Prem Shankar Jha

China undoubtedly triggered the current confrontation but has acted the way it has because it believes India is no longer abiding by the agreements which allowed the bilateral relationship to prosper until Modi changed course.

The Key Issue Dividing India and China Today is Not the Border
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have bought their two countries a reprieve from the drift towards war but will this be enough? Photo shows the two ministers on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow, Russia September 10, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

The protracted talks between  Foreign Ministers Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Moscow have gained China and India a reprieve. Before they began our two countries  were poised on the knife edge of war. Now they have moved back.  Something has been gained: a reassurance before the eyes of the  world, that neither country wants a war and that both will reactivate long dormant mechanisms to maintain a more constant contact with each other as they search for ways to find a solution from which they can  both emerge as winners.

But is such there such a solution? and if Beijing and Delhi can’t find one how long will the reprieve last? A close look at the content of the talks shows that the prospects for a lasting peace are not good. This is because  the core of the problem has remained untouched:  Wang Yi urged that the two countries should put the border dispute into cold storage and concentrate on intensifying our cooperation on the many global issues where  we share a common interest or perspective. China he said, views India as a partner , not an adversary.

Jaishankar  was equally keen on a détente but insisted that the starting point had to be a return by Chinese troops to the positions they occupied had occupied in April. Nothing less would be acceptable to his government.  So we are back at the question that has prevented a de-escalation of the confrontation since June: who will blink first?

Neither country wants a war. But Modi has never done so in his entire life and is unlikely to do so now. Xi Jinping is reported to be equally adamant, but possibly for different reasons. So there is no guarantee that war  will not break out at some time in the future, in the way that  most  wars in history have begun —  from the misjudgement by one protagonist of the likely reaction to its threats or inducements by the other.

The most we can therefore realistically hope for is that, as happened in the Doklam confrontation, the approach off winter at 5,000 metres plus will be made the excuse for disengagement now and that both countries will use the time that gives us for cooler reflection on how we have managed to get from a near-fraternal relationship six years ago to a point where millions in each country are baying for the other’s blood.

China is undoubtedly the country that has triggered the  confrontation. But it should be apparent to those not numbed by  hyper-nationalism, that it has  not done so simply to grab a sliver of additional territory in the Himalayas , whose economic  value to it is less than negligible. If  we can give credence to the statements of the foreign office in Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Delhi  it has done so because India is no longer abiding  by the understandings upon which the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Areas, and its subsequent elaboration in 2005, were signed, and has therefore ceased to be a reliable treaty partner.

China’s  change of tactics in Ladakh is therefore designed to force a reconsideration of relations between our countries. Whether we  return to peace or continue to drift towards war will  therefore depend upon whether we  can reassure China that we have  every intention of honouring the  existing agreements not only in letter but also in spirit.

What is difficult to understand is Modi’s enigmatic silence. Had he called Xi Jinping on the hotline in May, Foreign Minister  Jaishankar and hs counterpart,  Wang Yi,  would have reached the concusions they arrived  at at least three months ago. What is more , their talks  would have taken place within a framework of discussion already established by their leaders,  instead of in the policy vacuum that exists today.

Had Modi done so he  would not have been breaking protocol,  or weakening India’s position by displaying undue anxiety, because the two leaders had already agreed , at Astana in 2017 ,  to meet frequently to discuss strategies and resolve issues,  and had done so  twice already at Wuhan in 2018, and Chennai in 2019.

We can only speculate on the reasons why Modi chose not to do so? But his omission has turned  the gamble he is taking now into a carbon copy of the  one  Pandit Nehru took when he ordered the   army  to push the Chinese off the Thagla ridge in 1962. This is that if India stands firm and continues to match Chinese troop build-ups in the area with its own, China will  withdraw rather than fight India and incur the opprobrium of the world.

This is not a gamble that any leader of a country should take. Two clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers so far have been immediately controlled. But this unstable equilibrium will not last if  Delhi  is not able to identify, and address,  the concerns that   made China change the rules of the game, and find ways to ameliorate them. These  can be deduced  by revisiting the 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question and examining how far Modi’s  India has strayed from them  .

The Agreement contains 11 clauses, described as ‘articles’. The key phrase in the  first article: “The differences on the boundary question should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations… “ is  a tacit admission that,  as of 2005, the Chinese  government  had not been able to get over hurdles to the delineation of the boundary placed by one or more power centres within it. Its refusal, or inability, to provide China’s maps of the region to reconcile with India’s maps – a pre-requisite for boundary demarcation — suggests that the hurdle was the Peoples’ Liberation Army. The 2005 agreement’s purpose, therefore, was to prevent its objections  from becoming roadblocks  to widening  cooperation in other areas. Implicit in this  was the assumption that as the areas of Sino-Indian  cooperation on global political and economic  issues increased,  these internal reservations would automatically weaken and disappear.

Three other Articles  spelt out the key sensitivities of both sides that needed to be kept in mind if cooperation on global issues was to deepen:  ‘The two sides will give due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests, and the principle of mutual and equal security. ( Article iv);  The two sides will take into account historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas; (Article v), and  “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas (Article vii). The first two spelt out China’s concerns, the third India’s concern over the status of Tawang.

Today, 15 years later, China has, by and llarge,  kept its side of the bargain, but after rapidly deepening  strategic cooperation under the UPA[1], India   has completely reversed its policy under Modi and the BJP,  and gone  out of its way to trash the Indian side of the bargain.

Here is a brief account of how thoroughly he has  done so: Exactly a week after  Xi Jinping’s  State Visit to India in September 2014, Modi went to the US to attend the UN general Assembly, but also visited the White House and, apparently without any prior  discussion with the foreign office, completely and unconditionally aligned India with the US in Asia–Pacific region.  Less than four months later, on January 25, 2015, he and Obama,  who had hastened to Delhi to be the chief guest at the Republic day parade, announced a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia -Pacific and the Indian Ocean, whose immediate purpose, minus the fluff, was to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

In February 2016, India  sent four warships to join a US-Japan task force for three months to assert freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea. In the same  period  the US Consul General in Calcutta visited Itanagar and declared that, as far as the US was concerned,   Arunachal Pradesh was ‘indisputably’ a part of India. Weeks later Modi gave permission to not only the  Dalai Lama but also to Robert Verma, the US Ambassador to India to visit Tawang  for the annual Tawang festival. This was a deliberate waving of a red rag before a bull, for i China had originally claimed all of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang, and had only stopped doing so after Wen Jiabao’s meeting with Prime minister Manmohan Singh at Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2009.

China was, at first,  reluctant to let its relationship with India worsen. It  therefore reacted with  notable restraint.  When the US Consul General made his statement Beijing contented itself with saying : “China and India are wise, and capable, enough to deal with their own issues and safeguard the fundamental and long-term interests of the two peoples. The intervention of any third party will only complicate the issue and is highly irresponsible.”

When Indian ships joined the US-Japanese task force in May it again refrained from criticizing India directly and accused the US, instead, of following a ‘divide and rule’ colonial policy towards the two Asian giants. Asked to comment, all that an unnamed    senior official of the Chinese foreign office was willing to say was “When there is some trouble in the South China Sea, India is worried. When Indian ships participate in maritime exercises in the South China Sea, of course China will show concern.”

It was only after Richard Verma’s visit to Tawang for the monastery’s annual festival that  Lu Kang, a foreign office spokesperson said in Beijing on October 24,2016 “China is “firmly opposed” to the U.S. diplomat’s actions, which will damage the hard-earned peace and tranquillity of the China-India border region… Any responsible third party should respect efforts by China and India to seek peaceful and stable reconciliation, and not the opposite”.

The statement was mild, and carefully avoided using language that could be construed as a warning to India. But Beijing’s use of the phrase “Peace and Tranquility” should have rung warning bells in South Block because language is of paramount importance in diplomacy. “The use of that  precise phrase, the heading of the 1993 agreement,  was China’s first reminder that India  was flouting solemnly entered agreements with it. If Delhi went  any further down that road China would  consider the agreement to have been abrogated.

South Block  would doubtless have heard them, but Modi either did not listen, or did not care. For between 2016 and 2018 India signed two  defence- related agreements with the USA , the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), whose goal is to enable the two countries’ navies to coordinate all their actions whether in disaster relief or in defence. Only one more agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)  remains to be signed to make inter-operability of the two defence forces complete . Had Covid not struck the world, that too would have been done earlier this year.[2]

It has also joined enthusiastically in Operation Malabar, an annual naval exercise that had been a tepid affair in the days of the UPA;  held three of its exercises in the Bay of Bengal, and actively campaigned to bring South Korea and Singapore into the original ‘Quad’ of the US, India, Japan and Australia.  One of the war games in Operation Malabar is the closing of the  Malacca straits through which 80 percent of China’s oil imports and 40 percent of its exports flow.

India has also modernised its naval and air bases in the Andamans and, in a tit-for-tat with China,  is seeking to build a port at Subang in Indonesia at the mouth of  the Malacca straits and,  supposedly,  exploring the possibility of a similar venture in Vietnam to create a pressure point at the entrance to the South China Sea. Since  the confrontation in Ladakh began,  speculation has been rife that  India is making these investments  to check the rise of China’s influence  in the Indian ocean region.

The above description shows how far Modi has taken India  from the solemn commitments it made to China in 1993 and elaborated in 2005. It therefore gives us little reason  to expect a lasting peace in the future.  The most that the  Jaishankar–Wang Yi meeting has given us therefore is Time —  a reprieve from conflict, that will last through  winter. If the  Modi government does not use it to reassess where the country’s  national interest truly lies,  put it ahead of party interest, and give China a credible assurance that his government  intends to abide by the commitments its predecessors  entered into,  not only in letter but also in spirit, then another war in the Himalayas will become a winnable bet.

[1] https://thewire.in/diplomacy/narendra-modi-government-spurning-friendly-overtures-china-move-closer-us

[2] https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/india-and-usa-begin-work-on-beca-draft-agreement/562012

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Going forward, it is essential that each side understand its opponent.

A Tragedy has Been Averted but the Danger for India and China Persists

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

A tragedy has been averted: Chinese troops that had entered the disputed  areas that lie between the Indian and Chinese definitions of the Line of Actual Control, have pulled back from three of them. Indian troops have done the same.

But the military build-up in their base areas outside the intermediate “grey” zone  continues.

If the talks between Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi do not yield fruit, it  is certain to increase. The clouds of war have therefore only lifted: they have yet to disperse.

Galwan and Dhola – The similarity between 2020 and 1962

To appreciate how close we came to a war last month, we only need to  remind ourselves of how the 1962 war began. Officially, it began when the Chinese attacked Dhola post, not far from Tawang, in the eastern Himalayas on October 20, and ended with a China-declared unilateral truce on November 21. In reality, it began 10 days earlier and, like the conflict in the Galwan valley on June 15, it too started over a cartographic dispute.
How this dispute arose is described in detail in the still proscribed Henderson-Brooks Report of 1963, but can now be downloaded from the internet. In August 1962, Eastern Command informed Delhi that one of its patrols had reported that the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and Tibet marked on the McMahon line did not fall on the Himalayan watershed, as McMahon had intended it to do, but four miles south of it .

McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.
McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.

The Ministry of External Affairs took this up with the Chinese government, presumably suggesting a rectification, but Beijing did not agree. So in September, Delhi decided to correct it on its own, established the Dhola post at a point between the two locations, and manned it with  a platoon of soldiers. This post was immediately surrounded by 600 Chinese soldiers with the obvious intention of starving the defenders out.

A stalemate ensued during which both sides sent more troops to the area. The first skirmish took place in early October and went the way of India. On October 10, therefore, Delhi asked the army to ‘evict the Chinese from the Thagla ridge’. What followed is history and need not detain us here.

The situation that developed at Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan valley on June 15 is similar to the one that had developed at the Dhola post 58 years earlier. On June 15, it was only the stringent protocols designed to prevent armed conflict, put in place after the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region, that  prevented the savage hand-to-hand fighting  that took place  from tuning into a bloodbath. Had those protocols not been in place,  India and China may well have been in the middle of another fratricidal war today.

Who needs another war?

Neither country wants, needs, or indeed can afford, a war in the Himalayas now. So as talks at the diplomatic level begin, it has become imperative for civil society in both countries to  understand what brought us to the brink of war and how we can get back to a durable and mutually beneficial peace.

More specifically, we need to understand why the Chinese chose to occupy these particular stretches of the LAC; why the PLA stayed broadly within the limits of China’s definition of the LAC and, having gone so far, why it has now agreed to move back from three of them and thin down its presence in the other two.

Plains in Ladakh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The topography of the region answers the first question. The Depsang plains are the closest point on the Chinese LAC to Daulat Beg Oldi. DBO is situated on a finger of land west of the Karakoram range, at only 13 kilometres from the Karakoram Pass, and a little more than 200 kms from the  Khunjerab pass through which the Karakoram highway, which  links China to Pakistan now,  passes.

Till only two years ago, for all but a few months in summer, Daulat Beg Oldi was linked to  the rest of Ladakh only by air. But following the completion of a 450-metre bridge across the Shyok river, it is now linked by an all-weather road. DBO also has an airfield now that can take Antonov and C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Finally, it is barely 120  kilometres – six minutes in a modern fighter plane – from G219, China’s strategic link road between Xinxiang and Tibet.

Pangong lake, at the other end of the road, is 134 kms long and G219 skirts its  eastern shore just as the road to DBO skirts its western edge. It therefore provides a swift route for moving large numbers of troops, artillery and armour from deep inside Tibet to places from which they can cut off the road to DBO within hours. Occupying the heights above finger 4, can give the PLA the capacity to interdict any Indian counter-attack on Chinese landing craft in the lake. A similar dominating position in the heights above the Galwan valley can  give the PLA a second choke point from which to target  the road from Ladakh to DBO.

Daulat Beg Oldi shown in the northernmost part of Ladakh (1988 CIA map).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

These are strategic deployments of the kind usually made in anticipation of war. So why, after having made them, did China take care to remain within its broad definition of the LAC and agree to talks? The only rational explanation is that its purpose was not to annex the land but to force the  Modi government into a dialogue to clear the misgivings and distrust that its abrupt change of foreign policy in 2014 had sown in Beijing’s mind.

This was underlined by China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, who has stated repeatedly since the confrontation began that China’s goal is to forge a strategic partnership, not rivalry with India. It was also echoed by the foreign office’s spokesperson  in Beijing: “The Indian side should not have (sic) strategic miscalculation on China. We hope it will work with China to uphold the overall picture of our bilateral relations.”

But what does China mean by ‘strategic miscalculation’ and  ‘strategic partnership’? In the second part of this article, we will examine this crucial dimension of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship against the backdrop of wider region and global security dynamics.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

Note: In an earlier version of this article, a zero was dropped while describing the distance from the Khunjerab Pass to Daulat Beg Oldi. The sentence should have read “little more than 200 km” and not “little more than 20 km”.

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From China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise of the 1993 Agreement: going back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed at the height of the Cold War.

Are China and India Going Back to 1962?
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, Photo: China Daily via Reuters.

China’s near-simultaneous incursion into two areas of Ladakh, one of which it has recognised in the past as being on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control, has caught the government by surprise. The media, especially television, has reacted with its usual mixture of incomprehension and bravado, but fortunately, both the Army command and South Block have exercised a mature restraint. Apart from rushing reinforcements to the two areas of Chinese incursion – the Galwan river valley and Pangong lake – the Northern Army command has continued to try and resolve differences through flag meetings between progressively higher levels of command in both armies.

Unlike similar confrontations in the past, these are unlikely to bear fruit. The reason is that, from China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise upon with the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, was based. This is that, with the end of the deep freeze in relations that had existed since 1962, China and India would go back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed between them at the height of the Cold War.


A man walks inside a conference room with Indian and Chinese flags in the background. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File

That premise remained valid so long as India, under both Congress and BJP-led governments, maintained a policy of equidistance from power blocs and deepening economic engagement with all. It became explicit during a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference at Hua Hin, Thailand in 2009. The meeting was triggered by a period of rising tension between the two countries over Delhi’s permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, in what Beijing then frequently referred to as South China.

To the Indian media’s uncomprehending surprise, it was China that took the initiative to hold the meeting. India did not withdraw its permission to the Dalai Lama but so managed his visit that it did not become the international spectacle that China had feared. Delhi’s unqualified success in allaying China’s long term anxieties both over immediate border issues and India’s continued adherence to its policies of equidistance laid the base for the strategic cooperation that China was seeking. This became apparent in the content and tenor of the annual meetings of BRICS, at Sanya, in China, in 2011, and more  unambiguously at Delhi  in 2012

At Delhi, in a joint statement that was twice the length of its predecessor, the member countries voiced the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been articulated by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.

At the Durban meeting of BRICS the next year, Xi Jinping, who had replaced Hu Jintao as president of China, accelerated the development of Sino-Indian cooperation by stating explicitly that it was his intention to settle the border dispute ‘as early as possible’, instead of the previous formulation of ‘gradually over time’.

Modi’s China policy 

Unfortunately, when Xi came the following year to discuss long term strategic cooperation and possibly suggest some form of closure to the border dispute, Narendra Modi had replaced Manmohan Singh. Instead of taking up the reigns where Manmohan Singh had dropped them, Modi turned the visit into a Gujarati tamasha designed to enlarge his own image, and discussed nothing of consequence. This was because, less than a fortnight earlier, he had met President Brack Obama in Washington, sacked his foreign secretary, committed India to signing three comprehensive defence agreements with the US,   aligned India with the US on the key issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on which the US and China had come close to conflict, and invited Obama to be the state guest at the next Republic Day.

In spite of all these disquieting developments, China pulled out all the stops to welcome Modi during his return visit to China in June 2015. Xi took an entire day out of his calendar to spend it with him in Xian. Prime minister Li Keqiang spent in all 13 hours with him. The joint statement issued after the visit began by acknowledging “the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region (emphasis added)”. But aside from that, it was barren of content.


Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) guides Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a meeting room in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, May 14, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A year later, in May 2016, Modi ended China’s seven-year bid to enlarge its strategic cooperation with India by sending four Indian warships to join a US-Japan task force for nearly three months in the South China sea. The sole purpose of this exercise was to foil China’s bid for hegemony over this maritime region by enforcing the maritime border limit of 12 nautical miles enacted by the UN Conference on the  Law of the Sea.

The subsequent rapid deterioration of relations has been described by me in earlier columns and will take too long to describe. Suffice it to say that China avoided blaming India directly, preferred to accuse the US of playing a ‘divide and rule’ game to create a schism between the two countries, and waited to see if time, or the next general election, would bring about a change of policy.

When, to the delight of the US, Modi also brusquely rebuffed every enticement by China to send at least a representative to the inaugural Belt Road Initiative (BRI) conference in Beijing, China put its relations with India on hold till the next elections. One suspects that the BJP’s second victory ended that and made Beijing start looking for an alternative policy towards India.

The sites for confrontation are not a random choice

Only against this background does the current Chinese military action make any sense. Its choice of Pangong lake and the Galwan river region as the sites for confrontation is not random. For Pangong lake is the starting point of a road India completed two years ago that runs along the west side of the Shyok river past its confluence with the Galwan river to Daulat Beg Oldi.

From a cartographic point of view, this gives the road considerable strategic importance. The Galwan river starts in the south of Xinjiang, and runs a long way through a narrow valley before joining the Shyok river in the Nubra valley. It could therefore become an access route between Xinjiang and  Ladakh.

The valley is an old flashpoint. In May 1962, overriding the objections of the Western Command, Army HQ in Delhi ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. The Western Command advised against supplying the post through a land route and urged that this be done only from the air, but New Delhi overruled it once more and ordered it to use the land route.

When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by 70 or more Chinese soldiers. The Chinese forced the supply columns back, day after day, for four days and withdrew only after 12 days. In October, when the Sino-Indian war began, the Chinese overran Galwan in hours. 33 of its 68 defenders were killed, and the rest taken prisoner. As the Henderson Brooks report pointed out, this was part of the Forward Policy adopted in November under defence minister Krishna Menon in November 1961, which became the trigger for the 1962 war.

After the Chinese withdrew again, the Indian army could have left the valley alone as part of a no man’s land between the two countries. The 1993 agreement gave it an added reason for doing so. But the Chinese had, over the years steadily expanded their claim to the Galwan valley, and the surrounding region, so to pre-empt further changes the army had set up a post once more. In the last year, it had been building a road to connect it to the Pangong-DBO road.

Daulat Beg Oldi sits at the foot of the Karakoram range on its eastern side, but only a short distance away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the Karakoram pass. This seems to have become a  source of unease for the Chinese military, so much so that in 2013, three weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, a Chinese platoon had penetrated 10 km into Indian territory to create an incident there. At that time, there were only a few buildings there, but recent satellite photos show that it too has been expanded into a substantial forward base with a large number of sheds and buildings.


Pakistan and China flags. Photo: Reuters

None of these three recent developments poses any military threat to China. The Pangong-DBO road is a supply road for light vehicles similar to the ones that now link every Chinese outpost on the other side of the LOAC.  The connection across the Shyok to the Galwan post is a footbridge. The post itself has no more military capability now than it had in 1962.

Similarly, Daulat Beg Oldi is a jumping off point to nowhere because, although only a short distance from the Karakoram pass, any military action there would involve a war with both Pakistan and China.

No sane government in India, or for that matter any country, would take on two powerful adversaries at the same time. But Modi has been harping upon Pakistan’s illegal occupation of two-fifths of Kashmir, and opposing the creation of CPEC ever since he has come to power. So DBG too has acquired a strategic significance to China because it is now convinced that it faces a government that not only does not respect the commitments made by its predecessors, but is driven by the impulses of a prime minister who has made a habit of leaping before he looks.

The purpose of China’s choice of this particular area for its intrusions is therefore clear. Although it has not formally abrogated the 1993 agreement, it believes that the Modi government has thoroughly undermined the underlying premise upon which it was based. It has therefore gone back to the age-old strategy of minimising potential risks when faced by a potential enemy.

But, as China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, has made clear, the door back to 2014 is not closed.    It lies in rediscovering “our strategic mutual trust”. These are not idly chosen words. They require a rediscovery of our common strategic aims, as were enunciated in BRICS’ Delhi declaration, and a rebuilding of mutual trust. If that does not happen, then China will treat the 1993 agreement as no longer binding and do what it feels is necessary to safeguard its long term best interest.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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What Pakistan has essentially done at Kartarpur is to ask for India’s help in ending its own impossible predicament.

 A view of the Sikh shrine in Kartarpur. Credit: PTI

When opportunity comes knocking, unbidden, to one’s door, a wise person does not let it slip away. India has done this twice in the past 70 years: First when it shooed away American companies that came to Asia in search of a cheap labour platform to manufacture goods for the world market, and sent them on to southeast Asia.

It did this a second time when risk averse advisors in both India and Pakistan succeeded in delaying the fleshing out of the Manmohan Singh-Pervez Musharraf framework agreement to end the Kashmir dispute signed in Delhi in 2005, till Musharraf lost his power to push it through the Pakistan national assembly in 2008.

The monumental silence with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Pakistan’s offer three months ago, the curt reassertion last week by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj that India would not attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan, and the Congress leadership’s tepid reaction to the initiative, has made it likely that we will send it away yet again.

Also read: After Kartarpur, Mehbooba, Congress Leaders Bat for Sharada Peeth Cross-LoC Route

The reason for the Modi government’s lack of enthusiasm is written in saffron across the sky: having wrecked the economy, failed to create any jobs and alienated each and every one of India’s neighbours, it has nothing left to fall back upon in its bid to win the 2019 general elections except the whipping up of paranoia towards Muslims, towards Pakistan and towards China.

But how does one explain the ambivalence of the Congress? For was it not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said in 2007 that his dream was to be able to have breakfast in Delhi, lunch in Islamabad and dinner in Kabul on the same day? Was it also not Singh who fashioned the Delhi Framework Agreement? If these initiatives were not popular, why did the Congress win the 2009 election with a near-majority of its own?

An opportunity with a difference

The opportunity created by Kartarpur Sahib must not be allowed to slip away, for it is born of radically different and deeply enduring roots. While previous peace initiatives originated in the corridors of Islamabad and New Delhi, this one has originated in a small village close to the India-Pakistan border. While previous negotiations have been carefully planned and orchestrated, this one is unplanned, disorderly and very largely spontaneous. Finally while all previous initiatives have started at the top of the social and political pyramid, this one has been born out a yearning among the poorest people on both sides of the Punjab border for peace and reconciliation.

The gurudwara at Kartarpur Sahib was established by Guru Nanak in 1522. It was there that he lived for 18 years, wrote the Guru Granth Sahib and, in all probability, died. It is therefore the second holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.

Partition forced the Sikhs of Punjab to one side of the newly created border, but left Kartarpur Sahib a bare three km on its other side. As a result, for 70 years Sikhs have been going in their hundreds of thousands to the closest point on the border, from where they can see the domes of the gurudwara, to pray.

Also read: Five Questions that the Modi Government’s Latest U-Turn on Pak Talks Raises

The idea of a visa-free corridor from the border to Kartarpur Sahib was first mooted by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his bus journey to Lahore in February 1999. Despite the Kargil War, the Nawaz Sharif government responded positively the next year, but the Pakistan Army, which was smarting from its defeat in Kargil, was in no mood for compromise. The spate of ISI-backed terrorist attacks on high value targets in India that followed and eventually triggered Operation Parakram, and the ISI’s reckless use of mujahideen in Kashmir put an end to any further discussion of the subject.

The possibility of a corridor was raised by Navjot Singh Sidhu three months ago when he attended Imran Khan’s swearing in as prime minister. Sidhu had gone in his personal capacity, as one of the three Indian cricketers whom Khan had invited. According to his account of what followed, not only did Khan leap at his suggestion but General Bajwa, the Pakistan Army chief, who was present at the function, immediately offered to build a barricaded corridor from the border to the gurudwara. This would prevent any actual contact between the pilgrims and people in the intervening area. It was this spontaneous offer that made Sidhu give Bajwa a Punjabi jhappi.

The Pakistan Army’s enthusiasm

Was the offer from Khan and Bajwa really a spur of the moment reaction to Sidhu’s suggestion? It might have been had only Khan made it, for he has been saying from the day of his inauguration, “If India takes one step forward, then we will take two steps forward toward friendship.”

But why should General Bajwa have gone that step further? A knee-jerk assessment would be that he saw it as a propaganda opportunity and, in case Delhi reacted negatively, a chance to rekindle disaffection in Punjab. But Khan made it crystal clear in his speech and press conference that he and the army are “all on one page” in wanting to mend ties with India.

Is such a radical change of heart in the Pakistan Army really possible? The answer, with suitable caveats, is ‘yes’, because seven decades after independence, its policy of jumping from the back of one circus-horse to another, while keeping its gaze locked firmly on Kashmir, has reached its pre-destined end – there are no more horses left to ride.

Thirty-five years ago, General Zia-ul-Haq felt that he could afford to adopt a forward policy because Pakistan’s GDP had been growing at 5-6% percent per annum for three decades; it was an indispensable ally of the US in the latter’s proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and therefore had no dearth of foreign exchange to buy military toys.

The Lahore-Delhi bus at the Attari Wagah border on November 26. Credit: PTI

Today’s Pakistan could not be more different. It has been chastened by its failure to spark secession in Punjab and Kashmir: Despite every pain that India has inflicted on Kashmir, a 2009 Chatham House poll in the Valley showed that while a majority of its people wanted a radical change in Kashmir’s relationship with India, only 2.5% to 7.5% wanted to join Pakistan.

Not only has it lost the patronage of the US, but the Donald Trump administration, and most of the world, considers Pakistan to be a dangerous and unpredictable breeding ground for terrorists, and the principal threat to Pax Americana in Afghanistan.

Islamabad has attempted to replace the US with China and Saudi Arabia as its political, military and economic sponsors, but China has been far less tolerant towards its use of terrorism to realise its regional aspirations than Washington was three decades ago.

This is because, contrary to the prevailing impression in India, Beijing’s huge investment in the Karakoram-Gwadar transit corridor is, like other projects of its Belt-Road Initiative, more defensive than offensive. It is primarily intended to create one of several backdoors for its trade with Asia, Europe and Africa to pass through in case the US and its allies decide to block the sea lanes through which most of its imports and exports currently pass.

Its fear of the US’s naval power is understandable, because its dependence upon trade for economic growth is the highest for a large industrial economy that the world has ever known. China’s dependence on trade to generate employment is even greater. So from the early days of its investment in Pakistan, Beijing has been putting a quiet but unrelenting pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups and maintain peace with India, especially in the Karakoram region.

Till the end of February this pressure was private and bilateral. Then, on February 23, China stopped shielding Pakistan and agreed to put it on the “grey list” of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body created to monitor the financing of terrorist organisations all over the world. Pakistan was put on the list in June. It now has till June 30, 2019 year to show that it has taken decisive action against organisations in the country that are sponsoring terrorist activities.

This withdrawal of support could not have come at a worse time for Pakistan, for it is facing its worst economic crisis in a decade. In 2017-18, it recorded a $19 billion balance of payments deficit, amounting to 5.7% of its GDP. The Pakistani rupee has depreciated by 20% in less than a year and its foreign exchange reserves have fallen to under $10 billion.

Till now, Islamabad has relied upon loans from China and Saudi Arabia to remain solvent, but Saudi Arabia too agreed to put Pakistan on the grey list last February. Pakistan has therefore been left with no option but to go to the International Monetary Fund for another – its 13th – bailout. That loan will now almost certainly come with conditionalities that will cross the border between economics and politics.

Also read: The Real Googly: More than Imran, the Pakistan Army Wants Peace With India

Finally, the Pakistan Army has been locked in a civil war for more than a decade. It has managed to establish a semblance of peace in the tribal areas by denuding its Indian border of troops. But insurgency and sectarian killings have continued to grow in other parts of the country. It would be surprising indeed if it had not begun to look for a way out of the morass.

To the army high command too, therefore, peace with India must have begun to look like the silver bullet that can end most of its miseries. The is almost certainly why General Bajwa seized the olive branch that Sidhu innocently extended at Khan’s swearing in with such alacrity.

What Pakistan has essentially done at Kartarpur, therefore, is to ask for India’s help in ending its own impossible predicament. Peace with India will remove the very ground on which much of the Islamist extremism which has spawned terrorism feeds in Pakistan. Since these groups gain legitimacy by posing as the champions of the oppressed in Kashmir, finding a solution to the dispute that Islamabad can present to its own people as a fulfilment of its commitment to them is the best way forward.

It would therefore be folly for India not to seize the opening that Kartarpur Sahib has created to end the Cain versus Abel conflict that has held both countries back, while the rest of Asia has raced ahead. An immediate cease fire along the Line of Control in Kashmir, the resumption of talks, involving Kashmiri leaders in the deliberations, and an agreement to review the Manmohan-Musharraf framework agreement will get the ball rolling towards peace.

https://thewire.in/diplomacy/india-pakistan-peace-kartarpur-sahib

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Shujaat Bukhari’s killing was the most cold-blooded and meticulously planned assassination in recent years and was, beyond a shadow of doubt, instigated by Pakistan’s ISI.

Modi's Kashmir Policy Is Playing Right Into the Hands of Pakistan's ISI

Photo edit: The Wire

Since the fateful evening when I heard that Shujaat Bukhari, my friend and colleague for the past 26 years, had been assassinated in Srinagar while going home to break his Ramzan fast with his family, I have often wondered who his assassins could have been, and what could have been going through their minds as they sat on their motorcycle waiting for him to emerge from his office. Were they simply semi-educated youth with no future in civilian life, brainwashed into believing that Shujaat was a traitor to Kashmir who was taking money from the state and Central governments to undermine the fight for freedom? Or were they mercenaries who were lining their pockets and soothing their consciences by pretending that they were doing Allah’s work?

Till today, more than a month after his death, there is no answer. Speculation still is rife. The majority view is that Shujaat’s murder was the outcome of the radicalisation and Islamisation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unleashed upon the Valley. Writing in Firstpost, Khalid Shah concluded that “the situation in the state has slipped from contemporary timelines and is back to the 1990s now”. In the Washington Post, Barkha Dutt echoed this: “Kashmir is sliding into a black hole of possibly no return.”

But Shujaat’s assassination was not a by-product of the tidal wave of anger created by the Modi government’s relentless use of brute force to crush Kashmiri separatism. It was the most cold-blooded and meticulously planned assassination in recent years, on par with those of Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq in 1990 and Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002.

And it was, beyond a shadow of doubt, instigated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Four video cameras caught the assassins riding on their motorbike before and after the assassination. But not one caught them loitering for 45 minutes as they waited for Shujaat to emerge from his office because they had chosen the only ten-metre stretch of road that was not covered by any of the CCTV cameras scanning this high security area. Only inside information, possibly from within the police, could have made them choose that precise spot.

Since 1990, 19 journalists have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir, including Bukhari. Credit: Twitter

Weapon of choice

For the ISI, assassination has been a weapon of choice not only in Kashmir, but much more so in Pakistan itself. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, nearly 10,000 people have gone missing in the country since 2001, with nearly 3,000 still unaccounted for. In 2016 alone, there were 728 disappearances.

Journalists have figured prominently on the ISI’s hit list, two of the most celebrated being Hamid Mir, the host of Geo TV’s ‘Capital Talk’, and Shahzad Saleem, the former bureau chief of Asia Times (online). Mir miraculously survived six bullets in his stomach because, knowing that an ISI car was following him, he drove straight to a hospital to seek shelter there, and was shot at its doorstep. Saleem was tortured and killed ten days after the publication of his book detailing links between the ISI, various rogue officers of the Pakistan army and terrorist organisations like the Tehrik-e-Taliban-i-Pakistan (TTP). In the same year, 12 other Pakistani journalists met a similar fate, though perhaps not all at the hands of the ISI.

In Kashmir, the ISI has a 28-year record of killing any leader who has shown willingness to negotiate peace with the Indian government. The list of its victims begins with Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq, the father of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, on May 21, 1990, and the elimination of all the six other Kashmiri leaders with whom George Fernandes had held secret talks in the first few months of that year. It stretches through Qazi Nissar, the leader of the Muslim United Front, in 1993; professor Abdul Ghani Butt’s brother in 1996; Abdul Majid Dar, the area commander of the Lashkar-e-Tayabba, who declared a unilateral ceasefire, in July 2,000; Abdul Ghani Lone, who had decided to take the Hurriyat into the 2002 elections, on May 21, 2002; Mir Mushtaq, the uncle of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, in 2006; and the failed assassination of Fazal Qureshi, the senior most member of the Hurriyat (M)’s executive council in 2007 only weeks after he formally announced its acceptance of the Manmohan Singh-Pervez Musharraf four-point formula for settling the Kashmir dispute.

ISI’s ambition to wrest Kashmir from India had dwindled during the years of peace and reconciliation that had followed Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic 2004 meeting with Musharraf. They dwindled further when, in 2012, the Pakistan army command officially revised its threat perception and stated that this lay mainly to its west and not its east .

Its ambitions were revived when the surreptitious hanging of Afzal Guru by Delhi in February 2013 caused a spike in the number of young men joining the armed militancy, just as the hanging of Maqbool Butt had done in 1986.

But it was Modi’s policies, of humiliating the Hurriyat, spurning Nawaz Sharif’s overtures for peace, destroying the Peoples Democratic Party by entering into an alliance with it that it had no intention of respecting, ignoring and trivialising the remaining mainstream parties in the Valley, putting ever moderate nationalist leader in Kashmir – from Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, Yasin Malik and Ali Shah Geelani, to Shabbir Shah, Naeem Khan and Shahid-ul-slam – into jail or under house arrest, and adopting a “ten for one” policy of retaliation for firing across the Line of Control that claimed the better part of 832 civilian lives in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that sent the ISI and the Pakistan army onto a full offensive in Kashmir. 

The ISI concluded that its chance had finally come when his government began to gun down Kashmiri youth, branding them all as “terrorists”, often without giving them a chance to surrender and then boasting about its ‘kills’ to the national press. This had the opposite of the desired effect because from a mere 16 in 2013, the number of young men who joined the militancy in south Kashmir rose to 126 in 2017. More disturbing still, data collected by the Kashmir police showed that most of new recruits are coming from the villages where “encounters” had taken place, and that the maximum recruitment was taking place after the funerals of slain ‘terrorists’.

Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel take positions during an encounter with the militants at Nowhatta in Srinagar.
Credit: PTI

From the ISI’s point of view, therefore, the Modi government was a gift from heaven. The very last thing it wanted was for anything to impede India’s accelerating descent into self-destruction in Kashmir. Asad Durrani, a former director general of the ISI and convinced “peacenik”, summed this up at a recent book launch in Delhi. When asked what the ISI would do next, he said, “Nothing. You have done everything it wanted.”

The one obstacle that remained was the ordinary Kashmiris’ aversion to Pakistan and the overwhelming desire for peace. A Chatham House survey carried out as recently as in 2009 had shown that even in the four most estranged districts of Kashmir valley, only 2.5 to 7.5% of the respondents had said that they wished to be a part of Pakistan. This was changing thanks to Modi, but the last thing the ISI wanted was the sudden emergence of a civil society movement in Kashmir that would give a voice and direction to this inchoate desire for peace.

That emergence took place in 2015 and Shujaat was one of its principal architects. That year, he and Ershad Masood, an academic and journalist based in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, set up a Kashmir Initiative Group, whose stated purpose was to take the now stalled dialogue on peace to civil society. The group started working in a small way by organising a tour of PoK by ten journalists from Jammu and Kashmir, and held meetings in the two parts of Kashmir. It gained strength when it obtained the financial backing of Conciliation Resources, an international NGO with impeccable credentials.

The group’s work gained importance, however, when even after Burhan Wani’s death had shut down the Valley for four months, Delhi refused to change its one track policy of repression by even a jot. But it became a threat to the ISI’s plans only after it organised a large conference in Dubai on July 31 last year. The two-day meeting was attended by 28 people belonging to political parties in both parts of Kashmir and national parties in India and Pakistan, including the BJP, and a number of eminent observers who included two former director generals of the ISI – Durrani and Ehsan-ul Haq – and Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak.

The Dubai meeting turned out to be a roaring success. Despite disagreements on many issues, the conference arrived at a strong consensus on several key points. These were: the need for both the Indian and Pakistani governments to make human security their paramount concern and therefore declare an immediate and complete ceasefire on the LoC and take strong measures against extremism in all its forms in both parts of Kashmir; to encourage their respective governments to re-engage in a political dialogue, in consultation with Kashmiri groups; and for these groups to keep talking to each other despite their differences, to explore creative proposals that did not involve an immediate shift in their stated positions. Lastly, the conference was unanimous that civil society in Kashmir, as well as in India and Pakistan, had an important role to play in creating an atmosphere conducive to dialogue.

Had this conference taken place during former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s rule, both governments might have welcomed the initiative. But in August 2017, the quality and eminence of the participants, and the sheer breadth of consensus, came as a rude shock to the Pakistan army and the ISI because it threatened not only to derail its plans in Kashmir but perhaps more importantly its use of the threat from Modi’s India to restore a creeping military rule within Pakistan.

The attempt to do so began with the leaking of an open quarrel at a national security meeting in October 2016 between Nawaz Sharif and key members of his cabinet and the army chief, over the latter’s refusal to reign in the Lashkar-e-Tayabba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and the Haqqani network, to Pakistan’s premier newspaper Dawn. Since then, with the help of a quiescent judiciary, the army has succeeded in ousting, charging and now jailing Nawaz Sharif and members of his family, placing an exit ban on the journalist who wrote the story for Dawn, and now placing a similar ban on General Asad Durrani for having taken part in the book launch in Delhi. Modi’s continuing his policy of killing Kashmiri militants has therefore become a necessity for the Pakistan army’s continued seizure of power in the country.

This is what turned the Kashmir Initiative Group into a target for the ISI. Shujaat Bukhari had always been an outspoken champion of peace. His entire career in journalism had been built on the conviction that negotiations based upon misconceptions were doomed to fail. Only truth and honesty in reporting what was happening on the ground could create the essential bedrock upon which the edifice of peace could be constructed. When the Modi government abruptly closed all doors to dialogue with Hurriyat in Kashmir, by force of circumstance, he and his newspaper became the ISI’s targets.

Shujaat Bukhari, editor of the Rising Kashmir, was laid to rest on Friday at his ancestral village,
Kreeri, near Baramulla. Credit: Rising Kashmir

The ISI might even then have done nothing if it had believed that Modi would return to power in 2019. But the growing unity of the opposition, the succession of bye-election defeats suffered by the BJP, and the coming together of the Congress and JD(s) in Karnataka have made its return less and less likely. This may have been the final straw that made it take the decision to crush any possible revival of dialogue in Kashmir, by killing its current principal icon of peace.

Shujaat is not, however, the only ‘peacenik’ that the ISI might attack in coming months. In the months after the Dubai conference, two Kashmiris who head NGOs that had not been invited to the conference – Nazir Gilani and Athar Masood Wani, a former adviser to the prime minister of PoK – condemned the conference as a “sell out” for not insisting on the right to self-determination on the basis of UN resolutions. Pakistan based Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin also described the participants in the conference as being on the payroll of India. In Pakistan, the attack upon it became so shrill that one paper headlined it as “Kashmir Blood Was Sold in the Air Conditioned Halls of Dubai”.

In Srinagar, this theme was picked up by the Kashmir Reader, and Hurriyat (Gilani) general secretary general Ghulam Nabi Sumji, but later rejected by Gilani. Shujaat began to receive warnings that he and two other participants in the conference were on the hit list of the ISI.

The campaign ended abruptly in October after Ershad Masood and a colleague met Salahuddin in Islamabad. Salahuddin denied playing any part in the campaign against the conference, said that he had initially been misinformed about its proceedings, and assured Masood that he was not so mean as to order the killing of a journalist.

However it revived again, abruptly in April, two months before his assassination, with virulent attacks on the participants in the conference and specific threats to the lives of Shujaat and two or three others who attended it. Shujaat took these threats very seriously, went to the Kashmir police and gave them the names of the principal attackers. For the record, they were Nazir Gilani in London, Sheikh Tajamul Islam, Abdullah Geelani, Raees Mir, Aslam Mir, and Athar Masood Wani in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, and Iftikhar Rajput in Brussels.

It is difficult not to link this revival of threats to the declining fortune of the BJP in India. Suffice it so say that Shujaat took the attack on the internet very seriously and lived in fear of his life. Two days before he was killed he had confided to a friend in his office, “I have young children, I don’t want to die”.

Hours after Shujaat died, one of his young reporters told me in a voice choked with grief, “Sir, we have lost everything, everything!”

But he and his colleagues had not lost everything. On the contrary, they had kept the one thing Shujaat had given them – raw courage. So, after accompanying Shujaat’s body to the hospital and giving their accounts to the police, his staff came back to the office not only to bring out the paper, but fill the front page with his picture and words that will be graven on every Kashmiri heart: “We won’t be cowed down by the cowards who snatched you from us. We will uphold your principle of telling the truth howsoever unpleasant it may be…” And in a magnificent act of defiance, they carried links on the editorial page to every recent article Shujaat had written.

The message they sent was unambiguous: terrorists, and their puppet masters, could kill a man but not the ideals he embodied. The next day, between 60,000 and 200,000 mourners who attended his funeral at Kreeri, his home village 23 km from Srinagar, drove the same message home to their fellow Kashmiris, to Pakistan, and the world. Burhan Wani and Sabzar Bhatt were not the only people who could make lakhs of Kashmiris grieve for them. Those who fought and gave their lives for peace, for a future in which ordinary Kashmiris could plan and dream without fear, could do so too.

https://thewire.in/security/shujaat-bukhari-assasination-modi-kashmir-policy-pakistan-isi

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Today, the standoff has opened a route to the resolution of the long simmering boundary question. Can Modi turn the present draw into a victory for both India and China?

Even before news that the standoff between China and India on the Doklam plateau was ending with India withdrawing its 40 troops and one bulldozer was an hour old, the BJP’s spin doctors had begun to paint it as “certainly India’s win over a bullying neighbour”. In an unsourced opinion piece posted by the Economic Times the writer/s claimed that “China tried every threat to bully India – from starting a war to sponsoring insurgency within India. These threats make the Chinese climbdown very significant … The message that goes to smaller countries is that China might not back its threats with substantial action. While the Chinese retreat can encourage smaller countries to look it in the eye, it will also give India an aura of a regional power … Effectively, disengagement means China has been beaten back by India.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Indian withdrawal is an admission by New Delhi that it had no legal justification for its military presence in Doklam. For while there was a dispute over ownership of the plateau, it was between Bhutan and China and there is no record in the public domain of Bhutan asking for India’s help in dealing with the Chinese incursion. Beijing had warned India that it regarded the presence of Indian troops in Doklam as an act of aggression, not once, but four times in the past six weeks – in a 15 page statement of its legal position issued in July, in a formal demand by foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on August 22 that said India must remove its troops from the Doklam side of the watershed as a prerequisite for peace, and in two categorical statements by its ambassador in Delhi following these declarations.

What is more, China has hastened to puncture the balloon of Indian hyper-nationalism by stating categorically that while Indian troops have already withdrawn from the disputed area, this fulfilling China’s precondition for a stand down, Chinese troops will “continue fulfilling [China’s] sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty.”

What, then, is the compromise that has enabled both countries to back off?  Could it be that the two sides have reached an understanding on the one subject that neither country has mentioned in its statements – the road that China was building towards the Doklam plateau. Or that there is no agreement on this issue at all but that both sides thought it best to end the standoff anyway. If this is so, then Monday’s redeployment is neither a victory nor a defeat for either country. It is, at best, a draw.


Also read: The Bhutan Stand-Off Is an Opportunity, Not a Threat

The Bhutan Stand-Off Is an Opportunity, Not a Threat


Only time will tell whether this surmise is correct, but what cannot be denied is that the Chinese have seen the full extent of India’s  paranoia about the vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck stretch of territory between Bangladesh and Sikkim and will not hesitate to use it in future to put pressure upon New Delhi when the need arises. On the other hand, should Delhi ever overcome it, Nathu La can become a major asset in building a durable relationship of mutual benefit with China.

The first step in overcoming India’s paranoia is for Delhi to recognise that the vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck is a cartographic illusion that has been taken advantage of by armchair strategists to create their stock-in-trade – fear. To start with, Nathu La is at an altitude of 4310 metres, almost 14,500 feet above sea level and is snow-bound for at least four months of the year. This means that any force that crosses it to the Indian side, runs the risk of getting stuck there for up to four months at the mercy of whatever India chooses to throw at it.

Second, the Chicken’s Neck itself is not all that narrow – its narrowest part is actually between Nepal and Bangladesh and that is more than 200 km as the crow flies, from Nathu La.

Third, the distance from Nathu La to Kalimpong on the West Bengal border is 136 kms and an estimated five hours in a passenger car. There are innumerable bridges, culverts and tunnels on this road that can easily be blown up. So how would an invading force from China be able to get to the Chicken’s Neck in the first place and how would it maintain its supply lines?

The alarmists’ memories are also extremely short. In the early 1980s, it was India that drove the Chinese out of the Chumbi valley, using its newly acquired Bofors guns to fire over the Himalayan ridges down into it from distances of 40 kms and more. India is far stronger now than it was in the ’80s and China has far more to lose in the Chumbi valley, which has become a hub of economic activity after it became a rail head, than it had 30 years ago. If anything, China has had more to fear from the worsening of relations between it and India, than India does.

Today, the Doklam standoff has opened a route to the resolution of the long simmering Himalayan border dispute that had been closed by the failure of Chinese premier Chou Enlai to establish common ground with Jawaharlal Nehru during his visit to India in 1960 and the 1962 war. For to establish the illegality of India’s incursion into Doklam, it has emphasised its acceptance (in the 1890 treaty) of the watershed principle of boundary demarcation that was the basis, however hastily and casually delineated, of the MacMahon line. By re-opening this possibility within a framework of increased intra-BRICS cooperation at Xiamen next week, Narendra Modi can turn the present draw into victory for both countries. Whether he has the sagacity to do so remains to be seen.

Neither Win Nor Loss, the End of the Doklam Standoff is an Opportunity

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to China in May 2015. Credit : PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to China in May 2015. Credit : PTI

When Delhi ignored Beijing’s quiet demarches to let sleeping dogs lie in Arunachal Pradesh, not only did the Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin summon Ambassador Ashok Kantha to express his “strong dissatisfaction and staunch opposition” to Narendra Modi’s visit in February 2015, but the entire text of his protest was released by the Foreign office, and carried in full by Xinhua , the next day.

China, he said  “has never recognized the so-called ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ unilaterally set up by the Indian side. It’s an universally recognized, unevadable fact that significant disputes do exist on the eastern section of the China-India border…. the so-called “Arunachal Pradesh” was established largely on the three areas of China’s Tibet — Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul currently under Indian illegal occupation. These three areas, located between the illegal “McMahon Line” and the traditional customary boundary between China and India, have always been Chinese territory”.

However Liu kept the door open for resuming the convergence towards strategic cooperation that had taken place between Hua Hin and Durban. He again said that China placed importance on developing relations with India. He said the two countries, ‘as neighbors and the top two developing countries in the world, share broad prospect on cooperation at various levels’.

He expressed ‘the hope that the Indian side should treasure the sound momentum in the growth of bilateral relations, march toward the same goal with China and abide by the important consensus on the border issue’ and “called for the Indian side not to take any action that may complicate the border issue and stick to the general orientation of resolving the issue through bilateral negotiations so as to maintain the overall growth of bilateral relations”.

But the significance of this very public demarche was lost upon the Indian media, which did not even mention it. So two months later, surreptitiously, and therefore unnoticed yet again by the media, Modi sent four Indian warships to join a US carrier fleet in the South China Sea to enforce the freedom of navigation within it less than a week before his return State visit to China. With that all ambiguity about where India stood on the central strategic issue of our age, was dispelled.

Inspite of this China pulled out all the stops to welcome Modi later that year. Xi took an entire day out of his calendar to spend it with him in Xian. Li Keqiang spent in all 13 hours with him. The joint statement issued after the visit began by acknowledging “ the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region.” This was something Beijing had never before conceded and was obviously intended to keep the door open for serious further engagement on international issues. But Indian commentators either did not notice the shift or took it as an acknowledgement of India’s growing power and influence that required no quid pro quo.

Spread over several paragraphs was also a commitment by both countries to put the border dispute in cold storage and not allow it to hinder the further development of cooperation between the two countries. It reiterated that the two governments were determined to ‘actively seek a political settlement of the boundary question’ and ‘resolve outstanding differences, including the boundary question, in a proactive manner’. They agreed to exchange   regular visits and make full use of the opportunities provided by the presence of their leaders at various multilateral fora to hold consultations on bilateral relations and issues of regional and global importance. It again affirmed that an early settlement of the boundary question served the basic interests of the two countries and should be pursued as a strategic objective by the two governments.

But what was absent from it was any reference to strategic cooperation. This was glaringly obvious in the last, and from China’s point of view most important, section of the statement, sub-titled Shaping the Regional and Global Agenda. Given India’s explicit support for Vietnam’s rights in the South China sea, it came as no surprise that the statement steered clear of making even an oblique reference to the disputes that bedevil the region. But the joint statement did not even make a reference to the need to ensure the freedom of navigation in it.

China has stated, times without number, that it has no intention whatever of blocking free movement of commerce within it. Asserting a common commitment to protecting this freedom, possibly qualified by and explicit reference to commerce, would have balanced the reference to it in the Indo-US Joint Strategic vision statement of January 25. Its absence suggests that India either felt no need to establish such a balance or baulked at including any statement that would dilute the tacit commitment it had made to the US.

Equally significant was the absence of any reference to the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria, any explicit condemnation of ISIS and, most significantly, any welcome of the US and EU’s agreement with Iran. There was not even the implied criticism of the US’ quest for global dominance and a unipolar world that BRICS’ Delhi declaration had contained. Nor was there an endorsement of a multi-polar world order. It was as if the Delhi meeting of BRICS had never taken place.

Although Narendra Modi had taken a huge business delegation with him, and came back with $22 billion worth of state and corporate investment commitments, the joint statement concentrated only on terrorism, border demarcation, and the bilateral trade imbalance. The possibility of redressing this by facilitating large amounts of Chinese investment in India was only touched upon in passing. There was no reference in the joint statement to China’s proposal to form a Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership or to the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan into which it was absorbed, and no indication on whether India would join it or not.

The joint statement also showed that China had begun to hedge its bets. It ‘understood and supported’ India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations (no mention of the Security Council) and, in language that foreshadowed the US’ welcome of India’s interest in joining APEC, it ‘took note’ of India’s desire to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.

Since then, as the Modi government has ploughed ahead, China’s withdrawal of its offer of strategic cooperation, and return to its older policy of isolating, and neutralising India, has gathered momentum. It opposed — and prevented — Masood Azhar from being declared an International terrorist by the UN Security Council. It is opposing India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. It has committed $14 billion to building a tunnel under the Great Himalayan range, roads, bridges and a rail link to end Nepal’s dependence on India for access to the rest of the world. It has committed $13 billion to building ports, roads and power plants in Sri Lanka and a whopping $45 billion to developing Pakistan’s road, rail, port and nuclear power infrastructure.

When these projects are completed Pakistan’s infrastructure will not only far outstrip that of India but also, by creating an alternate route for its exports to Africa and Europe through Pakistan, shower so much foreign exchange upon it by way of transit fees that it will never again have to turn to India for help as it did in 2012.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger, Can China and India Dominate the West?

This is the third part of the series of Indian foreign policy under the Narendra Modi government. The first two can be read here and here.

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File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Credit: PTI

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Credit: PTI

China and India’s relationship had begun to warm after the two countries signed the Agreement for Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, in 1993. Not only did trade between them grow at an astonishing pace, but they found themselves on the same side of the fence on a growing range of issues, from climate change to the invasion of Iraq and the need to build a multipolar world order. The first unambiguous signal that China was willing to set bilateral issues like the border dispute and Tibet aside in search of closer and more structured cooperation on strategic issues came from former premier Wen Jiabao, when he asked for a meeting with Manmohan Singh, who was then prime minister, on the side-lines of an ASEAN conference at Hua Hin, Thailand, in October 2009.

Confrontations on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) had multiplied during the previous three years. Tensions had heightened further in 2008 when a mini-revolt broke out in Tibet on the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, that the administration in Tibet ascribed to a conspiracy hatched in Delhi and Lhasa. Finally, by September 2008, prolonged attention in the international media had begun to turn a visit by the Dalai Lama to Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, to inaugurate a new hospital, into a confrontation between the two Asian giants that was threatening to spill over into war.

The need to defuse the mounting tension was apparent, so Delhi welcomed Wen’s initiative. What no one asked was why it was Wen, and not Singh, who had initiated the meeting. The media concluded that China had caved in when India ‘stood firm’ on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang and that this was the way to deal with it in future.

Detailed briefings given by the Chinese foreign office after Wen’s return showed that what Beijing had wanted was to find a way of preventing unwelcome media attention from forcing the two countries into a confrontation that neither wanted. The issue was speedily settled when Singh decided to ban the international media from Tawang, which is beyond the Inner Line, and allowed only a handful of Indian correspondents to cover the event. The rest of the discussions between him and Wen ranged over strategic issues that affected both China and India.

Beijing’s relief was writ large in the despatches of Xinhua and reports in Global Times. In diplomatic demarches, what is not said is usually more important than what is. The statements emanating from Beijing referred once more to the Himalayan impasse as a border dispute and not as an illegal occupation of ‘southern Tibet’. Premier Wen said it would be resolved ‘gradually’, and would not be allowed to impede cooperation on other issues. The term ‘South China” was not used. C-3S, the Chennai based centre for China Studies , summed up China’s goal pithily: “Premier Wen Jiabao, obviously conveying a message from the Chinese leadership, conceded there was enough space in the world for both China and India to grow”.

The breakthrough at Hua Hin created the launch pad for a Chinese bid to raise the level of Sino-Indian cooperation from the tactical to the strategic level. A participant at a closed door conference on India=China relations held by the Lee Kuan Yew school of International Affairs in Singapore, in 2012, defined it as follows: “There can be five levels of relations between two countries – ranging from total opposition (level 1) through occasional tactical cooperation (level 3) to strategic collaboration ( level 5). China and India are on level 3. We would like to take it to level 5”.

Measured by this yardstick, China and India began moving from level 3 to level 4 at the annual BRICS meeting at Sanya, on Hainan Island, in April 2011. They began to move from level 4 towards level 5 during the fourth and fifth BRICS summits at New Delhi and Durban in 2012 and 2013.

The trigger for broadening the scope of cooperation from the economic to political and strategic issues was provided by NATO’s abuse of the UN Security Council’s no-fly-zone resolution to embark upon regime change by force in Libya, and follow it up with a similar covert attack on Syria. For China, as indeed for Russia and India, the message was clear: The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had not been an aberration. For the US, victory in the Cold War had rendered the UN charter obsolete. The Westphalian international order that it embodied, and which insisted that force must be the weapon of last, and not first, resort was therefore well and truly dead. The world was returning to the ‘constant state of war’ that the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes had described as the state of nature. China decided that it could no longer rule out becoming America’s and Nato’s next target (only two years later Russia did become the US’s next target).

BRICS’ Delhi declaration in 2012 was therefore twice as long as the one issued at Sanya. It contained the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been voiced by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.

The Delhi meeting gave a fresh impetus to China’s efforts to forge strategic cooperation with Delhi. President Xi Jinping made this clear at the Durban meeting of the BRICS heads of government in March 2013, within months of succeeding Hu Jintao.

The signal was a change in the wording of the joint statement with Singh on the border dispute. From saying that the two countries would “gradually narrow differences on border issues” it read that they would “strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible”.

Break with protocol by President Xi

At the Durban meeting, Xi also broke protocol when he told Singh that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first foreign visit would be to India. On May 13 – days before Li Keqiang’s visit – Wei Wei, China’s ambassador to India, took what was for the Chinese government the unprecedented step of writing an op-ed piece in The Hindu, urging the Indian government to set aside the border dispute and focus attention on developing closer relations between the two countries. As in all diplomatic statements the words and phrases he used conveyed precise meanings.

“The China-India boundary question a problem left over from history … At present, the comprehensive development of China-India relations has created favourable conditions for solving border-related issues. …To strengthen good-neighbourly and friendly cooperation with India is China’s strategic choice and established policy which will not change. … Both sides “should proceed from a strategic height and a holistic perspective…. and strive for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the boundary question at an early date”.  (emphases added)

The message could not have been more explicit: China regarded the border dispute as a legacy of the past, and wanted to get beyond it as soon as possible in order to cooperate with India on strategic issues of the future. The more China-India cooperation increased in the future, the easier would it be for both countries to find a mutually acceptable solution. One could not, however, find in history the solution to a problem created by history. One had, instead to go back to first principles and approach the task with a willingness to compromise.

Li Keqiang’s visit to India a few weeks later was an unqualified success. A senior Indian official who was present at his meeting with Manmohan Singh told me that their discussion had gone so well that it could have been choreographed. Singh summed up his own impressions in a formal statement when he said, “ I am delighted that there are so many areas of convergence between us on which there is a great deal of meeting of minds”.

Li’s visit set the stage for President Xi Jinping’s visit to India 16 months later. In the intervening months signs of the importance that Beijing attached to changing the locus of its relations with India multiplied. The Indian national day reception at Beijing in January 2014 was attended by the vice president of China, who delivered a 10 minute speech extolling the ties that had existed between China and India since antiquity.

Six months later, when ambassador Ashok Kantha, who had replaced the current foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, presented his credentials, he was one of only two out of 14 ambassadors whom President Xi asked to stay back for a short talk.

Finally, President Xi himself met national security adviser A.K Doval when he visited Beijing on September 8, 2014 to prepare for his India visit. The last senior official who was granted this courtesy by a Chinese president may have been Henry Kissinger in 1970.

Too mired in the past

In Delhi, unfortunately, only those closest to Manmohan Singh and key members of the foreign policy establishment fully grasped the signals that Beijing was sending. The intelligentsia, with only a handful of exceptions, remained too deeply mired in the past to shed its defensive mind-set towards Beijing. This was even more true of the government that Narendra Modi established, for he not only made it a virtue to cut all links with those who had made policy during the UPA regime, but also with those who had done so under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As a result, the new government treated President Xi’s visit more as a bilateral mending of fences, not unmixed with elements of theatre, than the culmination of a long and patiently sought rapprochement.

Whatever President Xi Jinping may have wanted to achieve during his visit was, however, sabotaged when Chinese troops surrounded an Indian outpost at Chumar, in eastern Ladakh, only days before he arrived in India. With no clear idea of the reasons behind his visit, most Indian analysts and media pundits jumped to the conclusion that he had deliberately arranged for this to happen during his visit in order to remind Modi of just who had the whip hand in Ladakh.

They could not have been more wrong. According to an Indian diplomat who was present in Ahmedabad when Modi bluntly asked Xi Jinping what had happened, the Chinese president replied, “I don’t know”, but promised to find out when he returned to Beijing. For any head of state, let alone that of China, to have to admit ignorance to his counterpart when on a state visit must have been embarrassing, if not humiliating. Again no one asked why Xi should have exposed himself to it by timing the intrusion for the day before he reached India. That he wasn’t simply saying the only thing he could have said when confronted by Modi became apparent when, on September 21, barely a day after he returned to Beijing, Xi issued a stern reprimand to the PLA to follow the dictates of the party’s military commission.

But in the next seven months, as Modi visited Japan, the US, South Korea, Australia, signed the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific document with Barack Obama and ignored Beijing’s privately voiced protests, it became apparent to China’s strategists that he had either not understood its overtures, or had decided to reverse the foreign policy of the UPA and its preceding three governments and edge into a closer embrace with the US. As a result its attitude towards India also began to change.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger, Can China and India Dominate the West?

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By drawing even closer to the United States and signing binding agreements, India is giving up years of carefully calibrated balance in its foreign policy.

File picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama in the White House in June. Credit : PTI

File picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama in the White House in June. Credit : PTI

This is the first of a three-part series on India’s foreign policy.

In two lacklustre years of governance the BJP has done very little to fulfil its promise of economic revival and vindicate the trust that the people of India had bestowed upon it. That may be why its propagandists have worked overtime to portray the signature of the Logistics and Supply Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the USA, and President Obama’s designation of India as a “major defence partner” as a huge success in his foreign policy.

With very few exceptions, commentators in the national media have fallen in line with this assessment. Only a few have noticed that in his eagerness to cement a closer defence relationship with the US Modi had given away India’s most prized asset – its zealously guarded independence of foreign policy – in exchange for a barrage of flattery and a bunch of verbal assurances that do not even add up to the proverbial thirty pieces of silver .

Declaring India a major defence partner has cost the US nothing. Unlike NATO or the US’s defence treaty with Japan, it is not a mutual defence pact and does not bind the US to coming to India’s aid if it is attacked. The most that India can possibly aspire to is a relationship somewhat similar to that of the US with Israel, where the US constantly reiterates its determination to come to Israel’s aid if it is attacked, but not via a defence treaty.

But India is not Israel. Its India-born American community is rich, and becoming politically more influential by the day. But it can never, even remotely, aspire to the power to shape US policy. American military power is not, therefore, ever likely to be deployed against India’s two main adversaries, Pakistan and China: Pakistan because it too is ‘a major non-NATO ally’, and China because it is simply too big for an already war-weary nation to take on.

In sharp contrast, the commitments that India has made to become worthy of this award (for that is all it is) are concrete, onerous and, worst of all, open-ended. Indian diplomats who have been involved in the negotiations insist that, unlike the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) that the US has signed with its other allies, it does not give the US Navy and Air Force an automatic right to use Indian bases while waging its wars. What it will facilitate automatically is the refuelling, restocking and repair of their craft at Indian naval and air bases during joint exercises, anti-piracy and other UN-sanctioned operations in the Indian Ocean.

This is the assurance that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had rushed to Beijing to give to the Chinese after postponing the signature of LEMOA at the last minute during US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to Delhi in April. But in practice, these caveats against automatic involvement in America’s wars are hollow because Delhi will find it exceedingly difficult to deny these facilities to the US once the latter has committed itself to a military operation – because of the angry reaction that will provoke in the US media, and the Congress.

LEMOA is also only the thin end of a rather fat wedge. The US has made it clear that signing it will make it easier to acquire sensitive dual-use technologies. But to get the most out of it, India will have to sign two supplementary “foundational” agreements, the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

The US needs these to ensure that sensitive technological information shared with India does not get passed onto ‘unfriendly’ countries. But this concern will cut both ways. Its immediate result will therefore be to cut India off from access to cutting edge Russian armaments and technology.

A big loss

This will not be a small loss. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Soviet Union began to come apart, it could have been argued that India did not really have any alternative but to turn to the West for advanced weaponry. But that is no longer true. The S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, Sukhoi-35 multi-role aircraft and long-range cruise missiles that Moscow unveiled in Syria last year show that the technology gap between the US and Russia has not only narrowed but, in some important areas, reversed.

There is nothing comparable to the S-400 in the western armoury, and the Su-35 costs a quarter of what India has committed itself to paying France for the Rafale. So no matter how Modi’s propagandists try to dress it up, these three agreements will lock India into permanent dependence upon American, European and Israeli suppliers and make it pay through the nose for what it gets.

Thus when CISMOA and BECA have been signed, India will lose its capacity to act independently and will become a permanent appendage of the Western alliance. To see how this could work out in practice, Modi has only to pick up the phone to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif or, better still, ask General Pervez Musharraf about how Pakistan came to join the War on Terror after 9/11.

The difference between Modi and his predecessors is that the latter were not prepared to pay this price. Manmohan Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao had coped with China’s rise by assuaging its anxieties about Indian intentions in Tibet and rapidly deepening the economic relations between the two countries. But they had simultaneously asserted India’s right to deal independently with the countries around the South China sea, to continue sheltering the Dalai Lama and to allow him to run a virtual government in exile from Dharamshala.

All three also steadily deepened India’s relationship with the US, but carefully avoided making military commitments that would limit their options in the future. Vajpayee refused President George W. Bush’s request for Indian troops to pacify Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and Manmohan Singh studiously refused to sign the logistics supply, and its supporting agreements, with the US throughout his time in office.

The success of this careful balancing act is testified to by the fact that during this period it was not only the US but also China that began to woo India. Modi’s precipitate action – taken without any of the open discussion and extended parliamentary debate that had preceded the signing of the Indo-US nuclear agreement in 2008 – has ended this hard-won equidistance and the power to influence world events that went with it.

What is even more disturbing: while it has crowned Obama’s attempt to yoke India to his goal of containing China with success, it has wantonly thrown away the best opportunity India had, or may ever have again, of making a lasting peace with China and harnessing its enormous financial, technological and managerial resources to accelerate India’s industrial development.

Breaking from Nehru’s legacy

The US must have sensed its opportunity when Modi signalled his willingness, probably during his first visit to Washington in 2014, to make a clean break with Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy in foreign policy. Barack Obama lost no time in capitalising upon this and accepted Modi’s invitation to be the guest of honour at the 2015 Republic Day celebrations. The reason why he did so at such short notice surfaced when the two leaders signed the ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ on January 25.

Encased in the fluff of mutual praise was the one paragraph that mattered: “Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” As Srinath Raghavan has pointed out in The Wire, China has a far stronger interest than the US in preserving the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea because all but a small fraction of its trade, and more importantly its import of oil, travels through it. What the US is insisting on maintaining, therefore, is the freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft.

In April 2015, this agreement bore its first fruit when four Indian warships joined a US-Japan task force spearheaded by the American super-carrier, the John C. Stennis, ostensibly to assert freedom of navigation in the South China sea. This one action, which received virtually no mention in the Indian media, revealed how little they, and Modi himself, understood the basics, let alone the nuances, of the power-struggle that is taking place in international relations today. For at the time this happened, he was within days of making his first state visit to China.

It is possible that Modi was only paying China back in its own coin for timing its intrusion into Ladakh’s Chumur sector to coincide with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014. But if this was indeed his intention, then he had not been briefed about the overtures that China had been making to forge a closer strategic relationship with India ever since 2009 and the strategic convergence that had taken place in their world views since then.

Prem Shankar Jha is a ‘senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?
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File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli meeting in Delhi last February. Credit: PTI

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli meeting in Delhi last February. Credit: PTI

New Delhi has shown commendable restraint in dismissing an alleged news ‘scoop’ by Pakistan Today, that Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team has concluded that the Pathankot terrorist attack was “ another False Flag” operation carried out by Indian security agencies to bring Pakistan into disrepute, and reiterating that its multi-level interaction with Islamabad to root out terrorism will continue .

But this only serves to highlight the confusion in other areas of India’s foreign policy today, for it is in stark contrast to the Modi government’s hectoring policy towards India’s other important neighbour, Nepal.

India’s 1850 km border with Nepal is not its longest but its most sensitive and indefensible one. All but a tiny fragment of the country lies south of the great Himalayan wall which has been India’s natural frontier in the north since pre-history. Thus, were any hostile power to gain ascendancy over the country, the entire Indo-Gangetic plain would be rendered defenceless.

In 1947 this possibility was remote. Nepal and India had fought much of their respective struggles for independence together. The Koirala brothers, who founded the Nepali Congress, found sanctuary from the wrath of the Ranas in North Bihar and took their cue unabashedly from Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Two years after gaining Independence, therefore, India expelled the Ranas and restored King Tribhuvana to power. Since then, for better or for worse, it has been mentoring Nepal’s transition into  modern statehood.

It sheltered the leaders of the democracy movement in the eighties and nineties and helped them to force King Birendra to accept of a constitutional monarch.

Difficult to frame a Constitution

It again sheltered the democrats when King Gyanendra declared an emergency in 2005, persuaded him to restore democracy in 2006, and persuaded the Maoists to end their decade long guerrilla war and return to parliamentary democracy. Since then Nepal has been trying to frame a constitution that empowers its ethnically diverse people in an equitable way. This has proved a decade long nightmare because its 29 million people belong to no fewer than 66 ethnic groups.

By the end of 2014, protracted negotiations in two Constituent Assemblies had produced a consensus in principle. Nepal would be a federal state divided into eight regions representing eight broad ethnic groupings, and while 165 members of parliament would be elected through the simple majority voting system, 110 would be elected through proportional representation. All that was left was to demarcate the eight regions, and decide whether to adopt the constitution by a majority vote or a consensus.

India had made no secret of the importance it attached to consensus. Prime minister Modi, who had signalled the importance India attached to it’s Himalayan neighbours by making his first and second bilateral visits to Bhutan and Nepal, urged the Constituent Assembly to strive for consensus during his second visit to Nepal, in November 2014.

But the differences proved intractable. In the summer of 2015 the Constituent Assembly ran out of patience and decided to adopt the new constitution by a majority vote, leaving the demarcation of the regions to be decided later. This set off an immediate, violent, protest from two major groups in the Terai, the Madhesis and the Tharus, who feared that this was a stratagem for restoring the domination of the hill peoples over the Terai.

When, despite this,  the Constituent Assembly adopted the new constitution on September 20, India had to choose between not intervening and allowing Nepal to learn from its own mistakes, or make it rethink its options by expressing its displeasure in a more concrete way. Narendra Modi chose the latter option.

Within hours Indian Oil Corporation’s tankers stopped carrying transport fuels to Nepal. From around 300 trucks and tankers a day the number dropped to between 10 and 15. In Nepal diesel, gasoline and kerosene stocks dwindled, prices shot up and a black market was instantly born. On September 23 the Nepali government imposed draconian fuel rationing, accused Delhi of imposing a blockade and, a short while later, took its complaint to the UN.

New Delhi blames Madhesi unrest

New Delhi’s spokesmen put the blame for the blockade upon the Madhesi unrest which, they claimed, had made truck drivers fear for their lives. But this was not convincing because the Madhesi agitation had begun 40 days before the fuel blockade began. What is more, the drivers of trucks carrying fruit and vegetables did not seem to share this insecurity.

Modi has been accused of imposing the blockade out of personal pique. But this trivialises a very difficult decision. Delhi understood that to enjoy legitimacy a democratic constitution had to be accepted by everybody, and not by only a majority. Ramming it down the throats of the Madhesis and Tharus without even an agreed demarcation of their regions would only exacerbate the conflict and make India’s position more difficult because of its shared ethnicity with the Terai.

New Delhi may have wanted Nepal to rethink its options, but unlike 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi’s year-long oil blockade ended absolute monarchy in Nepal, this time the cure is likely to prove worse than the disease, because the Nepali government has turned for help to China. And China now has both the capacity and the motivation, coming from its slowing economy, to help Nepal end India’s stranglehold upon it.

This became abundantly clear in the last week of March when Nepal’s prime minister, K.P.Sharma Oli paid a week-long visit to Beijing at the invitation of Chinese premier Li Keqiang. During the visit China signed a trade and transit agreement with Nepal that will enable it to trade with third countries through Tianjin, the port closest to Beijing,  pledged $216 million to build an airport at Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, and to build a bridge at Hilsa in the extreme west of the country to connect it by road to Tibet.

These projects will provide considerable psychological relief to Nepal but will reduce India’s coercive power to only a limited extent. What will come close to destroying it, however , is the proposed 562 km rail link between Lhasa and Kathmandu, for Lhasa is already linked by high speed trains to the rest of China.

China’s giant infrastructure companies, which face rapidly shrinking order books, have been eyeing this gargantuan project, which requires drilling a tunnel under Mount Everest, and other giant projects, like a nine dam, 40,000 MW, power project on the Big Bend of the Yarlung-Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) , for some time. Indeed Beijing’s entire One Road One Belt policy is driven very largely by the need to keep its companies, and their vast labour force, employed.

Modi’s decision to blockade, or let the Madhesis blockade Nepal (for Kathmandu the difference is immaterial) has removed whatever inhibitions Nepal had felt till then about the rail link project.

Chinese signals to Nepal

Equally important were the political signals that Oli sent out during his visit. He described China as Nepal’s “All Weather Friend”, a pointed invocation of China’s description of Pakistan ( whom China has now raised to ‘Iron Brothers Forever’), and a reminder that India is a friend only when it suits it to be one.

He also signed a free trade agreement with China and committed Nepal to participating actively in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. These are largely symbolic gestures when more than two-thirds of its trade is with India, but they signal the end of Nepal’s acceptance of Indian bilateralism.

The Madhesis suspended their agitation at the end of February and oil began to flow to Nepal once more. But neither capital seems to have realised that the blockade, and Kathmandu’s reaction, have brought India-Nepal relations to a fork in the road. Last week, after returning to Kathmandu, Oli said that India had lifted the blockade because it had proved futile. This was not only because it had drawn a barrage of international criticism but because Nepal had not succumbed to it.

His remarks show that Oli has still not grasped what Delhi, with India’s vast experience of ethnic federalism, has understood all along — that no country can impose a Constitution upon a dissenting minority and remain a democracy for very long. The Madhesis have warned the government that they will resume their agitation in May. If Oli does not resume talks to arrive at an agreed demarcation of the eight regions before then, and relies on force again, the divide between the hills and plains of Nepal will widen further and imperil the unity of the country.

Had they been left to themselves Nepali politicians would have come to this conclusion sooner or later. But the support promised by China has given them false confidence, and lessened their awareness of danger. Modi’s faux pas has therefore pushed Nepal towards a relationship with China that could land it in the same predicament that Israel faces today. Unconditional American military , economic , technological and political support during and after the Cold War made it unnecessary for Israel to negotiate peace with its neighbours and the Palestinians when they had a chance to do so. Today the opportunity has passed: Israel faces rising terrorism, and does not know what to do.

Given the organising power of the social media, and the easy availability of arms in the black market, Kathmandu could find itself facing a similar situation in the Terai in not years but in months.

Does India want Nepal to go down this bitter road? The answer must be ‘no’. But to make it reverse tack Delhi must first stop treating Nepal as a de-facto protectorate, and help it to complete its transition to full nation-statehood. The first requirement for this is to respect Nepal’s sovereignty, scrupulously respect all treaty obligations and avoid intervening in its internal affairs.

This requires allowing its government to make, and to learn from, its own mistakes. In the immediate future, if Oli forces the Madhesis to resume their stir in May, India must still ensure that IOC’s oil tankers reach the distribution points within the country. This will involve forming convoys, cooperating with the Nepali army, and persuading the Madhesis that there are other, less destructive, ways of attaining their political goals. Delhi should remember that giving public support to the Madhesis movement can do to them exactly what Chinese support is threatening to do to Kathmandu.

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