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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Dealing With Militant China

Three years later the relationship lies in tatters. The signs were ominous at that September meeting itself

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As they sat side-by-side on a swing near Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati riverfront in September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed set to open a new chapter in the complex Sino-Indian bilateral relationship.

Three years later the relationship lies in tatters. The signs were ominous at that September meeting itself: soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded into Indian territory at the Arunachal Pradesh border even as Modi and Xi, accompanied by his glamorous singer-wife Peng Liyuan, appeared to have established a close rapport. It took a firmly worded request by Modi for Xi to order Chinese troops back to their territory.

Over the next three years China turned increasingly hostile towards India. It blocked India’s bid to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It prevented the United Nations from designating Masood Azhar a global terrorist. It began illegally building infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, violating Indian sovereignty.

On 16 June, 2017, China upped the ante. Furious at the Modi government for allowing the Dalai Lama in March 2017 to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh which Beijing claims as its territory, Chinese soldiers occupied the trijunction on the Dolam plateau at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet border which lies 30 km from the Doklam plateau within Bhutanese territory.

The standoff between Chinese and Indian troops is now in its third month. China’s state-owned mouthpiece Global Times and assorted state-run think tanks have threatened a military operation to oust Indian troops from the Doklam region. China’s argument is based on a series of deliberate untruths. These rely on a convention signed between colonial Britain and China in 1890 on Sikkim and Tibet. The key infirmity in Beijing’s stand is that Bhutan was not a signatory to the 1890 convention. Its validity in the dispute over Doklam, where Bhutanese territory is directly involved, is therefore questionable.

What next? Will China carry out its threat of a limited military operation? Will India blink and withdraw its troops, replacing them with Bhutanese troops followed by a pledged withdrawal of Chinese troops to restore the status quo ante?

Whichever way the Doklam standoff ends, the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi will never be the same again. China is used to getting its way in Asia. It has bullied the Philippines, rejected the United Nations verdict against it, threatened Japan and Taiwan, and challenged the United States over free naval movement in the South China Sea. Beijing’s tensions with Washington over North Korea are also set to rise.

Beijing is meanwhile building bridges with Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka in an attempt to surround India with a string of thistles in South Asia. China regards India as a serious future rival. India’s strategic partnership with Washington and Tokyo irks it. China is also developing closer ties with India’s longtime ally Russia. It has just held a large military exercise with the Russian Navy in the Baltic Sea in NATO’s backyard — a message not lost on either the Americans or Europeans.
Why does India worry China so much? Border disputes between the two countries are hardly new. Not a shot has been fired on the over 4,050-km border between the two countries for over 40 years, as Modi publicly noted.

China knows that the India-US axis is a powerful force for the future. It could severely dent China’s hegemonic ambitions in the arc from East Asia curving upwards through the Indian Ocean, across West Asia and Africa. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be jeopardised if  India is not a part of it. India and Bhutan, significantly, are the only two Asian countries which have rejected the BRI. The fact that India is building an alternative north-south corridor through Iran, central Asia and Russia, along with the Chabahar port in Iran with direct access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan, too worries China. But above all, it is India’s medium-term economic growth numbers Beijing frets over.

Recent projections by the IMF predict that China’s economic growth will slow to 4.4 per cent a year from 2017 to 2025. China’s population is rapidly ageing. Mao’s one-child policy of the 1960s has caused the rapid greying of China. As pensions balloon, younger workers will have to pay more taxes from their salaries to support the elderly. Social tensions could rise in what is a society tightly controlled by the totalitarian Chinese Communist party.

In contrast, the IMF projects that India’s GDP will grow at around 8 per cent a year. When the full effect of GST kicks in, annual growth could accelerate to 9-10 per cent, especially given India’s productive youthful demographics —in stark opposition to ageing China.

If the IMF’s projections prove correct, India’s GDP, growing at a GST-turbo-charged 9-10 per cent annually, will in a span of 20 years mathematically double itself thrice — roughly once every seven years. Thus India’s GDP in 2037 would be 2x2x2 or eight times the current $2.50 trillion — viz, $20 trillion. That’s nearly double China’s current GDP of $11 trillion. During these 20 years, if China grows at the IMF’s projected 4.4 per cent a year, its GDP in 2037 would be $24 trillion — just a shade above India’s.

Geopolitical power has three key components: economic strength, military capability and soft power. On the first, India will possibly achieve near-parity with China in less than a generation. On the second, India’s new defence policy should reverse years of stagnation as the navy, army and airforce are beefed up with nuclear submarines, high-tech howitzers and several squadrons of fifth-generation fighter jets.

On the third front — soft power — India has a big edge over China. It is a democracy. It guarantees citizens’ freedoms. It has a globally respected legal system, English as the language of  business — and Bollywood which transcends language as Dangal’s record-breaking performance in China demonstrates.

Unlike India, China thinks decades ahead. It has seen the future, even if New Delhi’s squabbling politicians yet haven’t, and India’s growing ascent worries it. The Doklam crisis will eventually be resolved. But India must learn to punch at its full geopolitical weight to counter Beijing’s attempt to slow its rise.

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