New Dehli: Rules of engagement are an essential ingredient of fostering global relationships through diplomacy and are meant to ensure peace, order and predictability. Definitionally, diplomacy, by convention and practice, is the internationally accepted instrument to convey, promote and protect strategic national interest, through dialogue and negotiation with a clear view to avoiding armed conflict or war.
However, there are limits to diplomacy, which is, after all, a language and thus, a means of communication. What you say, how, to whom and whether you have been understood define the efficacy of your communication strategy. When diplomacy fails, it is because miscommunication has taken place and consequently, communication, itself, has broken down. The stage is then set for conflict.
Communication is also contextual. Furthermore, what you say is as important as what you don’t. Additionally, what you say and what you do are both communication instruments. In other words, communication can be both verbal and non-verbal.
Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in his inimical style, had once, famously said, while referring to Pakistan, ‘You can’t have a productive conversation with someone who shakes hands with you across the table and then, kicks you from underneath’. Vajpayee was referring to non-verbal communication by Islamabad through its active sponsorship and participation, over several decades, in cross-border terrorism with a view to destabilizing India. Through such non-verbal communication, Pakistan was unambiguously conveying a message to India. To say something and do something entirely different is based on using deception as a core component of communication.
Beijing follows a similar pattern of behaviour. While President Xi Jinping was on a visit to India and holding bilateral consultations with Prime Minister Modi, Chinese troops were crossing into Ladakh. The timing prompted the then Indian Air Force chief to refer to it as being ‘mysterious’. Similarly, in 2019, Modi and Jinping agreed that 2020 would be a joint celebration of the 70th anniversary of India-China diplomatic relations and yet, mid-June this year saw the biggest confrontation between troops on both sides.
There is, in fact, nothing ‘mysterious’ about the way Islamabad and Beijing behave. In their calculus, there is only one outcome: accepting, accommodating and adjusting to their point of view. Engagement, in other words, is based on achieving acquiescence and containment.
Once the limits of diplomacy have been reached, the options open are limited and fraught with long-term consequences. Islamabad and Beijing also pin their hopes on India’s excitable and irresponsible TRP-driven visual media, where television anchors call for ‘a strong message’ to be conveyed through military retaliation.
It is precisely what Islamabad and Beijing hope India would do.
Pakistan and its China hand
Islamabad perceives India as an enemy state; a land, in fact, of kafirs against whom waging jihad is the legitimate duty of every ‘true’ Muslim. It lost every war and warlike (Kargil) encounter that it initiated. Its defeat inn 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh was the most humiliating.
When Pakistan realized that they would lose a conventional war with India, they opted for a two-pronged strategy; first, to clandestinely build nuclear weapons and second, to pre-occupy India through repeated cross-border terrorism. They achieved results in both cases.
At the same time, 9/11 altered the scenario and when Operation Neptune Spear by US Navy Seals successfully resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbattobad, in Pakistan, where he had been living in seclusion and with security provided by the Pakistani military, Islamabad’s equation with Washington and indeed, the global community changed dramatically. It was now considered a pariah state.
Meanwhile, India had quietly strengthened its relationship with the US that culminated in the historic 123 Agreement on the civilian use of nuclear technology. That Pakistan was denied this facility was further reflective of how isolated Islamabad had become in the eyes of the global community.
Beijing saw an opportunity and stepped in. This was statecraft
For all intents and purposes, China bought Pakistan, which gratefully offered its soul for protection and survival. This suited Islamabad’s military leadership and Islamic fundamentalists. China enjoyed veto power in the UN and could block any anti-Pakistan resolution. Furthermore, China’s economic power could help create jobs in Pakistan and control domestic unrest.
Despite brutal suppression by Beijing of its own Muslim population, the military and mullahs in Islamabad did not find anything unholy in the alliance with China because their clear enemy and end-objective was the destruction of India. Such an extreme position is not, necessarily, shared by Beijing, which sees India as a huge market but one whose leadership it needs to tame and control.
With increased frequency, Islamabad supported cross-border terrorism, including the horrific attack in Mumbai, which left hundreds dead. With impunity they ignored Kasab’s disclosures and protected anti-India protagonists. What they refined was provocation as a viable communication objective.
Islamabad’s gamble is that any military intervention by India would result in a full-scale war. China could, then, open additional fronts to pre-occupy Indian troops and, while Pakistan might lose a conventional war, Islamabad would invoke the use of nuclear weapons and thereby, internationalize the situation, which it has so far not succeeded in doing. Such a scenario is predicated on a number of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ but is reasonably credible, while, nevertheless, remaining a gamble on Islamabad’s part. It would be difficult to imagine that Islamabad would embark on a suicidal mission without obtaining Beijing’s nod of military support and intervention to balance the equation and tip it in Islamabad’s favour.
In the case of Chinese leadership, deception is an integral part of their DNA. This explains their complete disregard for accepted and conventional norms of behavior. They seek to surprise and thus, to confuse. They see no contradiction, consequently, in advising their troops to cross the border of a neighbouring country, while, simultaneously, enjoying their neighbour’s hospitality: This is the China way.
In Beijing’s calculus, provocative incursions might provoke New Delhi sufficiently to try retaliation. This would tip the scales and invite China to respond. Beijing is quite capable of opening another couple of fronts, simultaneously, and with Islamabad willing to do its bidding, India could face a critical challenge.
At a time when the world is fighting the China virus that has triggered a serious global economic shock, apart from a significant health crisis across the globe, and the US preoccupied with its Presidential elections, India might not be able to turn to any allies for a quick response in the eventuality of a full-scale military escalation. For Beijing, the timing is right to squeeze India. As it said after its series of attacks on Vietnam, all it wanted to do was ‘to teach them a lesson’.
So, what should India do?
I prefer to set aside the role of India’s shouting brigade or television anchors. For decades, India has sought out different avenues to talk and to discuss. Civilized dialogue and communication have been the basic hallmarks of Indian diplomacy. We have done this with Pakistan and with China, even during the most testing times because it has been our belief that a peaceful neighbourhood is conducive to economic growth and wellbeing.
As history has demonstrated, this sentiment has not been reciprocated by either Islambad or Beijing.
The question New Delhi is confronted with is how communication needs to be recrafted so that it is better understood. Does the strategy require course-correction, including possibly a complete overhaul or rewiring because clearly its outreach – both verbal and non-verbal – is falling on deaf rears.
Despite this aggravated situation, I believe Indian diplomacy is mature enough not to fall into the Islamabad-Beijing trap of opting for a military engagement. But at the same time, it would keep its military options open and recalibrate its communication strategy by combining gentle and persuasive diplomacy with strong and firm touch. Words matter and India’s use of vocabulary has already changed in content and nuance. Beijing will initially respond harshly but if New Delhi stands its ground, we might well see Beijing back down.
The above scenario analysis suggests that this is the most challenging question that New Delhi has faced since the 1971 war. How it pans out over the next few weeks and months could dramatically impact both history and geography.
(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat opinions expressed here is his personal)