The invitation to 10 ASEAN leaders and heads of government as Chief Guests on Republic day, focused conversations on new and emerging alliances, and ongoing tensions between India and China on the Doklam plateau, make it clear that 2018’s foreign policy focus is directed Eastward. Even though a ‘Look East Policy’ has officially, and some would argue, ineffectively, been in place for over two decades now, Ram Madhav, Director of the India Foundation, and the BJP led government’s key foreign policy voice announced at the Raisina Dialogue 2018 that “India has to completely re-orient its strategic mindset. A shift is needed from Westward to Eastward Thinking. From Land-based thinking to Ocean centric thinking.” In this new world view, India, and its large peninsula jutting into the waters in the heart of the Indian Ocean, must expand its influence and reach from the eastern coast of the African continent to the western edge of Pacific waters not just to counter-balance China, but to positively and clearly emerge as the leader of Asia. China’s march across land and sea in to North, Central and South Asia via the Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime ‘Silk Route’ is seen by most as an attempt to encircle India and contain Delhi’s reach and influence. This makes China India’s single biggest security challenge; adding layers of complexity to the already complex and tenuous ties between Delhi and Beijing.
For India, with its history of troubled ties with China that range from a serious border dispute to water wars, the challenge is to remain engaged and avoid standoffs while asserting its own reach and power, both domestically and in the wider Asian region. When Prime Minister Modi went to Xiamen to attend the 9th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit, everyone believed a military standoff between the two countries had been averted by some deft diplomacy after 72 days of eyeball to eyeball confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops on the Plateau. However, the truth is that this confrontation is far from over. For the better part of the last six months, Delhi and Beijing have been locked in cold conflict on the Doklam Plateau, located at the crossroads of India, Bhutan and China, but firmly in Bhutanese territory. Chinese intentions to build a road southwards from the plateau, giving it potential access to Gyemochen, 30 kilometres south of Batangla, the watershed at which point the current tri-junction is marked, is anathema to Delhi. China’s design to move the watershed to Gyemochen is clear – it is to force India’s hand and insist a new boundary line is drawn east from Gyemochen, thereby putting Arunachal into Chinese territory. This is unacceptable to India.
Before hyper-nationalist media in both countries could ratchet up the rhetoric and make headlines pushing for greater confrontation that Delhi is determined to avoid, the Ministry of External Affairs hastily pointed out that India and China have ‘mechanisms’ in place to ensure things don’t spiral out of control. However, India cannot afford to presume these mechanisms will work especially given that the ‘disengagement’ of August 28, 2017 does not appear to be accepted by large sections in the Chinese establishment. If anything, the presence of Chinese troops in Doklam- whether returned following disengagment or continued indicates two things. One, that Delhi may want to employ mechanisms but has no real force, no one person to talk to on the Chinese side in order to de-escalate, and two, that the mechanism means very little, when time and time again the Chinese have shown utter disregard for India’s concerns.
Chinese incursions, right from Depsang in 2013 and Chumar in 2014 (even as Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi walked on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad) must be taken in conjunction with an assertive Xi signaling an aggression and activism that Delhi is finding hard to counter on its own. In fact, analysts believe that the de-escalation over Doklam in August last year was more a result of the fact that Xi wanted to focus attention on the 19th Party Congress and push for greater power domestically, as well as sharpen his image as a globally responsible leader ready to fill a vacuum created by Donald Trump’s unpredictability and brinkmanship. With that in the bank, it was only natural that things would flare up with Delhi again.
India may well have asserted itself and its military interests by blocking China’s Doklam adventure, but it would be ill advised to assume even the deftest diplomacy with Beijing will dial down these tensions anytime soon. If one looks at China’s aggressive behaviour towards India in the context of other developments, it is safe to assume that the presence of 10 ASEAN leaders in Delhi putting their heads together to improve regional cooperation, connectivity and security with India, in the Indian Ocean, in South-east Asia has made Beijing more anxious. This invites the question if it could be the reason for Beijing’s renewed sabre-rattling on Doklam. After all, the timing is perfect.
ASEAN leaders while in India will also be looking to India to help ensure that access to sea routes remain open and not threatened in the face of Chinese expansionism. As countries like Vietnam and Philippines fight to secure the areas like the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough shoal from China respectively, for India, the focus has been on connectivity and development of sea lanes, much less on security and Delhi has been clearly hesitant to take a position on Chinese aggression in the resource rich South China Sea. The waterway is a key sea-lane for global trade- more than 5 trillion dollars worth of goods pass through its waters annually. This, along with its offshore oil and gas blocks has led to the Chinese navy sailing forth, undeterred by international courts rejecting its claims on any of these islands.
ASEAN nations would like to see India take a stand, but the maritime security imperative in the Indian Ocean from Delhi’s lens is not necessarily in sync with the geography of ASEAN. It lies closer to India’s own coastlines and waterways. Looking eastward, India’s imperative is economic- freedom of navigation (FoN) has predominantly guided engagement with ASEAN countries in the maritime domain and India’s hesitation to support them vociferously against China is a thorny issue. Complicating things further is the proximity of some ASEAN nations to Beijing, and the fact that ASEAN functions on consensus, with veto powers to all members.
Seen against these realities, it is apparent that Delhi’s advantage lies in fighting its own diplomatic war against Beijing via other routes, and new and unusual strategic alliances with ready partners. The newly formed “Quad” comprising India, Japan, Australia and United States of America is perhaps the most significant of them all. In fact, the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in reference to the Quad, as opposed to ‘Asia Pacific’ (preferred by the Chinese) is more than just an acknowledgement of the threat of Chinese expansionism, in all but name. While it re-orients strategic thinking in this new direction, Delhi will also have to assure ASEAN leaders that its partnership in the Quad does not mean it will divert attention away from the regional grouping. No single ASEAN nation has openly endorsed it, in fact, many are inherently sceptical and some feel left out of an important strategic move that affects them directly. Also at Raisina, Dino Patti Djalal of Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Community echoed ASEAN concerns of being caught in the crosshairs of a new fight between China and what Beijing is viewing as an ‘Asian’ NATO. For Indonesia and indeed the other nine ASEAN members, China is a reality- one that needs to be handled cleverly, and one they need to be able to live with. For India however, the Quad throws up a world of opportunities to explore alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Route plans. If diplomacy works, India can use this Republic Day visit to garner ASEAN support for its move, but negotiations will involve give and take.
Beijing may flex its muscles in Doklam to show India as weak to the very countries it is trying to engage with, but Delhi’s gains will lie in balancing its diplomatic act with both East and West- engaging with the United States and Europe while asserting its own prominence and linkages with the wider Southeast Asian region. If it pulls this off, perhaps the mandarins of the MEA do have China to thank for the coming together of strong democracies, big economic powers and regional heavyweights, all partnering for common cause.
This article was written for the China Chronicles on orfonline.org