Chinese and Indian patrols at the Doklam Plateau. Photo: AFP

The government of Narendra Modi has been on a learning curve during its three-year dalliance with a US-led containment strategy against China. India lurched onto the US bandwagon and assumed a hardline stance toward China, one that pivoted on aggressive nationalism. Sino-Indian relations deteriorated sharply – and came to the brink of war in a face-off in the Himalayas last summer.

Ironically, that faceoff brought a dose of sober thinking and eventually triggered a review of India’s China policies. Of course, the course-correction bell has been ringing for other reasons too – India’s slipping foothold in its own neighborhood in the face of increasingly assertive Chinese moves to expand its footprint in South Asia; Delhi’s growing disenchantment with the Trump administration; an improved climate in China-Asean relations; and, most importantly, the realization that China’s rise is a geopolitical reality.

India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, undertook a pioneering mission to Beijing last month to open a new conversation and to prepare the ground for a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, due to take place in Qingdao, China, in June. Gokhale’s mission was productive.

An acclaimed ‘China hand,’ Gokhale was received in Beijing by Foreign Minister Wang Yi – and, in a significant gesture, by Yang Jiechi, a State Councilor and member of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. A schedule of sustained bilateral engagement was discussed, including a visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to China next month.

But what caught the mind’s eye was the official Indian readout on Gokhale’s discussions in Beijing: “They noted the need to build on the convergences between India and China and address differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations. Both sides underlined that as two major countries, sound development of relations between India and China is a factor of stability in the world today.”

The catchwords are “mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns and aspirations.” From the Chinese perspective, the Modi government has crossed the line on Tibet-related issues, the South China Sea and the ‘one China’ policy. Delhi has interfered in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, allowed the hoisting of the Tibetan independence flag near the Chinese border, cocked a snook at Beijing by feting the Dalai Lama every now and then, and more. Modi even visited Mongolia with a billion dollar credit package to nudge Ulaanbaatar to stand up to Beijing. The high point came last summer when Indian troops entered territory that is claimed by the Chinese and by Bhutan.

Notably, the Indian government sent round a circular last month to the effect that all senior officials should refrain from attending functions marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile in India

Beijing viewed each of these actions as impacting its core interests. The nadir was reached when the US and India revived ‘the Quad’ – the moribund idea of an Asian alliance between the two countries plus Japan and Australia. Beijing views ‘the Quad’ as a move to counter its own rise. Its attitude toward India has hardened.

In Delhi, however, there is a general acceptance of the limitations of India’s capacity to sustain muscularity toward China. And there is a discernible restraint in its attitude toward its neighbor. Notably, the Indian government – at the foreign ministry’s recommendation –  sent round a circular last month to the effect that all senior officials should refrain from attending functions marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile in India.

It is of the utmost importance for Delhi that another standoff in the Himalayas doesn’t occur in summer when the passes open. But the turnaround in India’s policy toward China also has a bigger backdrop of the current state of play in US-Indian relations. Their much-vaunted “defining partnership” looks listless. Trump is disinterested in Modi’s pet project, ‘Make in India.’ At the same time, he has begun taunting Modi publicly for not being cooperative enough in advancing ‘America First.’

The wisdom of putting all Indian eggs in the American basket has always been dubious, but it is more so today, at a time when the Trump administration lacks any long-term strategy. India is reverting to an independent policy toward China that allows it to pursue specific interests in the relationship instead of getting entangled in vacuous exercises like ‘the Quad’ simply to poke China.

The campaign to inveigle India in a US-led regional strategy against China dates back to the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia. The then US defense secretary, Leon Panetta, once called India a ‘lynchpin’ in the US strategy. The motivation was as much geopolitical as a desire to capture the Indian market for export of American weaponry.

India has re-stated more than once that its so-called ‘Act East’ policy attributes centrality to the Asean region, but Washington maintains the fiction that Delhi is in harmony with US regional strategies directed against China. Delhi has kept a deafening silence over ‘the Quad,’ despite the drumbeat by western analysts to give it significance in Asia-Pacific security. It is careful not to gatecrash into South China Sea issues when Asean and China are sitting down to discuss a Code of Conduct. Great care was taken to trim the rhetoric during the visit of Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang to India last week.

The big question is whether Modi’s benching of the Dalai Lama and its walk-back on the South China Sea will act as an ice-breaker. Beijing is taking its time. Xi’s meeting with Modi in June will be a defining moment.

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