Last year, Narendra Modi, speaking in Russia about India’s relationship with China, boasted that “not a single bullet has been fired” by either country despite a 40-year-old border dispute. The year 2018 also saw Modi and China’s Xi Jinping strolling down the Sabarmati Riverfront in Modi’s home state of Gujarat during an official state visit. They took a mandatory selfie and even spent a few minutes swinging on a traditional Indian jhoola. Together, they projected a kind of casual strongman bond that comes with leading two of the world’s largest economies.
But Modi’s measure of the relationship with China — much like that of his predecessors — was wrong.
And that rude reality check came this month when Beijing blocked, for the fourth time, a resolution at the United Nations Security Council to designate Masood Azhar a global terrorist.
Azhar was released from an Indian prison in 1999, along with Omar Sheikh (who would later assassinate the journalist Daniel Pearl), when his allies hijacked a passenger plane. Since then, Jaish-e-Muhammad, the terror outfit he helms in Pakistan, has been responsible for an attack on India’s Parliament, an attack on an air force base and, most recently, an assault in Kashmir that took both countries to the brink of war.
Why should India then bend over backward to ingratiate itself with China, a country that protects terrorists? It is contradictory and inexplicable that Modi — who otherwise wears his alpha-maleness on his sleeve and has even flaunted his 56-inch chest as a mark of his decisive foreign policy — should have been so accommodating of China. Yes, it is Pakistan that patronizes terrorism against India — but China is capable of inflicting much greater pressure. China is definitely the more dangerous adversary.
Its commitment to invest $60 billion in a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of infrastructural projects, is part of its larger aim to counter the rise of India in Asia. China has long used its economic investments for strategic expansionism, especially in countries that share a border (maritime or terrestrial) with India. Whether it’s Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka or the Maldives, China has dangled investments in exchange for influence. In Pakistan, the CPEC culminates at the Gwadar port, which would give Beijing possible domination of the Arabian Sea and reach up to India’s western coast.
China’s authoritarian government has been unmindful of any of the usual moral pressures that bring power to account in an open society. And its protection of Azhar, an internationally recognized and dreaded Islamist militant terrorist, reveals its absolute hypocrisy on the issue of extremism and religion. On the one hand, it has defiantly locked away its own Muslim citizens in internment camps. What began as a crackdown on Uighur fundamentalists has turned into a modern-day version of mass untouchability. Any visible sign of the practice of Islam — attending prayers in a mosque, growing a beard — could get you thrown into prison. Abroad, China brazenly protects a notorious Islamist terrorist in Azhar.
India, a thriving democracy however flawed, already has the moral advantage over China. So why should historically cherished moral principles, such as India’s support for the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, be diminished to ease tensions with a nation that has never stood with India’s national interest? Yet, in 2018, a government circular asked officials to skip public events attended by Tibetan leaders in exile.
In other ironies, the BJP, an otherwise hypernationalist ruling party, has put few restrictions on China’s infiltration of the Indian markets. A trade deficit that hit $63 billion in 2017 to 2018 has seen Chinese goods displace Indian manufacturers. Chinese companies have taken control of 51 percent of India’s smartphone market in just one example of its economic neo-imperialism.
At the very least, the protective cover that China has thrown over Azhar should be met with some economic protectionism. India was quick to withdraw the most-favored nation trade designation from Pakistan in the aftermath of the Kashmir terrorist attack. If it is unrealistic to apply the same penalty to Beijing, at least the government should have penalized high-profile telecom companies such as Huawei, which was invited last year to participate in 5G trials.
The Trump administration, by contrast, banned the use of both Huawei and ZTE tech last year. India, unlike the United States, cannot afford to start a full-blown trade war with China. But should our cricket team — that lightning rod for all nationalist outpouring — be sponsored by a Chinese company?
In the end, what is mysterious is that in a perennially outraged country, there is such little popular rage against China. This despite the fact that when it comes to terrorism, “the Pakistani tail wags the Chinese Dog,” as the veteran diplomat Vivek Katju told me.
At the end of its first term, the outgoing Modi government’s China policy has hit a bit of a dead end. India’s economy can’t afford to take on the Chinese behemoth. And, notwithstanding one military standoff between the armies of both countries in Bhutan, the government’s instinct was still to seek conciliation with China, instead of confrontation or even competition.
Modi's China policy has militated against his own self-declared muscular nationalism.