New Delhi – Recently a commentary in The Japan Times titled “India’s appeasement policy toward China unravels” questioned India’s policy toward China. India and China have many outstanding issues including border disputes, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and China’s close security ties with Pakistan against India’s interests.
That India and China have had an uneasy relationship since the 1950s is well-documented. China’s military takeover of Xinjiang and Tibet in 1949 and 1950 forever blurred the historical boundaries. The freshly minted People’s Republic of China steadily encroached on large tracts of Indian territory in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh leading to the border conflict in 1962 in which China occupied more territory.
In the halcyon days of the 1950s, Indian pronouncements were blithely laced with calls for fraternal bonds between the world’s two most populous countries. India supported China at the United Nations when the latter was pilloried as the aggressor on the Korean Peninsula. India even lobbied to have China represented on the U.N. Security Council. Preoccupied with global causes such as chairing the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in the Korean War and co-founding the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence at Bandung, India was blindsided by a militaristic China.
Meanwhile, China was inching forward to usurp Indian territory. After China moved into Tibet, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, a nationalist politician, presciently warned Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter of Nov. 7, 1950, of China’s vacuous “professions of peaceful intention.” On Nov. 9, 1962, the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a young leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, one of the smallest opposition parties, lamented in a parliamentary debate that even 15 years after independence, the nation’s soldiers had not been equipped with automatic rifles or proper uniforms. During the 1950s, India had reduced its defense budget even though it was staring a belligerent China in the face. It had a telling effect during the hostilities in 1962.
Ironically, India was among the first to recognize Tibet as a part of China in 1954 through the short-lived "Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India." India did not object in 1965 when China created a rump Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by lopping off historical Tibetan lands and published maps that claimed Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. Yet, China brazenly adopted double standards when India carried out internal constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir through the repeal of Article 370 in August 2019, itself a bold and unprecedented decision.
Successive Indian governments have countenanced an aggressive China. Emboldened by its heady economic rise in recent decades, China has sought to alter the status quo along its periphery, both terrestrial and maritime. Its unilateral attempts to redraw boundaries in the East and South China Seas are reminiscent of tactics long practiced along the border regions of India. The Chinese military presence, growing infrastructure and territorial advances are entrenched features of its policy that pre-date Modi’s ascendance to power. What is different today is India’s firm resolve to strengthen its armed forces and empower them to deliver a robust military response if provoked. This is exactly what happened in the Galwan valley, where Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives to thwart Chinese designs. In recent years, Modi’s thrust on development of its own infrastructure along the Indian side of the LAC appears to have rattled China.
As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi endeavored to expand trade and economic ties with China in keeping with the imperatives of globalization. Upon assuming office as prime minister in 2014, he opened the doors of the Indian economy to global trade and investment to boost economic growth and potential. Discounting the impact of the COVID-19 scourge, FDI flows into India rose 13 percent to a record $49.97 billion in the financial year 2019-2020, up from $44.36 billion in the previous year. Economic ties with China have also rapidly expanded, but a historically weak domestic manufacturing sector could not keep pace, setting the stage for a ballooning trade deficit with China. Other countries too face this dilemma. Both Japan and the United States have strong economic ties with China with large trade deficits.
The implementation of an electronic visa facility for Chinese travelers to India, as well as for visitors from elsewhere, was aimed at enhancing business and people-to-people ties and building a developmental partnership. Issuing electronic visas is an international practice, subject to standard verification procedures. Moreover, it is the least likely to lead to a repeat of an earlier situation that prevailed a decade ago when India’s tourist visa was routinely exploited by Chinese companies to dispatch unskilled labor for infrastructure projects.
Modi has regularly engaged President Xi Jinping even though it is the Chinese premier who is nominally his counterpart. This has raised India’s leadership profile vis-a-vis China. The informal summits with Xi at Wuhan and Mamallapuram have facilitated one-on-one conversations without the strait-jacket of choreographed meetings. Modi did some plain-speaking with Xi on the border face-off with China in Chumar in 2014, which unfolded even as he was playing host to him in Ahmedabad. The standoff at Doklam in 2017 clearly underscored a new resolve on India’s part. It has succeeded in preventing any unilateral changes to the location of the sensitive tri-junction with Bhutan.
In 2014, India reminded Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi through its doughty foreign minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, that the new government supported the one-China policy, but it also expected China to reciprocate with a one-India policy. Those words take on a new significance today. The global response to the constitutional change effected in Jammu and Kashmir last August suggests that the world has increasingly taken note of the one India policy.
As in the 1950s, China remains wary of India’s position in its rapidly deteriorating ties with the U.S. Its mistrust of Japan runs deep, with historical schisms barely cloaked by the recent diplomatic thaw. But the reality is evident in the growing Chinese incursions in the Senkaku Islands where matters are bound to come to a head one day. Today, India and Japan are sailing on the same boat. Like India under Modi, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reviewed its vulnerabilities and strengthened its defense. India and Japan have a strategic partnership and both have a growing convergence of interests with the U.S. and Australia in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. India’s rising profile in the Indo-Pacific and defense logistics pacts with several countries have led to unease in Beijing.
It takes courage to wage war but it takes even greater courage to wage peace while protecting national interests. Modi and Abe have demonstrated that they can pursue peace in earnest but would never compromise on the defense and security interests of the nation.
Sujan R. Chinoy, a China-specialist and ambassador of India to Japan from 2015 to 2018, is currently the director general of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.