The edge of the hedge: India’s shrewd but selfish non-aligned diplomacy

After clashing in the western Himalayas for more than two years, with more than 100,000 troops deployed on what is considered the highest battlefield in the world, the Chinese and Indian armies are finally disengaging.

The latest breakthrough, announced on Thursday, comes after 16 rounds of negotiations since June 2020, when around 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed in a rare bloody skirmish. It was the worst fighting between the two sides since a border war won by China in 1962 strained ties between Beijing and Delhi.

But as Indians continue to re-establish ties with the Chinese, what does this mean for India’s perceived position as a natural “counterweight” to China? Indeed, since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Delhi has strengthened its relations with Moscow, Beijing’s new “limitless” partner. Are the Indians actually trying to play all sides by moving closer to the China-Russia axis while remaining a US strategic partner?

Not so fast. It’s not over yet as far as military tensions are concerned.

According to the Indians, the latest development involves the Chinese retreating from Gorga-Hotsprings, their least invasive “encroachment” that Delhi claims Beijing’s troops have made in 2020. Larger swathes of territory – including the Depsang plateau , which India claims – still have Chinese boots on the ground. Both sides have enough personnel and military equipment in the region to continue to assert that they are on a war footing.

“I won’t say the impasse is resolved yet,” says Akriti Vasudeva, a member of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program. “Disengagement is simply the withdrawal of frontline troops from their eyeball positions with each other an agreed distance back.”

Moreover, neither the Chinese nor the Indians actually left the region. or packed their gear. And no word yet on the return of troops to their peacetime positions along the actual Line of Control, the region’s de facto but disputed border.

For Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, peace is unlikely to hold since China fundamentally disagrees with India’s position on the border. Moreover, he expects the incursions to continue because it is essentially written: in October 2021, Beijing passed a new border law encouraging both the military and civilians to assert Chinese sovereignty in the disputed areas.

So what triggered the last thaw? On the one hand, the events that are around the corner. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are due to meet this week in Uzbekistan, where they will both take part in the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral franchise of decades of diplomatic coordination between Moscow and Beijing, which India joined in 2017.

As the relationship between Beijing and Delhi hasn’t exactly been warm for some time, Xi and Modi “probably want to demonstrate that they are capable of problem-solving,” says Raffaelo Pantucci, a senior research associate at the Royal United Services Institute.

On the other hand, maybe they just got tired of the harshness of mountain warfare.

The deal may “just be the natural outcome of a long period of negotiation at a time when India and China were struggling to maintain their troop deployments in the Ladakh region, particularly in the winter is coming,” says Vasudeva.

More importantly, the Himalayan deal is the most recent example of India’s fluid approach to diplomacy. Delhi’s policy of “strategic autonomy” – which follows decades of official non-alignment – allows India to adopt an à la carte framework of diplomacy, entering and exiting agreements with partners and friends depending on India’s evolving interests.

For example, while pursuing an advanced maritime security dialogue with the United States last week, Indian troops joined Russian and Chinese militaries in drills in Russia’s Far East, despite US concerns. . The same week, as Delhi withdrew from the US-led Indo-Pacific economic framework, it was planning its own bilateral trade policy forum with the Americans.

This “your thing, our way” code of business conduct is cross-cutting. While India is a member of the Quad dialogue alongside Australia, Japan and the United States, it remains engaged with Russia and China on the diplomatic, trade and even defense fronts.

Modi buys Russian oil, but regularly hangs out with the G7 gang. Even now that they have reached the disengagement agreement with Beijing, the Indians plan to conduct joint exercises with US forces near the disputed Himalayan territory.

For India, the policy works because it keeps competitors on their toes and incentivizes partners to continue courting India and even fighting for its business. But for those who count on India to be a reliable partner, even an ally, and a counterbalance to China, the doors of New Delhi are not really wide open.

Pantucci sees two major flaws in the argument that India is a natural counterbalance to China.

First, “they have a lot of problems at home that cause problems with Western powers. These are pressures of democracy. Second, he says, “the truth is that the Indians have always wanted to cover and place themselves in more unaligned space than any type of block against anyone else.”

But the recent disengagement does not change the basic reality that Delhi sees China as a strategic threat. In fact, Vasudeva points out, “The 2020 stalemate has further reinforced the thinking in Delhi that whatever India has done in recent years to accommodate China…has not helped and China has continued to undermine Indian interests”.

India, she adds, no longer believes it can improve its relations with China. As far as Delhi is concerned, all that can be done is to manage the relationship so that it does not get worse.

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