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Will the forthcoming BRICS National Security Agencies meet in China provide a window of opportunity

C3S Article no: 0064/2017

There have been media reports that Ajit Doval the NSA of India will be attending the BRICS meeting of National Security Agencies in Beijing on26/ 27th July 2017. There are no doubts that the NSA’s of India and China would have a separate one to one meetings to try and resolve the imbroglio of the border incursion by China into Bhutan’s territory and the subsequent standoff between the two armies. The success of the last edition of the NSA’s meet in India in 2016 was due to lack of serious bilateral differences and convergence mainly on issues of counter terrorism initiatives etc., The issue of admission to NSG and the ban on Masood Azhar was discussed with no headway on both issues.  This paper aims to analyse the compulsions under which this meeting will take place along with the possible outcomes of this meet. The meeting will provide a window of questionable opportunity to both sides to work out a mutually agreeable face saving solution as the clouds of war hang over Doklam. With both sides hardening their positions it is important to ensure that all means other than war is not exhausted.  However, some of the recent developments are of significance and expose the mind set of Chinese leadership.

Developments

It has been a month plus since the stand-off between the Chinese and Indian armies at the tri junction of India, Bhutan and China, called Doklam with no signs of relenting on both sides.  China has upped the ante through its foreign ministry and a virulent media in China indulging in a no holds barred anti-India tirade. Some of the ill-founded arguments from the Chinese side show the desperation on their part with India not blinking and demonstrating its resolve to take up the cudgels on behalf of the small Himalayan neighbour with whom India has a treaty of friendship that was signed in 2007. Some of the arguments and veiled threats in the last four weeks are illustrative of the despondency on part of China which is facing a new assertive India which is not defensive anymore and is quite willing to go the last mile. Here are some examples of how China has tried to mislead observers around the world and browbeat both India and Bhutan.

China continues to quote from an Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 which has been overtaken by later day agreements with Bhutan in 1988 and 98. These agreements and the latest one in 2012 clearly advocated the maintenance of status quo in the disputed area till resolving the issue by dialogue. More than two dozen meetings have taken place between Bhutan and China with no headway. China violated the sanctity of this agreement by trying to build roads in the disputed area and trying to carve out a strategic advantage vis-à-vis both Bhutan and India.  China while acknowledging the friendship treaty with India, went to the extent of insisting that this treaty is applicable within the borders of Bhutan. While that is China’s interpretation, India has every right to interpret it as a binding agreement in accordance with Article 2 of the agreement to prevent the alteration of the status quo by China which quotes dated untenable historical records and indulging in construction activity for enhancing connectivity.

Holding out an open threat, China has tried to bring the settled issue of Sikkim which was accepted in 2003 and change “its stance on Sikkim”. China and some observers even in India are totally wrong in saying that Sikkim was annexed. The citizens of Sikkim voted to be part of India in a referendum on their own volition. China thus needs to be reminded that India likewise can change its stance on Tibet which was occupied by force. The so called One China policy for Taiwan and Hong Kong can also be questioned by India if China continues to harp on Sikkim. China has also suggested that it can mediate between India and Pakistan. India should offer to mediate between China and all the ASEAN countries with whom China has territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). The question is while China wants to mediate on Kashmir, will it allow India to mediate between China and all nations who have disputes with China?

With the war clouds looming large, it is evident that Mr Yang Jiechi and his counterpart Mr Ajit Doval would be burning the mid night oil with political leaders, military top brass and the bureaucracy to explore various options to prevent further escalation. While the NSA’s of the BRICS countries will have a separate common agenda, the agenda between the two representatives will be a challenging one for both the sides.

China has a penchant for obfuscating the real issues and known for taking advantage of the situation. It has already engaged in misleading other countries by trying to show India in poor light. It hardly talks about its construction activity in Bhutan’s territory which is what fermented trouble. The seasoned NSA from India should stay clear of the usual booby traps that the Chinese come up with. Any efforts to include the following issues on the agenda should be shunned as they would distract India from the main issue of restoring the situation as it existed prior to 16th Jun 2017. Here are the mine fields that need to be totally avoided.

NSG Entry: China could promise to review its stand on India’s admission to this exclusive group and hold out a promise to conditionally support India’s entry to NSG. India should be categoric in rejecting any tying up of this promise with troop withdrawal. As it is, whether India is admitted or not; on a bilateral basis, it can continue to get its nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes from those who have supported India’s position for as long as it wants. Also, there is a momentum for looking at the renewable source of energy which needs to be accelerated. By all counts, India need not fall into the NSG admission trap.

Masood Azhar Case: China might say that it would reconsider the case of sanctions against Masood Azhar if India withdraws its troops.    The clear response should be that we don’t care anymore about their support for the sanction. With or without the Chinese support, India will do what it can to protect our interests by working with others who are supportive of our counter terrorism narrative. The need of the hour is to assert that India has every right to take proactive action to prevent terrorist activities emanating from anywhere including from Pakistan irrespective of which state or non-state actors are behind such activities.

Support for admission to the high table: If there be riders for the support to the UN Security Council, by linking it to the present impasse it should be rejected outright. The UNSC admission without the veto power is of no use. In any case, India, USA, Japan and others are already working on the restructuring of the United Nations based on demography, population and other factors. There is no hurry on this score and India should be wary of being misled by false promises.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): If there is some suggestion for endorsing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) or the CPEC, as a quid-pro-quo there is no need for India to change its position on this aspect that impinges on the sovereignty of India. While Xi continues to shout from the roof top about the importance of adherence to the principle of Panchsheel, none of the actions of China is indicative of any respect for the sovereignty of its land and maritime neighbours. The exception to some extent perhaps can be discussed if there is unequivocal acceptance by China of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) as an Indian territory in which case India could modify its position.

From all accounts, this standoff has been the most challenging one in the last five decades.  The Indian Army prevented a similar misadventure by China near Natula in October 1967 in the Cho La incident when China suffered heavy casualties and retreated. The present situation which sees more powerful military and leadership on both sides requires deft handling but with firmness. China has engaged in serious psychological warfare by using its media and even the ministry to drum up war beats. Whether it is intentional or otherwise, a Pakistani news agency mischievously reported heavy casualties on the Indian side in a Chinese rocket attack.

Domestic Compulsions?

The relevance and importance of the forthcoming 19th Congress for consolidation of Xi’s power cannot be lost sight of. Xi who has been anointed as the core leader would like to cement his position as an assertive leader both domestically and internationally. It seems that he would like to ensure that no one within the party challenges his position. Potential competitors within the system have been sidelined effectively to ensure another term for Xi Jinping. India by not yielding to the covert and overt threats has stood up to the sabre rattling by the Chinese leadership. This is disconcerting, to say the least to Xi and he has been driven to an unenviable situation of “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t”. Notwithstanding the threat by Chinese media for India to prepare for all out confrontation, both India and China would not like to see a full-fledged war or even a limited war as an option. China according to recent analysis clearly has slowed down economically and is implementing many measures to sustain its economy. Moody’s Analytics has assessed that China cannot sustain its debt fueled binge.

Neighbourhood issues

The way China has tried to bull doze its way with its smaller neighbours in the SCS is a telling example of how China disregards International ruling. Indonesia has recently declared the sea north of Natuna Island as North Natuna seas to protect its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by quoting the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which dismissed the concocted historical claims of China in the SCS. It is of interest that both Thailand and Singapore were not invited for the BRI summit due to Thailand not accelerating the railway connectivity to China. This has been brought out clearly in an analysis by ISEAS (Yousuf Ishak Institute) as “Shame Diplomacy”. So there are no surprises that China uses all means to subjugate/threaten/coerce/browbeat its land and maritime neighbours. India’s responses are being watched keenly around the world and thus far, India has maintained dignity in its statements and official reactions to the provocative statements from the Embassy in India and shrill media voices from across the borders.

Way Ahead for the NSA’s meet:

The forthcoming BRICS NSA meet provides a window of opportunity for defusing the situation. India also would need to work behind doors with the NSA’s of Brazil, Russia and South Africa and prepare them for the ground realities. There is also a need to brief the diplomatic missions and world leaders on the developments and India’s stand. Working with Russia, a time-tested partner, who has good relations now also with China would add value to the proceedings. Trump would have been taken into confidence and there is a need to keep a high level of engagement with all the world leaders.

As discussed above, there should be no dilution of India’s stand in the present standoff. China will need to get back to the positions that existed prior to 16th June and stop any activity that aims at altering the landscape in disputed areas.  At all costs, abandoning Bhutan is not an option for India. India cannot be seen as compromising interests of Bhutan which has sought help from India based on historical, cultural and political relations which resulted in the treaty of friendship. If the two Asian giants do not come to an understanding, then both India and China will have to prepare for a long haul that would be detrimental to peace, prosperity and stability of both the Asian powers.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi and Director, C3S The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at rsvasan2010@gmail.com]

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