India may ultimately pay the price for siding with the US
First, the three month Doklam standoff with the Chinese army and now the Galwan valley issue, why are the border issues with China coming up again and again in recent years? The answer is straightforward. Prime Minister Modi’s stance on China has fallen victim to a “walnut” approach, ie, strong on the outside, soft on the inside.
Implications of the Galwan valley conflict
In February 2020, the visit of President Donald Trump to India strengthened defense ties with each other. The US president considers Modi to be a dear friend. The current anti-China crusade by the US amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic is not an unknown fact.
A reason why the conflict at the Galwan valley emerged now could be because of the negative attention garnered towards China at the world stage. Maybe, a power play could put it back on track. Coming to India’s response to China, India had followed the US stance of anti-China, so much so that the US president himself offered to mediate the conflict.
Historically, Indian diplomatic relations had emerged from the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM was the association of the newly independent developing countries’ resolution to move away from being part of the race between the US and USSR. India has moved away from being a neutral party to the race amidst the superpowers. It is now taking sides with the US.
According to Kishore Mahabubani, a veteran Indian diplomat and the author of Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, the best geo-political position for India to take is to be somewhere in the middle of China and the US to balance one against the other and avoid exploitation. In the end, it is India and not the US which will pay the price.
Understanding the Doklam conflict
The conflict at the Galwan valley is not the first instance of border conflict in recent years. In 2017, there was a three month long stand-off between the army personnel of India and China from June to August.
Just two weeks before this conflict, Narendra Modi said: “It is true that we have a border dispute with China. But in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of it.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying remarked in response: “We have noted the positive remarks made by Prime Minister Modi. We welcome that.”
Now, this conflict was again not an isolated issue without any US implication. It should be noted that India and the US signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in August 2016, in which both countries can use each other’s military facilities. The growing relations of India and the US and boycotting China’s Belt and Road Forum’s (BRF) inaugural conference in Beijing could be seen as the reason for the Doklam stand-off.
What changed since 2014?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. In his first term, Sushma Swaraj was appointed as the minister of external affairs and Dr S Jaishankar was brought in as the foreign secretary in January 2015, mere days before his retirement as the former ambassador to the US.
This was the strategic shift under Modi. Dr S Jaishankar is known to be pro-American and anti-Chinese. Infact, his 2007 article titled “India and US: New direction” published by Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, argues for strong Indo-US ties for regime changes in China. Since he joined as foreign secretary in 2015, Dr S Jaishankar expedited the signing of the LEMOA. It was after this that the Doklam stand-off happened and the ongoing conflict in Ladakh continues under Jaishankar, now the external affairs minister.
Now, I am not saying to hamper India’s own progress in order to avoid conflict with China. But why such neglect or underestimation of China when it comes to foreign policy for China. That too, to such a limit that 20 Indian lives have been lost due to the ongoing border crisis without technically firing a bullet.
Paradoxical Indian strategy towards China
If we look at the beginning of India’s policy for China, let us start with the colonial times. Joseph Prabhu’s famous essay, Gandhi and Peacemaking, explains that the West and non-West are viewed through the West’s perspective. While Gandhi reflected on his experience of the British culture, first in his student days at London and then, in the colonized country of South Africa, to come to the worldview through India’s eyes, somehow, India is following the western perspective on China.
India should understand that there are no such terms as “friend” and “trust” in international relations. The current day Western-educated policy-makers, bureaucrats, and politicians, who make the Indian diplomatic community, are still looking through the Western perspective. Of course, the conditions in the West have improved for South Asians since then, but the Western gaze towards foreign policy isn’t going to benefit India.
Just like a walnut, India believes that the country has become a superpower. India lags behind China and the US economically, politically, strategically, technologically, and militarily.
Since 2014, India has even lost its South Asian allies; the conflict with Nepal over the Kalapani map issue or, for the first time, the killing of an Indian citizen at the India-Nepal border. India is even losing its influence with Bhutan over India’s unfavourable terms for financing Bhutan’s hydropower projects.
Outwardly, India has made its commitment, according to Modi, to “building an open, multipolar, pluralist, and participatory global economic order” at the Wuhan informal summit in April 2018. Continuously, the world and India itself have really supported the US imperialist agenda. So, what is it if not a paradox?
Lastly, at the beginning of the global pandemic, some studies showed the malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to be effective due to which the HCQ-producing countries put restrictions on the import, and so did India.
Then what happened? After the threat of retaliation from President Trump, India lifted its restrictions and sent HCQ to the States. The effectiveness of this drug was later debunked but at that time, there was much hype over it.
Let us also not forget the recent US suspension of visas allowing foreigners to work. While the US has expressed solidarity on Twitter, no such solidarity has been shown on the diplomatic front, when 70% of H-1B visas are issued to Indians, making them the most affected ones. Maybe this is what Kishore Mahabubani meant by India and not the US having to pay the price.
So, are the India-US ties really strong or is it losing its sway, not only to the US but to other countries? Maybe India needs to realize that it is not the top priority of Trump’s strategy and needs to look after its own interests.
As dramatic as S Jaishankar’s appointment was, his tenure with the foreign affairs ministry has been equally dramatic for India’s foreign policy towards China. How much India loses and how repairable it will be, only time will tell.
Mozammil Ahmad is an independent researcher and a student of law at University of Delhi.