THE dragon is breathing fire. After an angry reaction to Modi government’s Article 370 move that questioned jurisdiction of India’s parliament to legislate on the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, China played Pakistan’s sugar daddy at the United Nations (UN), forcing an informal Security Council consultation, and used the platform for a harangue against India. The statement made by the Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, was the sharpest diplomatic punch that India has received from its eastern neighbour in recent times. The Chinese were in fact more restrained during the Doklam standoff then they have been post Article 370.
Ambassador Jun began by raising concerns about human rights situation in Kashmir, called it an internationally recognized dispute left from history, and wanted it resolved within the UN framework as much as bilateral agreements. The second half of the statement made it clear that Home Minister Amit Shah’s reference to Aksai Chin in parliament acted as the red rag. Jun said that “India’s action challenged China’s sovereign interests,” and “will not change China’s exercise of sovereignty and effective administrative jurisdiction over the territory.”
This is a clear break from the Wuhan spirit that had marked a reset with China post Doklam last year. It goes beyond obliging its all-weather friend Pakistan this time. For, only a couple of months ago China had let Masood Azhar be declared a global terrorist at the UN and gone with the global consensus on holding Pakistan to account at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
This despite India going out of the way over the last few years in accommodating Chinese concerns. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Shangri La dialogue keynote address in June 2018 was a message to China that India is not becoming an American satellite anytime soon. The elaboration on Indo-Pacific and the Quad should have left no doubt in the minds of Chinese strategists about India’s accommodative stance. The Modi government has also assisted China in altering the Bretton woods architecture away from West with its support of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), both headquartered in China. And the Chinese offensive on Kashmir has come amid a deafening silence from New Delhi on Hong Kong.
A week before the UN proceedings, I was in Beijing as part of an Indian delegation led by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar for an informal dialogue to boost people to people contact between the two nations. Beyond the niceties of food and small talk, the three days engaging with the Beijing establishment from top of the government to think tanks left no doubt that while hedging open confrontation, China sees India as a competitor that needs to be boxed and contained. One got a sense that it was institutionalised policy at all levels of Chinese government that India should be kept on tenterhooks, even taken off balance occasionally. There could be historical reasons going back to the Tibet question and future apprehensions of the kind that the United States has about China in the present.
Jaishankar is an old China hand, as much as Modi’s Trump card. While at the Indian embassy in Beijing, he wrote “Great to be back!” in the visitor’s book. At an informal engagement I asked him what the tonality of his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi was, when he spoke of Kashmir. Jaishankar avoided answering it, only suggesting he put across India’s views as strongly. Except for the awkwardness of having to see China go to UNSC a day after hosting a cultural evening for the Indian delegation, it is unlikely that south block mandarins were surprised at the Chinese vehemence at the first mention of Aksai Chin in recent times.
Where do we go from here? For one, we as a nation need to bury our head deep into the 5 trillion US dollars economy project. Nothing succeeds like money when it comes to power projection. Then, it would be worth going back to Jun’s UNSC statement at the stakeout. “Both India and Pakistan are at a crucial stage of development,” Jun said with a Freudian slip mentioning China instead of Pakistan first. “We call on both sides to find a proper solution to their historical grievance (settle border?), discard game mentality (play Pakistan card?), avoid unilateral action (Doklam?), and maintain peace and security…” he concluded. Let’s hold a mirror to Jun and say Amen.
Postscript: In his 1963 book ‘Unarmed Victory’ on the 1962 India-China war and the Bay of Pigs crisis, Bertrand Russell mentions that Aksai Chin means Chinese White Mountain etymologically. When the 2017 military standoff was panning out above the Chicken’s neck corridor, I had played small role in making sure that the establishment communicates and publicizes clearly the Indian name (Doklam) and not the Chinese one (Donglang or Doko La) which were appearing in Indian press in the initial days of the crisis. Is it time we find and publicize Indian name of Aksai Chin? Think.