Sitharaman’s visit to the border regions as defense minister can be easily interpreted as New Delhi’s push to intensify combat readiness against Beijing.
But Sitharaman’s traditional Namaste greeting to the Chinese soldiers sent another signal to the public that might not erase the first impression but may at least balance things out.
Being on guard against China is a widespread mind-set in Indian society. But confrontation with Beijing is also a radical idea beyond its national strength and contradicts its fundamental interests. Such an idea is only advocated by extreme nationalists. Indian public opinion is inquisitorial on any hard-line Beijing policy by the Indian government and foresees a “second round of Sino-Indian face-offs,” constantly pressuring New Delhi’s diplomacy after the Doklam standoff.
Sitharaman’s greeting to the Chinese soldiers conveys her hope for peace on the Sino-Indian border and unwillingness to see a new standoff. This is commonly regarded as the attitude of the Narendra Modi government.
This is a realistic and responsible attitude for the country and its people. Both before and after the Doklam crisis, the Chinese government hopes for border peace with the broad support of the Chinese people. But Indian society’s understanding of their country’s border policy seems ambiguous and chaotic. Some Indians believe New Delhi will take tough measures to crush Beijing’s will.
New Delhi has been strengthening its military presence at the Sino-Indian border in recent years. Quite a few Indians believe the Indian military has already gained a certain advantage over the People’s Liberation Army and they support bolder action by New Delhi. This mentality ignores the Sino-Indian gap in national strength and overlooks the historical experience.
China welcomes Sitharaman’s greeting and hopes this friendly gesture is also welcomed by Indians. Sitharaman’s charm offensive might help break the ice between Chinese and Indian public opinion.
India isn’t a major focus for China’s international strategy. India’s development lags behind China. Its modernization and development does not depend on winning the initiative in its relations with China. Friendly cooperation is the best option, strategic exhaustion the worst. Both countries should control the risks.
Indians must overcome the paranoia that suggests their country is strategically thwarted and threatened by Beijing. New Delhi also needs to give up its pursuit of Washington and Tokyo support to deploy as a bargaining chip against Beijing. As India gradually rises to become a major economy, being more diplomatically independent is a must. Confrontation with China will directly limit its international strategic space.