A lot is going on at India’s northern borders. Arguably the worst stand-off between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian forces in decades in Ladakh has entered its 11th week. While de-escalation has happened at a few points following several rounds of talks, there is still heavy military build-up by both sides near the border. Then there is Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend and a perpetual source of nuisance at India’s north-western borders, committing frequent ceasefire violations. Interestingly, a new neighbour has started creating trouble for India. Nepal has unilaterally changed the status-quo of three disputed areas by altering its map to include them. In doing this, Nepal has disregarded all previous talks and has sent a strong signal to India at a time when it is engaged in a serious stand-off with China.
China has a long-standing history of territorial disputes with as many as 17 countries, on land and water. It has been an aggressor ab-initio. India itself is not new to border stand-offs with China. Every time it has hoped that the economic interdependency will dissipate the short-term flare-ups. However, the situation India faces today is somewhat different. It is facing border tensions with 3 out of its 7 land neighbours, and at the centre of all this aggression against India is China and its hegemony in the region. China is also trying to woo Bangladesh by offering lucrative trade deals. Opportunistic as China is, it has already announced multi-billion dollars’ worth of investments in Myanmar in the face of Myanmar’s recent fallout with the West. That makes it 5 out of 7 land neighbours for India! Then there is Sri Lanka where China has made huge investments in Hambantota Port for its maritime silk route initiative. And let’s not even get to the influence that China exercises on non-neighbouring countries through its debt-trap diplomacy. Regional dominance aside, China has routinely advanced the anti-India narrative at the global stage and has cooperated with Indian adversaries at various levels.
The billion-dollar question then arises – whether India has failed in its Foreign Policy, particularly its China Policy? In the ensuing paragraphs, let us try to answer this question. A brief history of India-China relations in the next few paragraphs would do well to set up a context.
Evolution of Indo-China Relations
Historically, the Indo-China relationship has been that of co-operation and conflict. There have been issues, most pertinent being the territorial issues at multiple borders, but largely the countries have cooperated. After India attained its independence in 1947, the leaders were quite clear in their strategic priorities. Centuries of British exploitation had left the country poor and vulnerable. Development became the priority and the Indian leadership recognized the need for Western support if India were to emerge as a formidable power. At the same time, the importance of a stable neighbourhood could not be underestimated. Relations with communist China had to be maintained and nurtured. After being dominated for so many years, there was also an underlying will to remain independent from foreign powers and influence. This marked the genesis of an independent foreign policy of India. To their credit, the Indian leaders recognized the opportunity to absorb the best practices of the east and the west, and benefit from positive relations with both. Under the leadership of Pandit J.N. Nehru, India, along with a few newly formed countries, decided to follow ‘the policy of non-alignment’ in the backdrop of a growing cold war.
India and China started on a good note. India became one of the first countries to recognize the newly formed People’s Republic of China and establish its diplomatic relations there in 1950. India also supported China at various international fora and even favoured its admission in the United Nations at a time when most of the countries held a negative outlook towards China. As years passed, India saw the growing US favouritism for Pakistan and felt the need to develop better relations with this powerful neighbour. The countries signed the historic Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, emphasizing mutual non-aggression and peaceful co-existence. In this agreement, India accepted Tibet, which was annexed by China in 1950, as an integral Chinese territory.
In 1959, there was an uprising in Tibet which was brutally crushed by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama fled to India, which gave him refuge. This was followed by a period of violent skirmishes at disputed border areas until 1962, when the Chinese army attacked and invaded India. Nehru was shocked as his stance against China was betrayed, and the Panchsheel, the Bandung spirit received an irreparable blow. Completely unprepared, India was run over by the Chinese army in a matter of weeks. The war lasted for a month and ended with a new Line of Actual Control in place. An important outcome of this war was birth the of China-Pakistan friendship, as Pakistan ‘gifted’ thousands of disputed Kashmir areas to China in a 1963 agreement.
Understandably, there were not many developments in the post-war period. In fact, there was another Chinese infiltration, this time in the Sikkim area in 1967. This time, India got the better of China as it successfully pushed it back. This was a big psychological win for India and it was the last time that there were casualties in an Indo-China border tussle, until the skirmishes in Ladakh in 2020. Meetings between India and China resumed on various issues when Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then External Affairs Minister visited China in 1979. Then in 1986, the Chinese made incursions into the disputed areas of Arunachal Pradesh and there was another stand-off. Nevertheless, India granted statehood to Arunachal Pradesh in 1987 to the displeasure of the Chinese. It was a bold decision given that China had acquired nuclear capabilities by then and India had lost a war with China not very long ago. The tensions ended after several bilateral visits and rounds of talks.
Indo-China relations continued on a positive trajectory after that. Several agreements– such as the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquillity on borders, the 2003 Strategic Partnership, the 2010 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement – were signed to bring peace and stability to the region. An important milestone worth mentioning was when China recognized Sikkim as an integral part of India in 2005, in exchange for full Indian recognition of Tibet as a part of China.
India’s Foreign Policy in the backdrop of Modern Indo-China Relations
Before the ongoing Galvan valley stand-off in Ladakh, there had been no major border issues between the two countries in the 21st century, except the Doklam stand-off. Even the Doklam stand-off was resolved peacefully. However, India has been continuously facing new kinds of challenges in its dealing with China. Beijing has been actively using its soft power against India and its sovereign interests at various international fora. China has raised the Kashmir issue (on behest of Pakistan) in the UN multiple times, attempting to embarrass India by advancing a false, anti-India narrative. China has repeatedly blocked the UN Security Council’s 1267 Committee’s proposal to ban Masood Azhar, the alleged mastermind of 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Since 2009, China has blocked four such proposals to ban the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief.
As a part of its One Belt One Road initiative, China ambitiously planned to build the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passing through the disputed POK in utter disregard to India’s objections. China does not even shy away from using its economic might to clutch smaller countries into its debt-trap, and then influence their foreign policies in its favour (and against India). What better example to consider than Nepal’s. It is no secret that the sitting PM in Nepal (belonging to the Nepal Communist Party) is heavily influenced by China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Nepal’s fragile government was reportedly saved from collapse by the intervention of the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal.
Post this, the Nepal PM has attacked India on multiple issues, ranging from blaming Indians for the spread of COVID in Nepal, to passing anti-India legislation. The state of maturity of the Chinese diplomacy becomes evident as China bullies India and other nations by routinely issuing threats through its state-owned media outlets such as the Global Times. The Chinese wolf-warriors make irresponsible statements on Twitter and other social media platforms disregarding the basic courtesy that diplomats must exhibit.
While China continued to take such steps against Indian interests, top leaders of both the countries regularly visited each other and cooperated at various multilateral Institutions like the SCO and the BRICS. What was remarkable during this time was the two-faced nature of China and India’s unwillingness to acknowledge or address it. Indian foreign policy remained extremely defensive. Even when China was raising the issue of alleged Human Rights violations in Kashmir at the UN Security Council, India did not hit back by coming out in support of Taiwan, Tibet, or Hong Kong. It strictly adhered to the One China Policy and restrained from interfering in what it considered as China’s internal matters.
India even turned a blind eye towards the alleged genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in the Chinese Xinjiang province. While the Western powers came out openly in the support of human rights of people in China and the areas it claims to be its parts, India kept mum to avoid angering the dragon. Even during the pandemic, India did not officially blame China for COVID when the rest of the world was doing so. To avoid crossing China, India did not support Taiwan’s entry into the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May 2020.
These are just a few examples of Chinese diplomatic aggression against India and India’s defensive posture. China has routinely acted against Indian interests whenever it has got a chance. And India has just tried to appease China by giving in to its desires and requests. Being inferior to China both militarily and economically, India always believed that it had limited diplomatic space and tried to avoid confrontation to the maximum extent possible.
India’s China Policy
India’s foreign policy towards China can be described as an appeasement. Britannica encyclopaedia describes ‘Appeasement’ as a foreign policy of pacifying an aggrieved country through negotiations to prevent a war. In the Indo-China context, it essentially meant never angering China and giving in to whatever it desired and requested, hoping to keep it calm. The appeasement policy dates back to China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950, and the subsequent signing of the Panchsheel Agreement in 1953-54. According to this agreement, India accepted Tibet as an undisputed part of China to advance peace and stability in the region, without negotiating for any border concessions in return. China subsequently disputed most of the peace agreements signed between India and Tibet and laid claims on thousands of kilometres of land on the Indian side.
Has the appeasement policy against China run its course? The fact that the Chinese have acted against the Indian interests and even continue to do so today indicates that it most certainly has. The most skeptical lot would also concur after looking at the developments in Ladakh today. The more India has tried to appease China, the more China has taken its advantage and increased expectations from India. It also appears to view the unsettled border as a leverage against India. China has been pushing India for far too long, and India has been ceding to its desires almost every time.
It is high time that India realizes this and rethinks its onerous foreign policy. Appeasement would have been an appropriate policy in a different time, perhaps when India was relatively less powerful, or if India had a sensible neighbour in China. Today, India may be an inferior military power to China, but nonetheless, it is a military superpower. And there is no reason to fear and accept the unjust Chinese terms. True, economically India stands far behind and has a huge trade dependency on China, but one should remember that the Indo-China trade is a mutually beneficial one and China benefits immensely from its trade surplus in exporting to India.
The appeasement policy is not only detrimental to Indian interests but also flies right in the face of Indian sovereignty and national pride. Inherent in such policy is also a risk – a risk of degrading the diplomatic ties with those countries at whose expense India supports China. The dilemma is that while India is reaching nowhere with China in appeasing it, Indian diplomatic ties with other countries are getting sabotaged. This shows explicitly when India does not support Taiwan in its bid to reserve a seat at the WHA despite the small island nation’s magnanimous gesture of sending face-masks to India and explicitly requesting for support. The allies such as the US have repeatedly requested India to stand up to China, which India has so far been reluctant to do. And there can be several other examples.
Even after getting so many wake-up calls in the form of Chinese aggression, New Delhi refused to wake-up. China has run over India and its interests again and again, and no change in this pattern has been observed since last many years. Given the Galvan valley stand-off in Ladakh and the events that have transpired since its beginning, the government seems to have finally realised the pressing need to change India’s China policy. There has been huge public anger over the killing of Indian soldiers at the border and this has translated into a bid to punish China economically. People are actively boycotting Chinese products.
While the longevity of such a movement is uncertain, the government has taken a hint and made some policy changes against the Chinese economic incursion in India. In a series of actions, the Indian government has put in place restrictions on investment from Chinese companies, and has banned 59 Chinese apps from the Indian markets on national security grounds. Following in the footsteps of several Western powers, it has banned state-run telcos from using Huawei and ZTE products for 5G rollout and trials. Some state governments have also suspended contracts with Chinese firms.
At a time when anti-China sentiments are at their all-time high in the country, a swift change in India’s China policy would go a long way in serving Indian sovereign interests. India needs to come to terms with the new geopolitical realities of the world. Appeasement of China should certainly stop and India should consider following an aggressive posture, mirroring that of China’s. An aggressive China policy would also send a strong message to China. If terror and talks cannot go hand in hand with Pakistan, why should Chinese aggression and Indian concessions to China go hand in hand?
India has more than sufficient avenues for exercising an aggressive China policy. It could start with the most obvious, i.e. raising voice against the Chinese aggression against its own people and the rest of the world. India could join the rest of the world in raising concerns for genuine issues such as human rights violations in Xinjiang, HongKong, and Tibet at important forums such as the UN. Recognizing and supporting Taiwan and Tibet as independent countries should also be explored. The US has already passed legislation in support of both Tibet and Taiwan and India can follow in its footsteps.
India should actively try to cut trade ties with China. Replacing China with its neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and other ASEAN nations, which are equally tired of Chinese aggression, would serve a dual purpose. It would reduce India’s dependence on China and at the same time, empower disgruntled Chinese neighbours. This can be supplemented by actively pursuing and completing the stagnated weapons-sale to Vietnam and other Chinese adversaries. China keeps threatening India against making such sales as it could ‘create disturbance in the region’ when it itself makes huge weapons sales to Pakistan regularly. India needs to stand up for its interests, and take steps to ensure a proper balance of power in the region.
There is also a need for India to set its own house in order. When the Chinese are banning Indian news networks in China, Chinese diplomats in India are writing editorials and columns in leading national dailies. The media freedom in India to the Chinese should be accorded on a strict reciprocity basis. Appropriate restrictions need to be in place to prevent the Chinese media from spreading lies and propaganda in India. The role of Chinese investments and firms also need to be limited and discouraged in building up of Indian infrastructure. Knee-jerk reactions such as non-clearance of Chinese imports by customs should be avoided. Instead, India needs to live by the principles of self-reliance. Economic assistance should be provided to boost manufacturing in the country. Huge dependence on China accords limited flexibility to Indian foreign policy. Economic dependency on China must be reduced as the foreign policy of a country is not independent of its economic policies. India needs to hit China where it hurts the most. If data is the new oil, the ban on 59 Chinese apps for alleged violation of data privacy is a good start. Similar steps in this direction are bound to affect China and its ambitions.
India is becoming an increasingly important power for the rest of the world. It is well-placed to counter China’s growing influence in the region and the world at large. The Western world is looking favourably towards India. While India has been restricting itself out of the fear of China’s disapproval, it is high time that India increases its engagement with its allies – be it military or otherwise. Quad, an anti-China bloc consisting of the US, Japan, India, and Australia can be leveraged by India for this purpose. India should increase joint military exercises with various allies especially in areas of Chinese dominance, such as the disputed South China sea. Going a step further, defense partnerships with allies should be deepened with provisions for military technology transfer. India has already taken the right steps in this direction by entering into defense agreements with the Quad countries. India should also leverage its space exploration prowess for joint military reconnaissance and missile development with its allies.
At a time when anti-China sentiments are high worldwide due to the pandemic, India should play a more active role in mobilising opposition against Chinese aggression. The policymakers however need to be careful to not alienate other friendly Eastern powers, such as Russia, in this process. Alignment with Western powers should carefully be balanced as India has strategic interests in nurturing its long-standing ties with Russia. India is dependent on Russia for its defense equipment and there is no doubt that Russia is ideologically closer to China. The future of India’s foreign policy will have China at its core, but the ability to balance relations with the US and Russia will largely determine its success.