Stone-throwing in Jammu and Kashmir does not, at this point, generally make news. But the people throwing stones at Indian soldiers are not usually wearing the uniforms of the People’s Liberation Army. That, apparently, is what happened along a section of the disputed border in Ladakh yesterday, and it is undeniable that it represents a significant escalation, even if unplanned, of the confrontation between India and its giant northern neighbour.
Remember that unlike along the Line of Control, which separates the Kashmir Valley from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, India’s disputed and uncertain border with China has not seen a shot fired in anger in decades. Soldiers generally link arms and wave placards at each other to demonstrate their two countries’ competing claims. Stones don’t tend to be thrown.
The risks of a flare-up somewhere along the border have been clearly demonstrated in this incident. Whenever you have two armies facing each other, trouble can ensue; in normal circumstances, the two security establishments would no doubt be able to deal with the fallout. But given the two-month-long standoff in Doklam and the increasingly fervid pronouncements of the state-controlled Chinese press (and even of actual government officials), these are hardly normal times.
Nobody in India would question the importance of the principle that is being defended at Doklam. The People’s Liberation Army cannot be allowed to unilaterally change the circumstances on the ground in areas that are disputed; this was thought to be a well-understood and generally agreed-upon rule. Nor can India allow Bhutan to be bullied by China; New Delhi no longer bears responsibility for Thimphu’s foreign policy, but it continues to be its security provider of first resort.
But it is also becoming clear that we are running out of options. For reasons internal to China, this confrontation has provoked a response that is unparalleled in its rhetorical ferocity and that also shows no signing of slowing down.
What is going on? Well, of course, the timing is abysmal. President Xi Jinping will want no indication ahead of the 19th People’s Congress later this year that he is anything but in complete control of China’s neighbourhood. New Delhi has also not exactly gone out of its way to be friendly with Beijing recently. Nor can China’s security establishment, given the number of disputes in which it is involved at the moment, show any signs of ever stepping back from a claim. Giving in to Indian pressure will, in its eyes, only embolden the parties to those various other disputes. Certainly, there’s no sign of Beijing softening its stand or trying to reach out. They see negotiations at the moment as being strictly in India’s interest – since it keeps Indian soldiers steps away from Chinese ones while the talking continues, somehow legitimising Indian actions – and thus won’t engage in them.
So: What’s Modi’s endgame? Does the Prime Minister even have one? Or are we in the sort of position where we’re just sitting around and hoping that nothing bad will happen, and that the Chinese will eventually get bored and stop complaining? I very much fear that it’s the latter.
If so, then the Ladakh confrontation shows quite clearly that this is not much of a strategy. The risks are too high, and there appears to be little or no ability at this point of controlling and limiting them, given China’s intransigence.
Presumably, retreat at Doklam is not an option. Not only is it too important to hold the line against Chinese actions on the plateau, but it would be a substantial betrayal of Bhutan as well as a signal to the rest of South Asia that India will not, at a moment of crisis, stand up to China. That said, there has to be something planned other than “wait it out”. Unfortunately, none of the options are particularly good.
There is the possibility of boycotting BRICS. If the Prime Minister decides not to go to the meeting in a Chinese provincial town in a few weeks, then that will be seen as an unprecedented snub to the Chinese president. But it’s a single arrow. Once that’s done, the BRICS conference will be devoted to replacing the “I” in BRICS, perhaps with Indonesia. This will be painful for China to manage, and nothing may come of it, but it will hardly be without equivalent humiliation for India, which will find how quickly the other members of BRICS line up behind China. Worst of all, once shot, this threat is done, and cannot be used again.
Then there is trade. The government has begun to examine whether there’s any way of cutting down on $22 billion of electronics imports from China. This is a possibility. But let’s be clear: we are not the United States. Indian imports from China are a drop in the ocean of Chinese exports. The thought that trade-related threats would lead them to compromise on the border is quite laughable.
And, finally, there is giving them something they want in another domain. For example, there is increasing chatter that some “compromise” might be possible that dilutes India’s hitherto implacable opposition to China’s One Belt One Road programme. This would be a pity – India’s stand on OBOR is both principled and pragmatic.
Of course, the standard Indian answer is that there can be no compromise about anything, and that Indian forces stand ready to repel any aggression, etc. The Chinese, it is argued, won’t want to escalate anything, when they are already beset on so many fronts, North Korea being the latest. But let us be clear: this reading of Beijing’s motivations is by no means certain. More than anything, China’s official reaction now depends upon one man – Xi – and what his political imperatives are at any moment. We can’t pretend to be sure we know what they are.
And, as Ladakh demonstrates, there is a non-negligible probability that both sides will find their hand forced by some unfortunate incident. So it’s time for all of us to start asking, in the most supportive manner possible: What’s Modi’s endgame? Does he have one?
By Mihir Swarup Sharma