods thus worsening the trade deficit.
One key issue with pursuing this “managed messaging” policy towards China is how such reactions are implicated in the domestic political discourse.
Sections of the population supportive of the BJP have increasingly articulated their belief that the government will respond forcefully to any Chinese intransigence at the border.
In the first few days after it became known that Indian soldiers had been killed at the border, the Indian government was reticent in criticising China officially for having crossed over into territory under India’s administration.
Once again, this was informed by the notion that quiet diplomacy to defuse the situation would work better than issuing critical public statements against Chinese actions.
However, the domestic need for the BJP to assert its ability, in apparent contrast to earlier governments, to both call out and forcefully respond to seeming Chinese misadventures have weighed heavily on the Modi government.
As the government has inaccurately equated Pakistan and China, it now has to deal with a growing domestic sentiment advocating that just as the Modi government had “punished” Pakistan last year through surgical strikes for its role in housing terrorists that had carried out attacks on Indian soil, the same response should be meted out to China.
This will pose significant demands on the Modi government as it attempts to balance its approach to China against the assertive and muscular image it has cultivated domestically.
As the opposition Congress continues to insist that Modi should “condemn China publicly” and take “strong, quick action”, the BJP is in a bind.
It does not want to cede domestic space on which party is “stronger” on China – which could adversely impact the BJP’s political clout.
It also believes that its policy of quiet diplomacy with China is still the best strategy to pursue at this point.
This contradiction between domestic and foreign compulsions will pose a significant challenge for the Modi government and, as it figures out how to navigate this difficult terrain, expect that it will take longer for an amicable settlement to be reached between India and China.
Dr Sinderpal Singh is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the South Asia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.