The contours of the Sino-India rivalry changed last week. On June 15, a savage face-off between the Indian and Chinese border forces killed 20 Indians in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control between the two countries. Many of them perished when pushed over from steep cliffs at 14,000 feet from the sea level after being beaten with metal poles studded with nails, a weapon of choice during Mao’s cultural revolution.
Both India and China are claiming for a chunk of about 15000 km2 of uninhabited snowy capped territory across their disputed Himalayan frontiers and fought a brief but bitter border war in 1962 which ended in India’s humiliation. Since 1996, the two countries agreed not to use firearms and explosives along the Line of Actual Control. Hence the murderous fisticuffs.
China had not revealed its casualties, ostensibly to play down the clash, though it has been regularly blowing hot and cold and its State-controlled media keep lecturing the Indians about how to handle its conflict with China. (BJP friendly Indian media has given Chinese death count as high as 40, but for the Sri Lankans who are accustomed to manufacture enemy body counts during our long civil war, these numbers might smack of psyops and damage control).
India does not have the luxury of controlling information and public opinion as China does adroitly.
Enraged Indians are calling for a boycott of Chinese goods. Influential political leaders are demanding decoupling with China. Critics are blaming the Prime Minister for the loss of lives: they call him ‘Surrender Modi.’
In China, nationalism is an accessory of the party-state. The Communist Party has cultivated, mobilized and controlled it with as much ease as it opens and close flood gates of the Three Gorges Dam.
Whereas in India, nationalism is like a bush fire. The government is forced to placate it to avoid getting burned.
Faced with public outrage, New Delhi has reportedly changed the rules of engagement along the Line of Actual Control allowing the use of firearms under ‘extraordinary conditions’. This would be a recipe for escalation. However, the worst burst of violence since 1962 would invariably change India’s approach towards China.
India’s relation with China have long suffered from what psychologists would call cognitive dissonance, which happens when one holds two or more self-contradictory ideas and objectives and act on them.
The Indian policy has been torn among its security concerns with China over the British bequeathed border, the emotional bondage of the non-alignment and economic inter-dependency with China. As for the latter, India’s liberal institutionalists have argued that the path to peace is through trade. Indians flaunt their booming trade and Chinese investment and tend to think,, mistakenly though reminiscent of Americans, it would alter the Chinese behaviour.
But, China has treated it like a fiddle. India ranked eleventh in China’s trading partners in 2017. During the period from January to November last year (2019), it imported goods worth US$ 68 billion and exported meagre US$ 16 billion and suffered a trade deficit of US$ 52 billion. Indian products that have a fighting chance, suchas pharmaceuticals, have failed to penetrate the Chinese market because China does not want them there.
However, renewed security concerns might force India to rethink the lopsided nature of economic relations with the Mainland. When the security is under threat, lofty goals of exuberance are relegated to the sidelines. India has already passed new investment laws that guard its cash strapped startup against predatory takeover by its neighbours, only one capable of that being China.
The changing Indian perception and heightened rivalry with China would have far-reaching consequences in its extended neighbourhood in South Asia. So far, New Delhi has grudgingly accepted China’s geo-economic expansion in the region. That echoes its domestic trade-offs in its economic relations with China. However, that outlook is likely to change- and change drastically if the security along its disputed border further deteriorates.
So far the Indians have shunned the Belt and Road Initiative, citing security concerns over CPEC, part of which runs through the Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, which India claims as its own.
But, it had not pressed its neighbours to eschew the BRI. Even some Indian strategic thinkers have advocated that New Delhi join the BRI. Such advocacy will die down for good. The strategic outlook of post-Galwan India would be less receptive to the Chinese economic expansion in the region. How such concerns would be communicated is yet to be seen. But, it would help Sri Lanka to take note and prepare for the eventuality.
One of the thorny issues would be the majority Chinese stake in the Hambantota port. If its relations with China hit a new low, New Delhi is unlikely to tolerate the current status quo of the port. The UNP government which gave it to China on a 99-year lease has sleepwalked the nation into the middle of a major strategic competition.
How this will turn out to be is beyond our reach and will be decided by the great power politics. On its part, Sri Lanka should strive to decouple the port from the military activity of any foreign forces. It should take active measures to exhibit its writ over the port so that neither China nor its perceived adversaries think that it is China’s property. The renegotiation of the lease would spare us from a great deal of future inconvenience. However, it is a tall order.
Secondly, Sri Lanka should diversify its economic relations. The ongoing mega projects and those in the pipeline such as the Port City and Hambantota Export Processing Zone should not be exclusively for the Chinese business. The government should take an active interest in creating a level playing field there for the other states.
Diversification of development partners has never been easy, more so at a time of a global economic slump. This government is making it harder by being cocky to established development partners such as JICA. (It has suspended the Japan-funded Light Rail Transit project and, reportedly contemplating a PPP with an undisclosed entity). It has snubbed US$ 480 million grant to improve public transport by the Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC), a foreign aid agency of the US government.
Politically calculated aggrandizement would drive Sri Lanka further into China’s orbit. That is something we should strive to avoid, because that comes at a greater geopolitical risk. However, none of that means Sri Lanka should give up on China as its key development partner. That would be foolhardy and China is irreplaceable at the current economic climate.
However, Sri Lanka should take note of assorted geopolitical risks of its over-dependency on China, which are now being aggravated by the evolving Indian strategic concerns. Last but not least, there is a very important historical lesson: India is the only country that has destabilized Sri Lanka. It trained and armed terrorists and intervened when they were losing. The Indian intervention was precipitated by then-President J.R.Jayawardene who crossed the red line of India’s security interests. It is right to be angry for all the misery we had been through for over three- decades courtesy the Indian misadventure and even be thankful for the Chinese help for ending that protracted curse.
But the essence of international politics had not changed much since the Peloponnesian war, 400 BC, when Thucydides wrote ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’-- though the virulence of such interventions has somewhat modified courtesy of the international institutions.
However, make no mistake, Sri Lanka’s demographic diversify could easily become a liability with a mild push.
Once bitten twice shy, it would always help Sri Lanka to keep a safe distance from looming troubles.