Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) welcomes his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the ministry headquarters in the capital Tehran on Tuesday. Photo: AFP / Iranian Foreign Ministry

Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stopped over in the Iranian capital for a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday. Jaishankar was on his way to Moscow for the foreign ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Jaishankar’s meeting with Zarif came two days after Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh held talks with his Iranian counterpart, Brigadier General Amir Hatami. Singh also stopped over in Tehran, in his case during a return flight from Russia. He had participated in the meeting of the SCO’s defense ministers.

What message, and to whom, does India want to send by these events?

India wants to send multiple messages to multiple stakeholders to fulfill its single purpose. The purpose is to reach a Doklam-2017-style breakthrough to settle the border standoff with China.

China accused India of starting the latest border standoff. Chinese strategists believe that India early this year was preparing to avenge defeat in the 1962 war by forging an alliance with the United States, in anticipation that Covid-19 would collapse the Chinese economy. But China managed to control the pandemic by mid-March, and it successfully avoided the freefall of its economy.

In contrast, Covid-19 spread disastrously in the US and India, and their attempts to combat the pandemic turned futile. The US and Indian economies have been hit harder than China’s. Consequently, the strategists believe, India has been forced to change its plan to take revenge on China.

However, China has not changed its mind. China said to India that India had started the tension at the border and should be the one end the standoff. So, from early May, China began to put pressure on India at the border.

After the violent Galwan clash, India imposed economic sanctions. India reached a strategic agreement with Australia. India tried to use the Quad as a weapon to put pressure on China.

However, it became clear that China would not back down from its core interest. China again repeated its claim on Arunachal Pradesh, another entire state of India, to mount more counter-pressure.

Winter of discontent

As winter is approaching, the military standoff’s financial and human cost at the Sino-Indian border is correspondingly growing. Indians are very nervous now because the bitter cold is coming soon to the high Himalayas. The thermometer in the snowy mountain range goes down to minus 40 degrees Celsius in mid-winter.

For the Indian Army troops stationed in the Himalayas’ Siachen glacier sector from the time they took control there in 1984 up to 2016, non-combat fatalities totaled about four times the figure for combat fatalities. Among approximately a thousand Indian soldiers who lost their lives there up until 2016, only 220 were killed with bullets. The rest were killed by the extreme cold. This number is double than the corresponding figure for the India-Pakistan Kargil war.

India deployed more than 40,000 of its soldiers in Ladakh after the deadly Galwan clash on June 15 of this year. India is poorly prepared to handle logistics and supply for its servicepersons. A massive squandering of financial resources, on the one hand, and unbelievable human cost, on the other hand, can be expected as the winter approaches.

Thus, India wants to reach some kind of understanding with China as soon as possible. It seeks to send a message to China that India intends to reverse course.

‘We’re still Nonaligned’

India’s actions seek to refute allegations that India has abandoned its extended and cherished non-aligned foreign policy and entered into an alliance with “the West.” India wants to convey that it is not part of any bloc, and that it still upholds the non-alignment principle.

Another issue India is trying to finesse is that it had to forge an alliance with the United States by abandoning the agreements and consensus reached at the first and second informal summits with China. China has been pressuring India to fulfill those previous deals.

As a result, India is caught in the vicious cycle of the grand strategic game of superpowers. Many strategic analysts believe that, due to this vicious cycle, India lost its strategic autonomy. For example, India stopped buying oil from Iran since early May 2019 in response to US pressure.

By sending Singh and Jaishankar to Tehran, it seems, India has tried to respond to the accusation of loss of its strategic autonomy.

India seeks to convey the message that it is a middle-power country capable of maintaining its strategic autonomy. In the context of the Indian public opinion after the Galwan fracas that favored abandoning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, India is trying to show that it has maintained its strategic autonomy.

Third, despite Jaishankar’s persistent denials, the US clarified its intention to develop the Quad as an Asian version of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). The US intention was explained by the remarks of US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in an online discussion organized by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on August 31.

The Indian and Iranian media said that the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Iran focuses on the exchange of views on regional issues of the Persian Gulf; Afghanistan; India’s upcoming temporary membership term on the United Nations Security Council; and the Indian investment in Iranian infrastructure projects.

‘We’re not with Pompeo’

However, India intends to clarify that India is not seeking an alliance with the US as promoted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. To that end it sends its two ministers to Russia and Iran, countries the US calls its traditional adversaries.

Indians were hoping that tensions with China along the border would ease by the end of August. However, after China firmly maintained its position and continued its pressure at the border, India is now rattled by the prospect of the upcoming disaster.

The Times of India quotes Jaishankar as saying, “If these are not observed, then it raises very very important questions…. I note that this very serious situation has been going on since the beginning of May; this calls for very very deep conversation between the two sides at a political level.”

A Time of India report also says, “The minister also talked about the number of pacts between the two countries on the border management since 1993, saying they clearly stipulate keeping forces at a minimum level along the border and largely shaped the behavior of the armed forces.”

Jaishankar’s recent remarks show that India is edgy and wants a course-correct with China. It also shows that the military leaders and diplomatic-level talks are not enough to break the border impasse. There is an earnest need for political-level talks.

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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.