Days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit, India has made a shocking new threat against China and its ally Pakistan.
The meeting between Modi and Xi did not result in any concrete promises apart from a general agreement to increase dialogue so as to avoid future border disputes from transpiring into tense standoffs like the one which took place in Doklam/Donglang over the summer.
Today, however, the spirit of cooperation which underlined the BRICS summit has been tainted by a provocative statement coming from Indian Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat.
“As far as northern adversary (China) is concerned, the flexing of muscle has started. The salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary about and remain prepared for situations emerging which could gradually emerge into conflict”.
Rawat then turned to Chinese ally and crucial One Belt–One Road partner Pakistan, bizarrely accusing Islamabad of waging a proxy war against India. In reality border disputes are the antithesis of a proxy war. A border war is a classic dispute between neighbours over territory.
Nevertheless the Indian Army Chief said about Pakistan,
“Because of this proxy war, there is always a scope of conflict with our western neighbour. As far as our northern adversary is concerned, flexing of muscle has started”.
Stating that India is prepared for war with Pakistan and China simultaneously, as Rawat did, is not in line with the spirit of the BRICS. This lends weight to my initial theory that in spite of the positive words, the statements made between Modi and Xi, were effectively of little use.
Premier Modi is currently in Myanmar where he has generally wooed the leadership in the conflict ridden country. While China and Russia have taken a position on Myanmar which condemns violence against civilians, they have refused to name a guilty party. Modi by contrast, has unambiguously aligned himself with the government in Myanmar in a clear move to ingratiate the Indian leadership to its South East Asian neighbour. It also draws a clear line against most Muslim countries who have condemned what they see as a genocide against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population who generally live near the Bangladeshi border.
As China has economic interests throughout South East Asia, including in Myanmar, Modi’s ‘pivot south’ is increasingly understood as a means to try and gain an upper hand against China in a trade war, rather than a border war, even though Modi’s Army Chief is implying that border wars remain a priority from the perspective of the Indian military.
In reality, the provocative words from Bipin Rawat are designed for domestic consumption, without any regard towards the predictably unhappy response they are sure to elicit from both Beijing and Islamabad. They also serve as a distraction from Modi’s tour of Myanmar which clearly aims at positioning India as a more favourable partner to the South East Asian state vis-a-vis China which also shares a border with Myanmar.