Commentary: Domestic politics may delay Indias truce with China

SINGAPORE: For the first time since 1975, skirmishes at the India-China border have resulted in military casualties, marking a critical juncture in bilateral relations.

This is a key moment for the wider Asian region, with states keenly observing Chinas behaviour and attempting to discern its intentions.



Yet, in his much-anticipated address to the nation on Tuesday (Jun 30), Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained conspicuously silent on China – focusing instead on COVID-19 and social assistance schemes.

It may seem like a strange omission, but the Modi government is treading carefully when it comes to this crisis with China, as it has domestic political implications.


Indias ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has historically been more apprehensive about China than the Congress party and it perceives the Congress and other “left” parties in India to be ideologically different to it and more sympathetic to China.



The BJP and other nationalist groups also blame Indias 1962 humiliating defeat to China on the Congress partys naïveté and misreading of Chinese intentions.

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When it was still in opposition in 2014, the BJP openly accused the Congress for the loss against China, based on a leaked copy of the classified Henderson Brooks report of Indias 1962 defeat which blames Congress and then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehrus failed strategy.

This stance was repeated after the most recent Chinese incursion when BJP's Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad took a dig at the Congress in a virtual rally that "it was no longer the India of 1962, and the country is led by a courageous leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not by the Congress".

Since the BJPs sweeping victory in the 2014 general elections, the debate within India on China has taken a distinct turn.

Narendra Modi's trip to Ladakh comes after a deadly clash with Chinese soldiers that saw 20 Indian troops killed last month AFP/Handout

In public discussions, many of the BJPs supporters articulate the view that, unlike earlier administrations, Modis government will not capitulate to Chinese tactics in challenging India at the border as well as within South Asia.

Many Indian observers believe that China deliberately drags out its border issue with India and tests Indian resolve through these occasional incursions which also helps it achieve continued territorial expansion gradually.

Even within policy and academic circles in India, those who previously suggested that India and China can and should examine areas of mutual benefit became increasingly scarce.

READ: Commentary: China and India – the regions twin growth engines – are stuttering

Previously, it was believed that earlier Indian governments lacked the political will in their dealings with China. But this BJP government, in line with its domestic image and policies, is perceived to be more assertive and bold and could “stand up” to China too. Hence the change in the domestic narrative on China.

This public discourse helps consolidate the BJPs image as a party that is decisive when it comes to defending Indias interests.


Meanwhile, within the government, Dr S Jaishankars influence has steadily risen – first, as Foreign Secretary in PM Modis first term and then, somewhat unexpectedly, as External Affairs Minister in the second administration at present.

Dr Jaishankars views on dealing with China can be discerned from his public statements since his appointment as Foreign Secretary and seem to significantly influence PM Modis approach to China. This approach consisted originally of three parts as outlined below.

First, there was the realistic acknowledgment that India and China are strategic competitors and the border dispute is a symptom of and not the cause of this strategic competition.

This strategic competition was also not based on misperceptions and thus will not be resolved merely through greater dialogue and exchange.

Indias Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar speaks to CNA in an interview on the In Conversation programme.

This did not mean, however, that India and China could not manage this rivalry and it was not inevitable that the two countries will engage in direct military conflict. Prasad himself revealed this approach when he added: “We [India] want disputes to be resolved peacefully.”

India, however, had to make its red lines clear to China and be prepared to act if these were crossed.

READ: Commentary: Look out for the oncoming great China-India split

This approach was outlined in August 2019, when on an official visit to China, Dr Jaishankar outlined that both countries needed to ensure that “differences between us, if any, should not become disputes” and that the 2018 Wuhan summit between the two leaders had allowed “a deep, constructive and open exchange of views” and he “has seen the impact of that on bilateral relations since”.

Second, and related to the first point, it is believed that that Chinas foreign policy is driven by the Communist Party of Chinas (CCP) need to make sure its domestic legitimacy is intact and, thus, public criticisms of China or its foreign policy makes the CCP uncomfortable as it is also seen as a direct threat to the CCPs domestic legitimacy.

Thus, the BJP government mostly refrains from public criticism of China as it feels that such an approach is counter-productive.

In fact, it appeared that the Modi government aimed to communicate Indian views personally at the highest levels, and away from the media, at the various Xi-Modi meetings.

In late June, in the aftermath of the death of soldiers at the border, Dr Jaishankar, in a virtual trilateral meeting between India, Russia and China, made the understated point that the worlds “leading voices” must “respect international law” and “recognise the interests of partners” without mentioning China explicitly.

This understatement was viewed by observers as a continuation of Indian quiet diplomacy with China even during an apparent crisis.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal remarked that Dr Jaishankars statement demonstrated that “our firmness of resolve to defend our sovereignty and security has been quietly expressed, without rousing public opinion against Chinas unacceptable conduct.”


Third, the government initially believed there was space, albeit limited, for China and India to work on smaller, niche issues together, including trade and investment in line with Modis goals for Indias economic development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (Photo; China Daily via REUTERS/File Photo)

However, by the beginning of Modis second term, it became apparent thRead More – Source

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