The military confrontation on the Doklam Plateau, which lasted for two and a half summer months this year, became not only the most serious test in recent years for the entire system of relations between the two largest Asian powers, but also a challenge to the viability of extremely important international structures (BRICS, SCO), whose main participants are both China and India.
Until the last days preceding the latest BRICS summit (which still took place September 3-5 in the Chinese city of Xiamen), it was unclear whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would attend it.
At the end of September (that is, a month after Doklam Plateau conflict), while discussing the “internal challenges” of BRICS, the Chinese official Global Times included the chilled Sino-Indian relations into their main factors.
Earlier, we reviewed how the conflict in the highlands of the Himalayas was finally resolved. India agreed to comply with the demand of the PRC to withdraw its combat unit from the Doklam Plateau, which apparently was an indispensable condition for the official invitation of Narendra Modi to the BRICS summit on behalf of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The above decision of the government produced a shocking impression on the Indian public. Apparently, to soften it, it was immediately followed by a wave of fake news from questionable sources, while some officials made bellicose statements.
Following this, on the very first day after the announcement of the decision of the India government, rumours began circulating that the Indian troops were withdrawn from the Doklam Plateau not unconditionally, but based a ‘behind-the-scenes agreement’ on the granting by Beijing of a soft loan of USD 20 billion to Delhi (for implementing some infrastructure projects). However, the same Global Times, called these rumours “fake news“.
Further, Chief of Army Staff of the country, General Bipin Rawat, appeared in the media space with a statement that the PRC in relation to India adheres to ‘salami tactics’ (that is, the sequential slicing off of Indian territory).
In this regard, he spoke of the need to prepare for a two-front war, that is, against the PRC and against Pakistan. This was not his first statement of this kind. He voiced the same sentiments as far back as early January this year, that is, almost immediately after taking of one of the highest posts in the Armed Forces of India.
As then, it was followed by an immediate negative reaction from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, the representative of which wondered what to regard as the official position of India: the one expressed by Narendra Modi at the meeting with the Chinese leader in the fields of BRICS or the other expressed by Bipin Rawat.
Apparently, this time, the resolute general carried out an ‘awareness- raising talk’ , since on September 8, he actually denied what he had said the day before. This caused serious damage to his reputation in the eyes of the Indian public.
It should be noted in this connection that contrary to the prevailing opinion among ordinary Indians about the defeat in the last conflict with the PRC in the Himalayas, in this case, the government of the country most likely assessed the situation that had developed by the end of August in chess-game terms. The decision taken at the end of the dangerous conflict that erupted there seems to have been regarded as a sacrifice of a pawn in the process of continuing a complex strategic game with the powerful neighbour.
In this game, Delhi relies on the obvious support of the United States and Japan, indirectly rendered in the course of the conflict on the Doklam Plateau. In particular, a signal of support from Washington was sent in the speech of President Donald Trump on the topic of the “new American strategy in Afghanistan”, which turned out to be spoken at the peak moment of the Sino-Indian confrontation in the Himalayas.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Delhi in late September to further deal with the “India and Afghanistan” topic. However, the refusal to contribute Indian soldiers to Afghanistan, clearly expressed during the talks with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, confirms India’s intention not to break off ties with China and to avoid the prospect of turning the country into a mere puppet of the United States.
As for Tokyo, at the end of August, the Japanese Ambassador to Delhi made a statement on the need to “avoid forceful changes of the status quo” on the Doklam Plateau. This statement was positively assessed in India and negatively in China.
However, a real demonstration of support for Delhi from the part of Japan was in fact the visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India on September 13-14 (that is, just two weeks after the resolution of the Sino-Indian conflict) and the results of his (tenth already) talks with Narendra Modi.
The visit itself took place in an emphatically magnificent setting on the territory of Gujarat, the economic leader of India, the Chief Minister of which in 2001-2014 (four consequent terms) was just Narendra Modi. It was at that time, long before he took up the post of Prime Minister, that he established close relations with the national government of Japan with all the (frequently changing) cabinets of the country’s ministers.
The most spectacular element of the bilateral meeting was the symbolic opening of a 500 km high-speed railroad that will connect the capital of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, with the largest city-port in the south-west of Mumbai. The road is being built with the financial and technical assistance of Japan, which will also provide the rolling stock. To implement the project, Tokyo is providing Delhi with a loan of about USD 14 billion for a period of 50 years with an annual interest rate of 0.1%.
Earlier, we devoted attention to the Japanese-Chinese competition in getting orders from the developing countries of Asia for the construction of modern transport infrastructure. In different countries, the winner varies, but in India, Japan is the undoubted leader.
This time, attention is drawn to the absence in the Joint Statement of the immediate mention of such topics especially sensitive to the PRC as the situation in the South China Sea or plans to create the “Asia Africa Growth Corridor” under the Japanese-Indian patronage or the same conflict on the Doklam Plateau.
However, these and other acute topics are likely to be discussed behind closed doors. This notion has been indirectly reflected in paragraphs of the Joint Statement that, for example, refer to the necessity of “compliance with international law and ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region,” “continuation of the bilateral dialogue on Africa”, Japan’s assistance in the construction of transport infrastructure “on north-east India” (that is, in the same Himalayas).
Points on the commitment of the parties to combine the foreign policy strategies of the (Japanese) “Openness and Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region” and (Indian) “Act East Policy” are of undoubted interest. Equally significant are the words about the intention of India and Japan to have a tripartite dialogue on regional security issues, the third of which is the US and Australia.
In general, the last summit became an evidence of the further and comprehensive development of relations between India and Japan, which contributes to strengthening the positions of each of them in a complex strategic game with China.
The reaction of the latter to the next stage of the process of strengthening the relationship between the two main regional opponents was of a restrained and cautious nature. Apparently, Beijing is keeping options open for each of them for steps towards improving relations with China.
With a view to positively develop the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, it would be highly desirable that Tokyo and Delhi take advantage of such opportunities.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”