Time for India to Play Hardball with China

With its recent provocations, Beijing seems to think New Delhi is still the naive young power of yesteryear. It's time for India's leaders to prove otherwise.

For a while it seemed as though no action of Beijing’s could provoke India’s ire — and that there was no length to which India was unwilling to go to appease China. Earlier this year, reports of Chinese incursions into Indian territory were dismissed by the defense ministry in New Delhi as media-manufactured hyperbole. India heeded Beijing’s requests to restrict the political activities of the Dalai Lama, whose government-in-exile sits in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala. In 2006, New Delhi even enforced a penal code dating back to the days of the British Raj to put the Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsunde under armed surveillance, outraging the 100,000-strong Tibetan community in exile, which pointed to the irony of democratic India invoking colonial-era laws to suppress their peaceful protest against an authoritarian regime.

But this week, Beijing pushed India too far. It emerged that the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi has been issuing irregular visas to Kashmiri Indians, stapling a handwritten document to their passports rather than pasting printed copies as it does with other Indians. A separatist struggle, funded and backed by Pakistan, has raged on in Kashmir with renewed vigour since the late 1980s. By treating Kashmiri visa applicants differently from other Indians, Beijing is not merely recognising Kashmir as a disputed territory; it is officially refusing to accept Kashmiris’ right to full Indian citizenship. In other words, it is telling India who can, and cannot, be an Indian citizen — and telling Kashmiris that they cannot rise above their regionalist prejudices to embrace a larger pluralistic identity.

India has responded with uncharacteristic swiftness, issuing a directive barring all such visa holders from getting on China-bound planes. But for all the bluster, Indian government officials are acutely aware that this is yet another ad hoc response by India to what is the most recent in a series of Chinese provocations. First, Beijing attempted in March to block a $2.9 billion Asian Development Bank loan to India on the grounds that some of the cash was intended for use in Arunachal Pradesh, a region China claims as its own. This was followed by a volley in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, warning India against increasing its troop levels in Arunachal Pradesh (India’s action was a delayed response to China’s own troop deployments in the region). "India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China," it tauntingly advised.

Since the 1950s, China has viewed India with disdain, as an odd patchwork of a nation with pretensions to greatness which must be kept in constant check. China’s condescension was complemented by the generosity of India’s dovish first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who dismissed the very idea of Chinese expansionism as "naive." According to Nehru’s most recent biographer, when Eisenhower offered India a permanent seat on the Security Council, Nehru turned it down, urging him to offer it to Beijing instead. But in November 1962, such illusions of Third-World solidarity lay shattered as Chinese soldiers marched into India, occupying a substantial portion of contested territory on the Tibetan plateau. China’s occupation of Arunachal Pradesh seemed unstoppable, but Beijing issued a cease-fire and retreated as American jumbo jets, flown to aid India’s assault, began landing in West Bengal.

Today, China has drawn a circle around India. Beginning in Pakistan (to which Beijing supplied nuclear knowhow) in the northwest, it runs through Nepal (to which it exported Maoism) and Burma (where it shields a dictatorship) in the east, ending in Sri Lanka in the south. This struggle for influence stretches beyond Asia: China and India are now engaged in an aggressive battle for resources in Africa. In its bid to play catch-up with China, India has often abandoned its democratic ideals by accommodating brutal regimes, particularly in Burma and Sudan.

But what distinguishes the two countries is the manner in which they respond to secessionist movements. China’s preferred solution has been to engineer demographic shifts by repopulating restive regions with Han Chinese. India, in stark contrast, has responded to separatist movements by offering them greater autonomy. India, after all, is an unnatural nation, encompassing continental diversity within its frontiers, refusing to homogenize humans like milk, deriving its sovereignty by bypassing all the traditional determinants of nationhood — language, culture, ethnicity, and religion, among countless other distinguishing attributes — that have led people elsewhere to seek exclusivist homelands defined by such traits.

Nothing agitates India more than foreign attempts to undermine the pluralism it has spent six decades nurturing. By issuing separate visas to Kashmiri Indians, Beijing did precisely that.

Indian democracy vexes Beijing. If India can guarantee fundamental rights to its diverse citizens while managing a growth rate not far from China’s, why, someone is bound to ask, can China not do the same? For many in the West, China’s economic prosperity is a precursor to political freedom for its people. But this theory, as China scholar Minxin Pei has argued, ignores the important fact that an authoritarian state is less likely to loosen its hold on a wealthy country than it would be to forego the control of an impoverished one. This accounts for China’s censorship at home and the promotion of secessionism abroad. But it also means that it is China, and not India, that is more fragile and insecure. The Dalai Lama is India’s trump card.  All India has to do is play hardball.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.

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