24 August 2017

Will Doval hold the line, disregarding the ‘Beijing Syndrome’?

by Bharat Karnad

NSA Ajit Doval leaves for Beijing to confer with his opposite number on the Special Representative-level talks to resolve the border dispute, the State Counselor Yang Jiechi. But Doval is being welcomed by a barrage, to add to the verbal fusillade by the Chinese defence ministry, of rhetorical escalation now involving the Foreign Minister Wang Yi. In a censorious tone that almost sounds comical, he asked Delhi to “conscientiously withdraw its troops”. Yes, there has been an invasion, as Beijing claims, but it is by the Peoples Liberation Army elements on Bhutanese territory, and the sooner the Zhongnanhai recovers a bit of sanity and restores the status quo ante, the better it will be for China. Because already it has gone way out on a limb and, with most of the small and big states in Asia and elsewhere watching, has more face to lose when eventually it backs down from an untenable position, as it will have to.

For the first time the Indian government has shown some spine and, more, displayed considerable cunning in giving Beijing a very big stage to publicly make a fool of itself. The initial resolve to ensure the intruding PLA troops don’t have their way on the Doklam Plateau and the Indian jawans and officers standing their ground, backed by a determined build-up in the rear areas, was as powerful a move as it was unexpected, especially to the Chinese. The confusion it sowed in the Chinese ranks bubbled up all the way through the Xigatze, Chengdu military commands to Beijing and is manifested in precisely the spate of nervously impolitic statements issued by all and sundry. China has been pushed on to the backfoot and it will be good to keep it there.

This is a great call made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his moves to-date where his government has played it so cool, have been unerringly right. The question is what has he advised Doval to do? One only hopes he has told the NSA to stick by the line laid down at the PM’s behest by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in Parliament of no preconditions and simultaneous withdrawal by the PLA to the Batang La perimeter and the Indian troops to their start-off points before any talks. There should be no flexibility, no give, in this respect because the Chinese can take a mile when offered an inch. There’s, moreover, no time guillotine coming down to arrive at a hurried compromise. It is the PLA unit out of the sub-regional command that is at the end of a fairly long logistics chain, while the Indian forward supply system is arrayed on a shorter, tighter, grid. So, if the Chinese want their soldiers to spend the coming winter at the Dok La heights, it is no skin off our backs. But the principle of the inviolability of the Bhutan border and Thimpu’s territorial claims has to be maintained at all cost by India.

So, what’s the problem? As always it is the Mandarin-speaking veterans of MEA who have pulled long stints in China and suffer from the ‘Beijing syndrome’ — the diplomatic equivalent of the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, wherein Indian diplomats begin so empathizing with the Chinese and their point of view, that they end up pushing the Beijing line to the govt of India, through the China Desk at the MEA and the ‘China Study Circle’ (CSC), which should long ago have been disbanded but is persisted with by the powers that be. These China-lovers are pushing for a compromise that will hurt the Indian national interest, and that’s the problem. This band of China lovers have reached top positions (NSA, Foreign Secretary), monopolized India’s China policy, and made a mess of it over the last 50 years, because their instincts are to adjust, accommodate, compromise, and surrender. It was CSC, for instance, that advocated participation in Xi Jinping’s OBOR project until they were firmly over-ruled by Modi. Hope the PM does not at this stage succumb to CSC advice.

Modi and India have gained a lot of admiration in Asia and the world by showing, for a change, some spirit. It shouldn’t be frittered away in the false hope that concessions by Doval will lead to peace on the border. It won’t but will rather only lead to more demands, more truculence and gross misbehaviour. Ask Yangbon, Hanoi, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul.

A sideline issue, but yesterday evening I heard some commentators on TV talk about this country not being up on the public relations game compared to China. Actually, one of the great pluses of the Indian policy so far is exactly that the Modi government hasn’t been voluble or over-hyped the situation. It’s been low key and low to the ground, leaving it to China to blow the whole thing out of proportion and face regional and global ridicule. Nothing reduces a big power as much as ridicule. The Doklam confrontation is a subject matter that the numerous comedy outfits on Indian social media should make a meal of. Much fun can be had there.

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