After Tsai Ing-wen won re-election as president of Taiwan, some Indian politicians congratulated her. Photo: AFP

India’s External Affairs Ministry (MEA) issued a brief statement on August 6 as a rejoinder to China’s attempt to discuss the Jammu and Kashmir issue in the United Nations Security Council. The Chinese effort was made on the first anniversary of India’s retraction of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. That article had granted J&K a special status in the Indian union.

The MEA statement says, “We have noted that China initiated a discussion in the UN Security Council on issues pertaining to the Indian Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir…. We firmly reject China’s interference in our internal affairs and urge it to draw proper conclusions from such infructuous attempts.”

Although it was not the first time China had attempted to push this issue in the Security Council, this time it wanted to send an explicit message to India. That message is­: Any Indian attempt to twist its “one-China” policy will provoke an inevitable “appropriate retaliatory” Chinese response.

Chinese analysts believe that the military standoff in Ladakh is a part of China’s strategy to mount pressure on New Delhi to avert India’s attempt to alter its China policy, reckoning China is weak and vulnerable because of the Covid-19 pandemic and thus the geopolitical matrix of the Asia-Pacific region can be recalibrated as American and Indian strategists want.

The People’s Liberation Army and Indian Army have been facing off in Ladakh since May 15. Twenty Indian soldiers, including a commanding officer and an unknown number of PLA troops, were killed in a savage clash using fists, rocks wrapped in barbed wire, and clubs studded with nails in the barren Galwan Valley on June 15.

‘One China policy’ a key factor

When India designated Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as a union territory on August 5, 2019, China took a comparatively soft stance, mindful of future economic cooperation and partnership with India. Beijing called India’s act “unacceptable,” while Pakistan harshly condemned India’s move as “unilateral and illegal.”

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi flew to Beijing to seek Chinese intervention on the issue on August 9 last year. However, after Qureshi’s trip, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that said, “We call on Pakistan and India to resolve disputes through dialogue and negotiation and jointly uphold regional peace and stability.”

Two days later, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Beijing and tried to assure China that the revocation of the special status and change in the political-administrative status of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh did not affect the de facto border with China, the Line of Actual Control.

One year later, China took a U-turn on its stance on the issue and adopted a similar standpoint as Pakistan. On August 6, The Hindustan Times quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin as saying, “Any unilateral change to the status quo is illegal and invalid. This issue should be properly resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultations between the parties concerned.”

Beijing is deeply suspicious of the recent series of Indian attempts to bend its long-standing one-China policy. For instance, India sent two members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to attend pro-independence Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s oath-taking ceremony for her second term on May 20.

BJP members of Parliament Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan attended the swearing-in ceremony virtually. They also sent her separate congratulatory video messages. Indian media and strategic analysts considered it a departure from the BJP government’s Taiwan policy.

Beijing considers Taiwan a rogue province of China, and that the island is its territory. China claims that no nation has the right to establish state-to-state relations with the island. Thus Taiwan is a sensitive matter for Beijing.

Indian foreign-affairs journalists, strategic analysts, and international-relations academia have recently been advocating a change in the one-China policy. The BJP’s mouthpiece private TV news channels have been trying hard to shape public opinion to alter this policy since the deadly Galwan Valley clash.

Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong expressed his views on such developments at a webinar held by the Institute of Chinese Studies on “India China Relations: The Way Forward” on July 30.

The Wire quotes Sun as saying, “There has been an argument in Indian public opinion on the boundary question, which worries me, suggesting the Indian government adjust its policy towards China, and change its stance on issues related to Taiwan, Xizang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea to put pressure on China.” (Xizang is the Chinese name for Tibet.)

India officially has not recognized Taiwan since December 30, 1949, and has accepted Tibet as Chinese territory since 2003. However, India has tried to alter its position on these issues recently. Similarly, India has begun articulating a revised stance on the South China Sea more frequently. Also, during the last session of the UN Human Rights Council, India raised the issue of human rights in Hong Kong after Beijing promulgated a national-security law for the HK Special Administrative Region.

Chinese strategists have taken India’s recent moves seriously because they can be seen as in line with the view expressed by Ambassador Sun at the webinar mentioned above. He said, “I want to point out emphatically that Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Xizang affairs are totally China’s internal affairs and bear on China’s sovereignty and security. While China doesn’t interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs, it allows no external interference and never trades its core interests either,” according to The Wire.

In 1961 when the late Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru claimed the Portuguese colony of Goa as an integral part of Indian territory, China extended “resolute support” on the grounds of the people’s struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

After that, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recognized Tibet as the sovereign territory of China in 2003. And China started recognizing Sikkim, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that India annexed in 1975, as India’s sovereign territory.

But now, India is trying to change its policy on Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

The latest Chinese stance on Jammu and Kashmir indicates that Beijing wants to send a plain message to New Delhi that if it attempts to alter its policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, China will change its policy on Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh immediately, and possibly on Goa, Sikkim, and the Northeastern states in the future.

India has been adhering to the one-China policy not by choice but by necessity. Upholding that policy is more in India’s interest than China’s, as it reciprocates China’s “one-India” policy.

India’s attempts to bend this norm will lead to counter-moves by China. Such retaliatory moves will have severe implications on India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty given the reality that the two Asian giants share a border more than 4,000 kilometers long.

Besides, China has the upper hand because of the asymmetric economic and military capabilities of the two countries. The cost of tampering with India’s one-China policy is much higher than China’s doing the same with its one-India policy.

This is not the time for India to initiate such changes. It needs to wait until it becomes a US$10 trillion economy.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.