Post-Galwan, India has never been so lonely in South Asia
South Asian scholars and analysts look upon the India-China conflict differently from those in the US. While Indians don’t exactly echo the US, many Indian foreign policy makers seem convinced that they are part of the global conflict with China and that the US will endorse India’s aspiration for super power status.
The US would like India to believe that its conflict with China will keep the heat on China going. But it will be better for all if the Sino-Indian conflict is a regional border issue, not part of a global tussle between the US and China.
But a Trump insider and a long time super hawk, John Bolton, has mentioned in his book that India is not a US priority. It is China with which it wants a handshake. Meanwhile, India can play its role as a regional proxy of sorts. Indian policy makers are dominated by a self-generated notion of being powerful. China too is very keen to tell everyone, as the world shivers with corona fever, that it is the only other power that matters, and that it is US’s only rival. However, India may become a victim if it gets into fights to give China a bloody nose as the US would like to see from a ”proxy”.
The region: From 1971 to 2020
Indians think that their country is the only tiger in the neighborhood. At its peak in 1971, India had every state in South Asia under its wing with its sole enemy, Pakistan, humiliated. Today it has no friends in the region, which is a huge shift. In 1971, Pakistan got halved and a friendly Bangladesh was born with the assistance of the Indian army. India was supported by USSR – now dead- which made it an associate participant in the cold war. That was the quality of status that India is looking for now.
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China didn’t look too good in 1971 as it held an enfeebled Pakistan’s hands. But the US didn’t bail out Pakistan when it mattered most as Pakistan faced its worst humiliation in history all alone.
India should have learnt a lesson there. There is no concept of friendship in international relations but only convenience and national self-interest. It applies to all.
However, holding on to permanent hostility towards China doesn’t help India. For the moment, the US would like to encourage such hostility but if any major US-China trade deal is signed in one form of other, India may be dropped like a hot potato. Neither India nor China gains from the border conflict.
Research work on the 1971 war by this writer shows that India was deeply wounded by the 1962 war in which China hit Indian pride in a way no event had done earlier. So, when the time came for the big military push into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) came, India waited till snow began to fall on the mountain passes and Chinese troops couldn’t crossover to help out Pakistan even if it wanted. That’s how deep the wound is.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been saying that despite border disputes, no shots have been fired in anger since 1975. But anger has been there and so have the disputes. At this point of time it has exploded. India gained nothing except another hammering of its pride. The Indian army lost soldiers due to acts of physical violence but not guns. The combat reads like some surreal comedy but stones and clubs rolled with barbed wire were used also becoming the symbol of the archaic nature of the conflict.
It is reaction to the Indian plight in the region that should be read in India most seriously. It has lost the region while trying to grab global power status. India has never been so alone and even Bangladesh, its last reluctant ally, made no soothing gestures. The only ones who stood by India were the US media understandably.
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The US position
A report prepared by scholars linked to Harvard University which several Indian media outlets quoted recently, stated that the Indian military is stronger- with more planes, more battled hardened troops etc- and that India is a victim of self-underestimation. In other words, India would do better than it thinks. The scholars are not proposing war but stating that India is stronger than it thinks it is. It is a not so subtle egging on message. (The Strategic Postures of China and India- A Visual Guide)
The US stands to gain if the situation deteriorates but India stands to gain if there is no conflict. Right now, the US has no lever other than India. It is not the Indian military which believes this is a winning situation for India but a section of its media and the foreign office. No war is better than war and India and China both recognize it but the Ladakh incident shows how quickly things can get out of hand even with good intentions existing.
A section of the US thinks that a Sino-Indian war is good for the US but nothing shows it will be so for the warring parties. Far too much time has been spent in figuring out how to protect the borders through force and arms, and not enough time is spent on using the tools of peace. And the US doesn’t seem to be helping.