India needs to introspect on why it is friendless in its own region
The violent physical confrontation between India and China on the Sino-Indian border has been an odd one. Arms were not used but violence was aplenty with deaths and injuries. Unease was on for a while but it erupted into a violent physical brawl taking many lives. Both sides have blamed each other. But clearly, this is one that should and could have been avoided.
It is the biggest indicator of a strategic transition which shows a newly aggressive China and an India that is unexpectedly more vulnerable than what one had expected. It is not good news for South Asia.
Official media on both sides have proclaimed losses. China’s admission of casualties is also unusual. It is saying that it is not giving numbers to prevent more hype. The Indian media have said it is the worst encounter since 1975 and so Indian anxiety is obvious.
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China’s Global Times was very harsh in its editorial and hardly looks as if the Chinese state is ready to be conciliatory. This is important for understanding China. Everyone should take note of this because all the countries with land borders will face this reality that is of fairly recent birth.
Recent developments say that the coronavirus has definitely changed the global scene as most countries are down with struggling economies and health sectors. China has both, but it’s capacity to withstand both challenges is higher than that of others as evidence shows. Both the US and Europe will take a while to pull through. China wants to use this time period to establish its dominance as much as possible.
Most experts have stated various incidental reasons for the clash. They range from India’s proximity to the US and it’s trying to form an alliance with other anti-Chinese countries. The second is China’s obsession with territorial claims over which it had gone to war with many including India in 1962. Thirdly, there is a general policy of hostility towards India including a claim on Ladakh. Fourthly, China is wanting to send a signal that India should not plan to extend the lines in Kashmir. Fifth is India’s unwillingness to back and join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
All of the above are partly true. But the reality is that rules of a new game are now being established. Simply put, the big boys will decide. In South Asia this has been the practice for long under India, but the change is that the mantle of big power now is on China. The neighborhood has been redrawn. Chinese presence may well be the deciding factor in determining how South Asia will look this and in many summers to come.
Death of SAARC and new equations
South Asian integration and cohesion have been on the decline due to the area’s weakness caused by India’s hostility towards Pakistan. The result has been the death of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which cheered India but South Asia lost a platform which now would have been a great value for India if only it was not moribund. India did and does dominate South Asia but the increasing presence of China has shaken that domination.
In incremental ways other countries in South Asia will try to assert themselves using the China’s umbrella. Nepal has already done so in fact. Bangladesh for example has been rubbished by Indian political groups over the illegal immigrants issue and other countries have also experienced lack of accommodation by India.
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But there is a line between that and being the “only country that matters” in the region. Today, there is a serious shortage of support for India in the region which has added to it’s vulnerability. The border skirmish is a skirmish against a state located in South Asia but which is not part of it. A short term view of the situation has caused this scenario.
As no mechanism for regional cooperation exists, it is a situation where a less powerful face can achieve more. India and China both believe that they are supremely powerful but one is closer to reality than the other. The Indian media has been selling its “supremacy” model for long. That works within India, as events show, but it doesn’t vis-a-vis China, again as events show.
A new body for South Asia
Whether Indian policy makers and the public like it or not, a more rational assessment of regional politics is needed. Fanning jingoistic mobs may get votes but doesn’t win wars. And the crisis is centered on border disputes, hence violent conflicts. India can’t win and that’s why the unpalatable prescription that India needs to step back.
As of now, there is no regional body which includes all the players dominating South Asia and that includes China. SAARC was inconvenient for India but BIMSTEC suffers from extreme ill health. Recognizing the reality of China would be a calming influence on the region. India stands to gain more from it than the existing stance. Just as China needs to avoid being the only player in game, and behave like the most powerful one, India needs to understand that times have truly changed.
History has not been changed by the skirmish but historical opportunities have been opened up. It depends on how one takes them.