If there were any doubts that China is systematically changing the famous ‘tao guang yang hi’ (TGYH) approach that underpinned its foreign policy since the late 1980s, the ongoing military standoff in Doklam — which started with the People’s Liberation Army trying to change the status quo at the border tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China — has laid them to rest.
The TGYH approach, created in the context of a China that was wrestling with domestic discord after the Tiananmen Square massacre and what it saw as an existential global threat as other Communist regimes crumbled, was summed up in Deng Xiaoping’s Twenty-Four-Character strategy of 1992: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” That diffident era is now clearly over.
The current Bhutan standoff, which started with the Chinese starting to build a road towards the Bhutan army camp in Zompelri on June 16, illustrates how the internal Chinese foreign policy debate between the pragmatists who emphasised a low profile and the muscular nationalists who want the ‘Fen Fa You Wei’ (striving for achievement) approach is being won by the latter.
Ironically, Geng Shuang, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, recently accused New Delhi of having “trampled” upon the principles of ‘Panchsheel’ outlined by Nehru in the heyday of Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai. Yet, on the ground, Beijing’s actions are seemingly being driven by what a witty TOI cartoon pithily described this week as the spirit of “Punchsheel”.
Admittedly, the absence of mutually agreed-upon clarity over large parts of the Line of Actual Control on the map — like we have on the Line of Control with Pakistan on the western border— in what is the world’s largest border dispute stretching over 310,800 sq km of territory, has often led to periodic disputes. Even so, the current Chinese rhetoric is best characterised by the old colourful Hindi metaphor, ulta chor kotwal ko daante (the thief, instead, scolds the policeman).
The Doklam incident is significantly different from recent ones in Depsang (Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh, 2013), Chumar (eastern Ladakh, 2014) or Demchok (Ladakh, 2016). First, this time China is attempting to change the status quo as it has existed since the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement, as former NSA Shivshankar Menon has argued. The Chinese gambit…