Build up at the Line of Actual Control on the disputed border between China and India

Dealing with the Dragon: Delhi might have finally decided to shrug off strategic ambiguity

Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced Wuhan to India almost two years before the Chinese city came to be known as the ‘Ground Zero’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his host Chinese President Xi Jinping took a stroll by the East Lake, went on a boat-ride, sipped tea and had lunch together. Their picture-perfect camaraderie made the first India-China ‘informal summit’ in April 2018 a success. It brought back on track the bilateral relations that had hit the nadir following the 72-day-long military stand-off in Doklam the previous year.

The Modi-Xi bonhomie was again on display at the second ‘informal summit’ at a seaside resort near Chennai in October 2019.

There was, however, no trace of the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ or the ‘Chennai Connect’ on the banks of the Pangong Tso lake in eastern Ladakh on May 5, when Chinese soldiers attacked Indian soldiers with stones and sticks near the disputed boundary between the two nations. Over the next few weeks, China deployed nearly 5,000 troops near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border between India and China – even as hundreds of its soldiers transgressed into areas that have for long been understood to be Indian territory. India responded by rushing additional troops “in adequate numbers” to forward positions. The build-up by both sides escalated tension all along the LAC. A skirmish was also reported from Naku La in northern Sikkim on May 9.

The ‘Wuhan Spirit’ started fading after China joined its “all-weather ally” Pakistan to oppose the Modi government’s move last year to reorganise the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. Beijing saw in the Ladakh move a bid by Delhi to strengthen its claim on Aksai Chin, which is currently under China’s control. China’s recent aggression on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso was triggered by the construction of a strategic road and a bridge by India. China perceives these constructions as a prelude to a military move by India to wrest control of Aksai Chin.

The LAC is not the only scene where India is at the receiving end of the new aggression that China has resorted to amid the Covid-19 crisis. Beijing is said to have encouraged Nepal to ratchet up its territorial dispute with India. Meanwhile, the Power Construction Corporation of China has embarked on building the Diamer-Bhasha hydro-electric plant in Gilgit-Baltistan, area under illegal occupation by Pakistan.

China has also stepped up its bid to spread its tentacles in the seas around India. The Chinese Navy recently deployed its 35th Task Force in the Indian Ocean, on the pretext of patrolling the sea lanes to protect vessels from pirates. The task force has altogether 690 naval personnel, with the missile destroyer Taiyan and frigate Jingzhou joining ‘counter piracy’ patrol in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

Unsurprisingly, while Modi has discussed the Covid-19 crisis with many foreign leaders over phone in the past three months, he and Xi have not had a call on the subject. Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind did exchange greetings with their counterparts in Beijing on April 1, on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China. None, however, invoked the ‘Wuhan Spirit’.

On the other hand, Modi has called US President Donald Trump twice in this period. The second call, on June 2, surprised many as he not only supported Trump’s plan to expand the G-7 to G-11 (without China), but also discussed with him the escalating India-China border tension, just after giving the cold shoulder to Trump’s earlier offer to mediate between the two Asian countries. Modi not only discussed the LAC situation with Trump, he made sure that it was made public, perhaps in a message to Beijing that if China could not rein in its aggression, it would end up pushing India into America’s waiting arms.

Indeed, that may have already happened. For the Modi-Trump call is not the only sign that India may have tired of the strategic ambiguity it has so far meticulously maintained.

India joined the US, Japan and Australia to re-launch the ‘Quad’ in November 2017 to build a bulwark against the hegemonic aspirations of China in the Indo-Pacific region but had done so hesitatingly and only as a hedge. Indeed, as Delhi’s efforts to mend ties with Beijing gained momentum after Wuhan, India tweaked its policy on the Indo-Pacific, stating that its vision for the region was inclusive and not hostile to any particular country.

This week, though, India signed a military logistics sharing pact with Australia – a move, which came amid China’s growing belligerence, not only on the banks of the Pangong Tso, but also in the contested waters of South China Sea and East China Sea. India had already signed a similar pact with the US in 2016 and is set to ink another with Japan soon. Delhi also seems willing now to invite Australia to join India, US and Japan in naval drills, a move likely to rile Beijing.

That’s not all. New Delhi also joined a subtle bid by the US to expand the Quad. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla has been in regular contact with US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, as well as with his counterparts not only in Australia and Japan but also in Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea. Though the professed objective of the weekly video-conference they have is to share ideas and best practices to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, it is clear that India is not opposed to the US-led initiative to build a “Quad Plus” to pre-empt an expansion of China’s influence in the region in the post-Covid-19 world order.

Under Modi, just like under previous governments, India went the extra mile between April 2018 and August 2019 to respect Beijing’s sensitivities, including on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, to keep the India-China d├ętente on track. It, however, got very little in return. China continues to oppose India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It still defends its “iron brother” Pakistan in the United Nations and other international forums. Its bid to encircle India through a “string of pearls” has been unrelenting. It continues to build an ‘economic corridor’ that passes through territory claimed by India but illegally occupied by Pakistan. And, it continues its salami slice tactics to cut off pieces of Indian territory all along the LAC.