India seems in full China Appeasement Mode these days. The latest example of this is a country that wants to be a permanent member of the Security Council, caving to Chinese pressure and forcing Air India to rename Taiwan as "Chinese Taipei" in its displays.
Flying not-so-high: Air India [Photo: IANS]
The facts of the matter are threefold – first, that India ceded the negotiating space on this long back; second, that this amounts to a specific micro failure, where even limited tactical advantage was squandered; third, that the China “expertise” in the foreign ministry is non-existent.
Air India, being a government airline, was always going to be subject to government pressure, just as it benefits (unduly) from government support. Earlier this year, in a diplomatic triumph, the government had secured over-flight rights to Israel over Saudi Arabia for Air India.
This marked the first relaxing of the pan-Arab, pan-Muslim state ban on direct flights to Israel, crossing their territory for any airline from any country – ever. This could only happen as Air India is seen as an arm of the state, given state funds and protection and seen by the foreign ministry as its own private crisis evacuation force, enabling it to circumvent the air force as and when required.
First time to Israel: Air India's historic flight lands at the Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv. [Photo: AP]
The problem is, it is also a target of governments that seek to exert political pressure on India. For example, in 1955, Taiwanese agents bombed the Air India plane Kashmir Princess in an attempt to assassinate the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai whom the plane was supposed to ferry to the Bandung Conference.
It is important to note here that where a Taiwanese bomb made no impact whatsoever on an alleged “pushover” Indian prime minister in 1955, a mere Chinese demarche in 2018 is enough to send an allegedly “strong” prime minister into a tizzy handing over what few bargaining chips remain.
One could say the game was lost when India accepted the One China policy unconditionally without anything in return – yet, this doesn’t explain the tactical reverses since then. For example, why in the 80s and 90s repeatedly confirm Tibet as a part of China for nothing in return, and finally get acceptance of Sikkim, rather than the entire border?
The problem here is unlike China, which, from day one, was crystal clear about the One China policy, India has always been wishy-washy, happy with whatever scraps it could scrounge off the table.
Ultimately, policy is about consistency – and India has consistently acted like a country willing to settle for scraps.
Many countries play footsie with the One China policy. Several of those, despite recognising the PRC, treat the Taiwanese “trade delegation” as diplomats. Most importantly, Taiwan’s intelligence community is regularly engaged given their unique insight into China, their obsessive focus on it and their singular ability to blend in and turn agents there, unmatched by any other state.
Not India though.
Despite shows of unity and speeches, with senior BJP leaders visiting Taiwan, the entire Taiwanese “trade delegation” is ignored and senior officials posted to Delhi who used to head their military intelligence given no access or indeed approached off the record for their insights.
Now, while official adherence to One China is great, India follows it with the spirit of a true believer – frequently to its own great detriment, and public sneers in Beijing. As one rather catty friend in Beijing put it to me last year at the height of the Doklam crisis, “We never take our own foreign ministry seriously. We take yours even less seriously.”
Even they don't take their mandarins as seriously as we do. [Photo: Reuters]
Having ceded all strategic space, and given that our economy and joke of a defence industry is in no state to mirror a China-Pakistan axis with an India-Taiwan one, we have very few tactical tools left. The Dalai Lama is one, and fidgeting with Taiwan is another.
But this really tells you the pathetic levels we have come down to with regard to our China policy, where the strongest message we can send China is easing the Dalai Lama’s freedom of movement on our own soil and letting him visit our own state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh caused a storm in the Chinese tea cup. [Photo: PTI]
Giving up even these few levers for nothing in return, however, seems to have taken this policy to a new low.
Past mistakes aside, the continuing problem here is that there is exactly zero learning of Chinese tactics on the Indian side. At the Inaugural function of Delhi’s biggest international diplomatic event in 2016, Chinese representatives had thrown a major tantrum at Taiwan being called by its formal name “Republic of China” in the pamphlets.
The MEA yielded, changed the name to Taiwan and appeased some more. Rather than silencing them, this led to further demands that no Taiwanese delegate be allowed to speak. At this point, the organiser put their foot down and said enough was enough. The Chinese, perplexed by the show of dignified resistance, stood down. However, clearly, the MEA officials involved learnt nothing from the incident and walked away, none the wiser.
And that is the biggest problem here – not one of policy, but one of a steadfast refusal to learn, internalise, understand and transfer knowledge, even when faced with a weak hand.