03 September 2009
India-China relations are being jolted by atmospheric turbulence. Some recent writings reminding India of the folly of confronting China and warning that no concession will be made on the border issue as a recompense for not joining anti-China groupings, have increased Indian misgivings about China’s intentions. Worse, an article on a Chinese strategic issues website, timed to appear during Chinese Special Representative Dai Bingguo’s early August visit to India, mentioned that India’s national unity being weak, China could support separatist forces and split the Indian federation into 20 or 30 sovereign states. “There cannot be two suns in the sky”, said the article, strengthening suspicions that China will do everything possible to thwart India’s rise as a rival power.
How much importance should be given to such writings? In democratic societies where press freedom is sacrosanct, governmental policy and media expressions differ, even though official thinking appears through background press briefings. Articles against China appear frequently in the Indian press. China’s border incursions are dramatized, even as the government plays them down by contextualizing them in differences over the exact delineation of the Line of Actual Control(LAC). China’s provocative statements on Arunachal Pradesh invite a barrage of media criticism, independently of the level of government’s political response. The Indian media itself contributes to complicating the political scenario with China by excessively publicizing military dispositions on our side of the border as a counter to the expanded military capacity on the Chinese side. India’s developing conventional and non-conventional capacities are often projected, quite irresponsibly, by the media as China-specific.
In a country like China with a controlled press, the political connotation of such articles is difficult to ignore. Such writings have appeared in the Chinese media after many years, and at a time when China’s position on boundary differences has hardened, provoking speculation that China may well stage some border incident to deflect attention away from mounting internal economic and social problems caused by the global economic downturn. China’s leaders like Ziang Zemin had a certain degree of contempt for the Indian military’s fibre. A few suitably intimidatory articles, it might still be thought, would send a salutary message to India’s cautious political leadership.
An unequal strategic equation is at the root of India-China problems. For India, China is the principal strategic adversary; for China it is the US. China is principally preoccupied with the situation in the Taiwan Straits, while India’s preoccupation, apart from Pakistan, is with its border with China. China already has deterrent capabilities against India, while India is still developing them. China has much greater capacity to intervene in India’s neighbourhood and can impose punishing costs on India by supporting internal insurgencies, especially in the North-east. China has expanded its military infrastructure in Tibet, while India has neglected it on its own side. India has irrevocably recognized China’s sovereignty over Tibet, that China exploits to make further territorial demands on “southern Tibet”( Arunachal Pradesh).
China’s posture on the boundary issue is explained by this imbalance. The 1993 and 1996 border agreements on Peace and Tranquility and CBMs suited India as the weaker side at a time when the J&K situation had deteriorated seriously, and the stronger Chinese side as well. as it signified India’s political acceptance of the ground realities. The subsequent attempt to demarcate the Line of Actual Control(LAC) failed because China reneged on the understanding reached with India and abandoned the process in 2002 without explanation, after exchanging maps of the respective versions of the LAC in the central sector. In 2003, during former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing, high-level Special Representives were appointed to resolve the boundary issue “politically”, in pursuit of which agreed political parameters and guidelines were announced during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabiao’s 2005 India visit. China’s claim soon thereafter to Tawang, ignoring the guideline that settled populations should not be disturbed in resolving the boundary issue, showed again its propensity to disregard agreements arbitrarily. China raised the stakes when, just prior to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s India visit in 2006, the Chinese Ambassador claimed publicly that Arunachal Pradesh belonged to China. More recently, the Chinese took the step to move the Arunachal Pradesh issue out of the bilateral India-China framework and multilateralize it by raising objections to the financing of a small development project there as part of an ADB loan to India.
The boundary talks between India and China cannot be resolved on a “political” basis, if the political relationship between the two countries does not improve substantially. In actual fact, the underlying Indian distrust of China has increased because of China’s opposition to India’s permanent membership of the Security Council, the India-US nuclear deal and a “clean” waiver for India at the NSG. China has become India’s biggest bilateral trade partner in goods, without sufficient impact on the political relationship. The growing trade balance in China’s favour, the limited basket of Indian exports, China’s dumping practices that have attracted anti-dumping actions by India as domestic manufacturers are suffering injury, are clouding the economic atmosphere. India and China are combining their diplomatic efforts to mutual advantage in the Climate Change talks, the WTO negotiatiations and the G-20 discussions, but such cooperation in a multilateral format, based on advancing the self-interest of each, has little impact on highly contentious bilateral issues.
It was not surprising therefore that the 13th round of talks between the Special Representatives of India and China on August 7-8 did not register any progress. This was sought to be concealed by positive pronouncements on quite unrelated issues such as the establishment of hot lines between the two Prime Ministers, the celebration of the Year of China in India next year to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, highlighting the cooperation between the two countries in international forums and describing the growing trade ties as the centre-piece of bilateral relations. These are subjects extraneous to the limited agenda of the Special Representatives. The Chinese took this initiative to project progress on other fronts to deflect attention from their rigidity on the boundary issue, as it suits their strategy of maintaining a section of Indian political and public opinion behind them for use as a point of pressure on the Indian government, and of transferring the responsibility for the border impasse on to the Indian side. The Indian government, caught off balance by the Chinese strategy, presumably had no option but to maintain the appearance of progress, lacking an alternative strategy that can keep the doors of boundary negotiations with the Chinese open even as China’s unacceptable demands on Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang are firmly rejected. The amalgamation of the border agenda of the Special Representatives with the bilateral strategic dialogue would link the boundary talks to India’s larger strategic choices. This will give China the handle it needs to influence India’s conduct on strategic issues affecting China while the interminable border discussions continue. Exploiting India’s diffident diplomacy, China would then have successfully manipulated most cynically the 2003 decision to find this kind of a “political” solution to the outstanding border differences.
The writer was India’s Foreign Secretary and can be contacted at email@example.com