China’s two-track policy towards India, that of targetting our territory as well as our market is proving effective. The Chinese calculate that they can periodically rile India politically without much cost on the economic front. They want to freeze the border issue but flood our market with their goods.
We have not found an effective counter to this strategy because we are uncertain about where the lines of our security concerns about China and our readiness to pragmatically engage with it economically should intersect. Consequently, even as the provocations from China increase so do our trade relations, which is impolitic, more as our trade deficit with China is growing.
The Chinese leaders have clearly stated that the border issue will not be resolved for a very long time. Logically, this means that they do not see the talks between the Special Representatives producing results in the foreseeable future. Yet, the talks continue and the impression created by the Indian side primarily for its domestic opinion that progress is being made.
The Chinese are served well by the contradiction between their positions that they see no results from border talks till the next generation and yet continuing negotiations. By this they shift the onus of progress on India. The sub-text of their position is that India is not ready to settle the issue by accommodating China’s fair and reasonable demands, but that China can wait patiently till India makes up its mind on required concessions. By maintaining the facade of a dialogue, they seem open to a solution and therefore appear less unreasonable to a section of our body-politic that wants better ties with China. The talks also provide political cover to work for expanding trade ties.
Putting a map on e-passports that shows Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as well as disputed South China Sea islands as part of China well reflects China’s dual strategy. While staking their political position even more firmly through such unilateral actions, the Chinese preach, disingenuously, that differences should be resolved through dialogue. When a major power like China with growing military strength asserts a position on extremely sensitive and difficult to resolve territorial issues, stepping back later to forge a compromise becomes even less likely.
This additional Chinese provocation comes when tensions in the South China Sea have already erupted because of China’s territorial assertiveness there. It now thinks it has acquired enough political, economic and even military clout to disregard adverse reactions from neighbours. China is compelling weaker neighbours to adjust to unpleasant realities.
Just as South Asia has divided views on China which China exploits to advance its interests there, in the ASEAN group too divisions have surfaced on how to deal with China’s territorial claims, which China is manipulating to prevent a united ASEAN front from being forged against it. Actually, for ASEAN members generally, China is too powerful and too geographically close a reality to take on frontally. This is so even when some of these countries have military arrangements with US and the latter is “pivoting” towards Asia to counter China strategically.
Even the huge volumes of two-way trade and investment, on the rise after the 2010 China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, have not prevented China from following a political track that is contrary to the logic of the economic track. This carries a lesson for us, both as regards our developing economic ties with China as well as US role in limiting China’s territorial ambitions.
India is well aware of Chinese claims on its territory. China does not need to spell them out periodically for our better comprehension. We are discussing them confidentially at the level of specially designated representatives. Rather than, as common sense would dictate, drawing attention away from these differences if the intention is to build a practical relationship in other areas bilaterally and multilaterally, China insists on provoking India (and others) as illustrated by its latest passport stratagem.
India is reluctant to react strongly to such provocations because it does not want to whip up negative feelings against China already pervasive in its strategic and media circles. Actually, India gives explanations for Chinese nettling which the Chinese themselves do not offer- as, for example, that Chinese intrusions occur because of differing perceptions of the two sides of the Line of Actual Control, which is an exculpatory discourse. We also see utility in cooperating with China in international fora on specific issues for which the atmosphere will be vitiated by slanging matches with China. We are aware that overt tensions with China only constrain our foreign policy choices vis a vis other powers. China as the stronger power is not reasoning in a similar manner and therefore feels less need for restraint.
In response to the latest Chinese provocation, India, by affixing maps that depict our boundaries on visas we issue to the Chinese, has reacted with commendable imagination. But then, our Army Chief is quoted as saying that we have a perfect relationship with China- which is not the case. Our Naval Chief, who gets trapped by the media into saying that his navy is prepared to protect our investments in the South China Sea is called to order, though the statement he made would not have been necessary if China were not threatening foreign ships in its unilaterally defined maritime jurisdiction. In the wake of our Strategic Economic Dialogue with China we have begun talking about buying bullet trains from China. We are unable to handle coherently either the negatives or the positives of our relationship with China because we have not yet mastered the steps for dancing with the dragon.