Much Ado About Nothing

Modi government should ditch bombast and focus on building military power to avoid crises like Doklam

Pravin Sawhney

Narendra Modi
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Nation on the occasion of 71st Independence Day from the ramparts of Red Fort, in Delhi on August 15, 2017.

The Doklam crisis, which ended recently, had two prominent aspects: perception and reality. The perception unlike the reality (which is known to a few) has many uses beyond bolstering nationalistic sentiments, something that the Modi government — which needs to be seen different from the previous Congress governments — has paid special attention to.

While China was responsible for kindling the perception, the master-craftsman Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to use it to his domestic advantage. This is why he has reportedly issued the decree that except for the diplomats (external affairs ministry) no one, including his cabinet ministers, should speak on the Doklam crisis and its aftermath. The reason for this diktat is simple: unlike the highly publicised, so-called surgical strikes against Pakistan on which everybody both within and close to the government (including Baba Ramdev) had an opinion — however ridiculous — and was free to air it, China, a powerful nation, cannot be offended lest another crisis happens.

China, unwittingly, by its peculiar conduct of the crisis, has helped Modi paint Beijing as the bully and India as the determined nation capable of being regarded as a major power. In nuanced terms, Modi has announced to the world that India will be no pushover for China; instead, China will need to review its geo-strategic assessment of United States being its biggest challenge in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. And that India’s Act East policy cannot be subsumed in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This thinking, which was shared by knowledgeable sources in South Block with me, is based on China’s conduct of operation Doklam. When Chinese political leaders, diplomats and spokespersons laid down the red line that there would be no talks before India pulls back its forces, it was considered to be sacrosanct. There were many in the Modi government who felt that India had bitten more than it could chew. After all the loud noises and chest thumping by China, when India on August 28 unexpectedly announced that both sides had agreed to disengagement, there was both relief and a sense of victory. China had eschewed its own pronouncements by talking disengagement with Indian interlocutors. What China does in the near and long-term does not matter much at this stage.

Interestingly, China is not unaware of its mistake of having allowed Modi the upper hand in the perception battle. For example, Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi recently dismissed media query if the coming visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India (in September for the annual summit meeting) was meant to ‘contain China’. While ‘contain’ which smacks of a budding alliance might be an inaccurate proposition, it would certainly, post Doklam, strengthen defence cooperation (see the article on US-2i later in the issue) between India and Japan.

Similarly, the coming visit of the United States’ defence and foreign secretaries to India in September for the two-plus-two dialogue is likely to be productive. While the focus would remain on collective-security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR), there might be movement on the US’ desire for joint naval patrols. This implies two things. One, there is a strong possibility that India, which has been procrastinating on the three US foundational agreements for greater operational cooperation, might consider them favourable. And two, defence trade under the ‘Make in India’ rubric is expected to get a boost. However, the bilateral Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which primarily deals with transfer of technology, is not expected to make much movement. While India should expect more defence trade with the US, the sources for defence technology would be Russia, Israel and now Japan.

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