India’s Border Diplomacy: An opportunity for China

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Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to India-China border at Nathu La in Sikkim has marked yet another instance of India’s foreign policy initiatives. While the Defence Minister’s visit to the border is a great morale booster for the Army and the country as a whole, her gesture of exchanging pleasantries with the Chinese troops sends across India’s message. It indicates that India is always ready to face any challenge to its national security and sovereignty but at the same time it is ready to move forward and approach all the issues in a peaceful manner.

Coming at the backdrop of the Doklam stand-off, this visit assumes great deal of importance. While Chinese social media praised Ms. Sitharaman for her ‘Namaste’ gesture, Chinese foreign ministry did not attach any importance to this visit. And although India should also not expect too much that from this one event China could rethink its stand and look forward to consider the ‘offer’ from India to resolve the pending issues.

There are several reasons for China to take up this opportunity. Firstly the 19th Congress of Chinese Communist Party is starting on October 18, 2017. This conference is an important platform for Chinese President Xi Jinping to prove his credentials as the leader of China. Disengagement at Doklam and acknowledgement of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism at the BRICS Summit, were the starting points of the efforts to avoid any challenge to his position. This meeting will also decide the future course that China would take. It would set strategic goals for the future.

Another factor is the shape that US’ policy is taking towards South Asia. Donald Trump’s Afghan policy followed by warning issued to Pakistan has marked a shift in the policy followed by previous US administrations. US has also called for a greater role by India in Afghanistan. Considering the high economic and strategic stakes that China has in Pakistan (and even in Afghanistan), this policy does pose a challenge to China to some extent. The US policy has indications of formation of new geopolitical equations in Asia. However, it is clear that India will not send its army in Afghanistan and will continue to contribute in the development and rebuilding of Afghanistan. And although US would not totally abandon Pakistan, the latter is under considerable pressure at the moment. This is a new phenomenon in US-Pakistan relations.

Stronger India-US ties and increasing international pressure on Pakistan is a matter of concern for China. Pressure on Pakistan would not only affect the economic interests of China but it would also create complications in the bilateral relations between the two countries.

The only thing going in favour of China at the moment is the size of its economy. Currently China’s economy is five times the size of Indian economy. China is using this advantage as leverage to forward its ambitions of expansion. It will take some time for India to match China’s economic might. However, India has diplomatic advantage. India has not only been able to raise the issue of Pakistan sponsored terrorism on international platforms, it has also been successful in gathering support. India should use its diplomacy with US and also Afghanistan to further create pressure on Pakistan. India also has the success of Doklam stand-off in recent times. This stand-off has sent across the message that China cannot have its own way all the time. This message is important for those countries which are at risk because of China’s expansion plans. A challenge to China from these countries cannot be ruled out in future.

Further, North Korea provides one more reason to escalate tensions between Washington D.C. and Beijing. China using North Korea may not work since US, Japan and South Korea would keep all types of response options open to any threat.

Despite a strong economy, China has a number of diplomatic and strategic problems. It is true that China has created these problems itself. It is also possible that over ambitiousness on China’s part on account of One Belt One Road (OBOR) might actually backfire and diplomatic isolation of China cannot be ruled out in future.

Even now it seems, unlikely that China would change its course. However, India has offered an opportunity to China. Now the ball is in China’s court.

(The author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at – [email protected])

Niranjan Marjani

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)