Modi’s tentative bid to “reset” China policy
Although the Narendra Modi government’s China policy is linked to the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy, which defines China as an ‘enemy state’, recent developments in the disputed territory/border clashes between India and China and the setbacks that India has suffered have quickly exposed not only the weak foundations on which India’s policy stands, but has also forced it resort to a ‘reset’ mode.
The ‘reset mode’ has been activated despite the diplomatic support that the US has extended to India.
What this shows is that even with US help, India cannot force China into submission or even bully its neighbours into supporting the Indian stance on the disputed territory.
Thus, a reset becomes inevitable and also a strategic necessity.
In India, a reset has taken place at multiple levels. Within the domestic political arena, the Modi government chose an ‘All Party Conference’ (APC) tactic not only to build a ‘national consensus’ over China’s so-called ‘aggression’ in Ladakh and form a collective military and diplomatic response, but also to indicate that the erstwhile China policy has not worked for a regime that seeks to inspire its voters and expand its vote-bank with dreams of jingoistic Hindutva.
The fact that Indian soldiers, although loaded with the ideology of regional domination and Hindutva superiority, could not succeed against Chinese soldiers does mean a defeat for the regime not only in military terms but also in political terms. Hence, the need to ‘reset’ things, although the proponents of Hindutva still continue to drumbeat an aggressive policy vis-à-vis China, and demand a ‘strike back’ to avenge their dead soldiers.
The All-Party Conference, on the other hand, amplified the fact that not only can India not win a war against China, but that such a war could be catastrophic for India as well.
In this context, the APC was not meant to generate enough political support for the Modi regime to take ‘strong action’ against the Chinese, but to diffuse pressure on the regime and generate a narrative that focuses more on border settlement through negotiations and less on war, even a limited one.
Indeed, this was the underlying intent when Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, opened a political channel with his Chinese counterpart to find a ‘middle ground’ between the two countries and diffuse tension. This was done ahead of the recently held RIC (Russia, India, China) virtual conference.
While it might sound too much to contend that India’s foreign policy has taken an about-turn and that its leadership has suddenly woken up to the charms of regionalising its policies, there is no gainsaying that India’s participation in the RIC meeting was meant to keep the door for negotiations with China open and even get Russia to be a mediator.
At the same time, thinking counterfactually, if the Modi government had refused to take part in the RIC meeting because of the so-called ‘Chinese aggression’ in Ladakh and continued to beat war drums, India would certainly have ended up being seen as a US pawn in the region, ‘ganging up’ with the retreating super-power against an emerging super-power.
Certainly, India does not want to generate such an impression not only for its own sake, but also for its relations with other countries, particularly Russia.
However, the crucial question is: will India’s participation in the RIC and Russia’s careful support for a permanent seat for India in the UNSC be enough to augment India’s standing in the world?
Russia’s support for India’s permanent seat at UNSC does not mean that Russia is taking a position in the India-China stand-off and that Russia supports India. Also, there is little doubt that India remains deeply aligned with the US rather than with Russia. And Russia supports bi-lateral dialogue to resolve outstanding issues. Russia cannot lose sight of India’s continued participation in the ‘QUAD’ and its deepening defence ties with the US.
Under the Modi government, India has signed multiple defence agreements with the US, paving the way for mutual logistics support for each other’s armed forces (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement or LEMOA) – enabling access to advanced technologies from the US, and an agreement (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement or COMCASA) to facilitate US defence companies to partner with the Indian private sector for defence manufacturing.
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Both Russia and China have learnt to follow the principle of non-interference in matters that do not directly concern them. Indeed, both have learnt to respect each other’s core national interests.
Given India’s deep ties and clear strategic alignment with the US, there can be no gainsaying that India’s relations with China will remain troublesome. And, even if India wants to ‘reset’, the process it will take a long time to do it convincingly. It will demand some strong decisions, particularly on resolving the border dispute through diplomatic and political channels.
However, the traumatic events in Ladakh seem to have, as shown through the APC and RIC, given an additional impetus to the Indian leadership to seek non-military and non-Hindutva ways of resolving conflicts.