What has been different about this India-China stand-off is the harsh tenor of China’s official response – Noted foreign policy expert Dhruva Jaishankar

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Dhruva Jaishankar, Foreign Policy Fellow at Brookings India recently caught up with The Dialogue to talk about critical strategic affairs and foreign policy issues. Following are the excerpts from the interview:

The Doklam Standoff – Is it a hyperbole game between Indian and Chinese media or is the situation really dire? Your take on the matter.

We should appreciate that this is a live situation, about which there are still a lot of uncertainties. What can be ascertained is that there is an ongoing non-violent stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces in territory disputed between Bhutan and China. This came about because in June, Chinese forces attempted to extend a road in a manner that altered the status quo on the ground and threatened Indian security interests. China justifies its actions by citing an 1890 agreement between the British and Qing Empires. India justifies its intervention on the grounds that China had previously agreed that the boundary should follow the watershed, that India and China agreed in 2012 to not determine trijunction points unilaterally, and that New Delhi has longstanding defence arrangements with Bhutan.

What has been different about this India-China stand-off, compared to other recent episodes, is not just that this is in a third country, but the extremely harsh tenor of China’s official response. By contrast, the Indian media has been relatively muted in its criticism, and barring one press release and a few public statements by Indian diplomats, the Indian government has been mostly silent. It is possible that through aggressive threats, including via the state-run media, China is hoping to enter into a slanging match with India. If that is the case, the best thing for India to do is to not become embroiled in one. Not all Chinese threats should be taken at face value, and while taking necessary precautions it would be a mistake to unduly panic. The fact is that China finds itself in a very unusual situation, one that it is not accustomed to: it is unable to get its way in a dispute through political pressure, threats, or economic leverage without significantly escalating the situation or discrediting itself. This situation, and how it resolves itself, should be seen as a test of China’s credentials as a responsible global leader.

From an Aid Taker to Aid Giver – How do you see India’s journey into Africa and other developing nations competing with China for aid diplomacy and building strong goodwill with potential partner countries?

India is playing a new, and growing, role as an aid provider, primarily in its neighbourhood from Afghanistan to Myanmar and south into the Indian Ocean region, as well as in parts of Africa. I would warn against viewing this purely as part of a competition with China. Many of these projects would probably have been implemented even in the absence of Chinese grants, loans, and lines of credit, although without doubt there is more urgency now as a result of China’s behaviour. Furthermore, the objective of aid is not simply goodwill. Indian aid, like that of other countries, is meant to help a recipient country with public goods through financial, technical, and technological assistance, in a manner that advances the interests of both donor and recipient countries.

In India’s immediate region, the focus has been on fast-tracking connectivity projects, including roads, ports, and other transit corridors, although many challenges remain, including in cost assessments and implementation. Ultimately, Indian projects need to be financially viable and also have to take into account local concerns, such as environmental considerations. These naturally lead to a lot of delays and cost overruns, and for this reason I would warn against direct comparisons with Chinese activities. India also has important equities in Afghanistan, where it has become the fifth largest aid provider. In Africa, Indian projects are more focused. We should keep in mind that India’s resources are still limited, but I’d expect a slight acceleration in this realm in the near future.

India’s Soft Power Strategy – Initiatives like the International Yoga Day are welcome moves to enhance India’s public profile in the world. In addition to this, how can India sell itself better to the world to raise awareness about its cultural and historic significance?

I perhaps have a dissenting view on this issue. Soft power is the power of attraction – the pull factor – that makes other countries behave in a favourable manner. As such, a soft power strategy is not really possible, beyond perhaps better amplifying existing realities. That being said, India is a prime example of a country that benefits from its soft power. India’s rise is not feared or resisted as much as other countries, in part because it is a relatively transparent democracy, is status quo oriented, and it broadly respects international norms and international law. To give some obvious examples, countries of Southeast Asia actively seek greater Indian involvement despite its rise, while the United States publicly supports India’s entry into several global institutions. In the past few weeks alone, I have heard both Australia and Vietnam’s foreign ministers credit India with respecting an international ruling on its maritime dispute with Bangladesh. That is soft power.

Culture is certainly an important component, but the successful spread of Indian culture, whether yoga or Bollywood or Buddhism, has largely come despite Indian government efforts, not because of them. Attempting a soft power strategy along the lines of China – creating Confucius Institutes and the like – may thus be both a poor use of resources and counterproductive. This is not to say that International Yoga Day or other forms of cultural diplomacy are without merit – they can help to identify a cultural attribute with a country. But rather than trying to bureaucratise something that has been organically successful, perhaps the focus should be only on narrative shaping and leveraging India’s attractiveness for the nation’s benefit.

Working with Neigbours – India seems to be in a difficult position with respect to its immediate neighbourhood. Is it a trust deficit or a long term game of competing for significance in the region with China?

Every country, especially a big one, has difficulties with its neighbours. So does India. But there is also a propensity on the part of many Indian commentators to overstate the differences. Consider that India has an open border with Nepal and that Nepali citizens serve in the Indian army, or that India has a special diplomatic and defence relationship with Bhutan. With Bangladesh, India has settled its longstanding boundary disputes. India has been intimately involved in the repatriation of refugees following the Sri Lankan civil war, and has in recent months been a first responder to natural disasters in both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. At this juncture, in particular, India is fortunate to have good relationships with the current leaders of Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. With Myanmar, India has managed to preserve relatively good relations with the previous regime and the new democratic dispensation, even if the tangible outcomes have been a bit disappointing.

This is not to say that these neighbours enjoy problem-free relationships with India. But compared to – say – China or Russia, India has not done badly. The challenge now lies in two areas. One, there are political constituencies in all of India’s neighbours that derive legitimacy or popularity from anti-India rhetoric and actions. This has always been the case: after all, in the past India had to deal with the likes of Ziaur Rehman, R. Premadasa, and King Gyanendra. The fact that there are overlapping ethnicities across borders further blurs the line between the domestic politics of India and many of its neighbours. The second challenge is that these countries are now willing to fall back on Chinese support when Indian assistance has not been forthcoming, sometimes in a manner that threatens to undermine India’s security. For this reason, India has to be watchful. India has tried to address these shortcoming by prioritising diplomacy with its neighbours, become more forthcoming in aid and disaster assistance, prioritising connectivity, and reclaiming a leadership role in regional integration.

The regional outlier is, of course, Pakistan. The Pakistan military has a longstanding policy of supporting terrorist groups against India, and Islamabad has also not been responsive to efforts to normalize economic and trade relations with India. Compelling Pakistan to alter its position is a major challenge, without any easy answers because India has few levers of influence. The analogy is imperfect, but we face some of the same problems that South Korea, Japan, and the United States face with North Korea, in that we are attempting to engage a nuclear-powered, revisionist country where a small elite benefits domestically from perpetuating a siege mentality and provoking periodic crises with a more powerful neighbour. Engagement with Pakistan will be made harder for India because it is contingent upon several factors, not least the fluid situation in Afghanistan, domestic political dynamics in both countries, and increasingly, the role that China plays in Pakistan’s economic and political trajectory. I fear none of these trends currently point in a positive direction. As a result, in the short term, India will simply have to manage the Pakistan problem rather than try to resolve it.

Energy Diplomacy – As a country dependent on heavy imports of energy supplies, how can we develop priority based strategic partnership with energy rich nations in Gulf and Central Asia, with immense potential for Gas in Central Asia?

India is among the major economies that is most dependent on oil and gas imports for its energy, but it is pursuing ambitious plans to diversify its energy portfolio. This is taking a few forms. One is a major focus on renewables, particularly solar and wind. Even if India misses its ambitious deadlines over the next five years, there is no question that solar and wind energy will be a bigger part of the Indian energy mix, with positive implications for energy security. Additionally, India is also diversifying its sources of fossil fuel imports, importing more from such places as Nigeria and Angola.

Nonetheless, for the near future, security in the Gulf will matter, not just for oil and gas, but also for the large Indian diaspora and various security considerations. For their part, several Gulf economies – notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have started planning also for a post-oil future. A big change over the past few years, and one that has surprised me as well, is the growing cooperation on security matters between India and the Gulf Arab monarchies. We shouldn’t expect a dramatic change in their position, but – for example – their criticism of Pakistan after the Uri attacks last year is part of a gradual change in their approach to India and Indian concerns. The visit of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to India this year for Republic Day, and the joint statement that followed, clearly emphasised the security component of the relationship. At the same time, India’s interests will require it to continue balancing between the various actors in West Asia, including the GCC, Iran, and Israel.