India alters template of ties with expansionist China

India has significantly rewritten the longstanding premise of its relationship with China. For years, the bilateral relationship centred around an essential delinking of the boundary — seen as ‘managing’ tensions along the LAC — from the larger relationship of trade, investment and increased diplomatic ties.

Agreements from 1993 onwards built on protocols for maintaining “peace and tranquillity” on a boundary that is not demarcated, allowing each side to largely patrol its established lines. This allowed other parts of the relationship to move forward, despite doubts and suspicion that lay beneath. This was followed by all governments from Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi. It was held up as a template to Pakistan that India and China could be mature enough to go ahead with the rest of their relationship and insulate the boundary dispute.

China’s heightened aggression and the Galwan clashes has undone that template. PM Narendra Modi’s remarks in Leh on Friday sharpened the reversal of that policy, the first inkling of which was evident in the scrutiny of Chinese investments and the political underpinning of the “self-reliant India” campaign.

When he slammed “ vistar vaad” (expansionism) in his remarks to Indian troops, Modi directly addressed China, without once referring to it by name. “In the past centuries, expansionism has done the greatest harm to humanity, even tried to destroy humanity… history is witness that such forces have been erased or forced to turn back,” he said.

The bilateral relationship will now depend not on trade and summitry but on the boundary being respected and resolved. In a sense, we’re back to the India-Pakistan situation of 2000 when former US President Bill Clinton warned against redrawing boundaries “in blood” and urged respect for the LoC.

Former ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale said, “By changing the status quo on the ground and bringing in huge numbers of troops along with armour and artillery, China is responsible for breaking the peace. Hence, she is responsible for all that has happened on the LAC.”

China fired the first shot — by intruding into Indian territory, instigating the clashes in Galwan that killed 20 Indian soldiers and claiming territory it had not earlier. India has now indicated that it will take its own series of steps in retaliation. Modi’s visit seemed to indicate that India is willing to pay the costs of escalation.

Modi’s visit to a Leh hospital to meet injured soldiers is equally significant in light of the fact that China is yet to acknowledge its dead or injured soldiers. Incidentally, this is not the first time Modi has targeted China over its “expansionist” nature. In 2014, on his first visit to Japan after taking over as PM, Modi excoriated “expansionist” moves by countries encroaching on others’ seas, a reference then to China moving into Japanese territory in the East China Sea.

“We have to decide if we want to have ‘vikas vaad’ (development) or ‘vistar vaad’ (expansionism). Those who follow the path of Buddha and have faith in ‘vikas vaad’, they develop. Those with ideas of the 18th century, engage in encroachments,” Modi had said. Six years on, his message is the same, the target is same, only the theatre is different.

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