The longer prime minister Modi governs the nation the more does it become apparent that he is heeding no advice from anyone in his government but himself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the changes he has wrought to India’s relations with its largest, and potentially most dangerous neighbor, China. For it is absolutely inconceivable that a Foreign ministry headed by an official who had been India’s Ambassador to China till as recently as 2013, will not have cautioned him against inviting the US Ambassador to India to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
Not only is Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims to be a part of Tibet, but its famed monastery, the second largest in the world, has made it the single most sensitive spot in that region. In 2009, largely unnoticed by the Indian media, China and India had drifted close to war over the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit to open a hospital in Tawang town. Conflict was averted when Prime minister Manmohan Singh readily acceded to a request by Premier Wen Jiabao at an APEC meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, to keep the international media out of Tawang and prevent it from giving the visit international significance.
The sensitivity to each others’ concerns that the two leaders displayed then began a six year honeymoon in which China and India agreed to set the border disputes of the past aside and pursue closer strategic cooperation on the international issues of the future. That is the honeymoon that prime minister Modi has gratuitously ended with not one but a succession of actions spread over the past 22 months culminating in four Indian warships cruising through the South China Sea with a joint US-Japan task force for two-and-a-half months from May till July this year, to enforce freedom of navigation within it in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China seems reluctant to let its relationship with India worsen. It has therefore been notably restrained in its reactions. When the US Consul General in Calcutta visited Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, last April, and stated that the US considers Arunachal to be indisputably a part of India, it contented itself with saying : “China and India are wise, and capable, enough to deal with their own issues and safeguard the fundamental and long-term interests of the two peoples. The intervention of any third party will only complicate the issue and is highly irresponsible.”
When Indian ships joined the US-Japanese task force in May it again refrained from criticizing India directly and accused the US, instead, of following a ‘divide and rule’ colonial policy towards the two Asian giants. Asked to comment, all that an unnamed senior official of the Chinese foreign office was willing to say was “When there is some trouble in the South China Sea, India is worried. When Indian ships participate in maritime exercises in the South China Sea, of course China will show concern.”
It is only after Modi invited US Ambassador Richard Verma to visit Tawang for the monastery’s annual festival this year, and emphasized the official nature of the invitation by appointing minister of state in the Home ministry Kiren Rijiju as his escort, that this restraint has begun to fray. Lu Kang, a foreign office spokesperson said in Beijing on October 24, “China is “firmly opposed” to the U.S. diplomat’s actions, which will damage the hard-earned peace and tranquility of the China-India border region… Any responsible third party should respect efforts by China and India to seek peaceful and stable reconciliation, and not the opposite”.
Language is of paramount importance in diplomacy. “Peace and Tranquility in the Border Region” is the name of the agreement that Prime minister Narasimha Rao signed in Beijing in 1993. By using this precise phrase Beijing could be signaling to Delhi that if it goes any further down this road China will consider the agreement to have been formally abrogated. If that happens, all the work done by three Chinese Presidents and three Indian prime ministers to mend relations after the border war in 1962 will have been undone.
What can India conceivably gain from forcing China to take a stand on an issue that it would much rather bury inside a deepening new relationship? Granted that Tibet’s claim to any part of Arunachal would have been far stronger if it was being made by the Dalai Lama and not by the government that drove him into exile; and granted that its moral claim to Arunachal Pradesh is non-existent; but what will India do if China decides to seize some part of Arunachal — the Tawang tract for example — by force? Will it fight another border war with China in terrain where, apart from having a much larger army, China enjoys all the advantages of terrain and logistics? Given the hyper-nationalism that has begun to grip the Indian middle classes today, Modi will have no option but to do so.
Will India have any chance of winning such a war ? The unequivocal answer is that, left to itself it will have none. So one is forced to ask the question: is Modi’s belligerence rooted in a belief that the US will intervene on its side? If it is, then his foreign office is not giving him the warning that he needs to avoid pushing India into disaster. For one does not have to look far to see that a war against China is the very last thing that this war weary and nearly bankrupt country now wants. This is apparent from the care that the Obama administration is taking to ensure that its effort to contain China’s expansionist tendencies does not spill over into an unwanted war.
In 2014, during a state visit to Japan, Obama reassured his hosts that the US would honour its defence treaty with Japan and come to its defence if it was attacked. But he immediately added that the US would take no position on Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku islands and hoped that the two countries would resolve their dispute through peacefully.
President Obama may consider India a major defence partner, but he would still have to get Congress’ approval for entering into a war with China. India does not have a defence treaty with the USA, so the likelihood of the US Congress giving it is less than zero. So if India should stumble into another armed conflict with China, the most it will get from the US will be armaments to fight with and some logistical support from its satellite based observation systems. This will prolong the conflict, and quite possibly weaken the Chinese military. That will suit the US’ purposes but at the cost of India’s ruin.
So why is Modi taking India into such dire peril? When logic fails to provide an answer, one must turn to illogic. The only explanation that makes even a modicum of sense is a bruised ego. China has ignored repeated attempts by him to make it withdraw its objections to India joining the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, and to the UN security council declaring Masood Azhar an international terrorist. Apparently rejection is something that Narendra Modi is unable to take. It does not seem to have occurred to him that Xi Jinping may have the same problem.