Reports of Chinese soldiers intruding 10 kilometres into Ladakh challenge once again our assumptions about the stability of the situation on the unsettled India-China border. Our expanding relationship with China has encouraged thinking that the border issue is no longer central to the future of the relationship and can await resolution as and when possible. We have adjusted ourselves to China’s India strategy. We downplay such incursions.
The low priority attached by the Chinese leadership to the resolution of the border dispute is ignored by us. President Xi Jinping has lost no time in telling us that the border issue is not easy to resolve, reiterating former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s remarks in Delhi in 2010. He has scotched any hope of changed thinking in Beijing on an issue that generates distrust and apprehensions about China’s longer term intentions. In effect, President Xi has closed the doors to a settlement for the next ten years when he will be in power. We have not reacted.
President Xi’s five point proposal for conducting relations with India is self-serving, as it is calculated to play to China’s strenghts and side step India’s concerns.
After ruling out a border settlement, the Chinese President proposes that the two countries cooperate to maintain peace and tranquillity. This is singularly unimaginative as the two are maintaining peace and tranquillity for the last two decades, following the relevant agreements of 1993 and 1996.
When President Xi proposes that border differences shoud not affect the overall relationship, he is only nodding at existing realities. The bilateral relationship has progressed tremendously despite Chinese periodic provocations, such as those laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh and describing it as “South Tibet”, protesting the visits of our political leaders there, shortening the length of the Sino-Indian border in a bid to question India’s territorial sovereignty in the eastern and western sectors, giving Kashmir-linked stapled visas etc.
These provocations have been one-sided. Notwithstanding them, our Prime Minister has met China’s leaders oftener than others; we have a strategic dialogue with China at political, economic and defence levels; our armed forces now conduct joint exercises, albeit limited. The two countries engage with each other in the Russia-India-China format, that of BRICS and G-20, apart from collaborating in WTO and climate change negotiations. Now China has proposed a dialogue with us on Afghanistan, which we have welcomed.
In proposing that differences over the border should not affect the overall relationship, President Xi wants to preserve the freedom to continue provoking us and undermining our interests in our neighbourhood, as the latest strategic decision to take over Gwadar demonstrates. His proposal that India should maintain close strategic communication in order to keep bilateral relations on the right track excludes any explanation from China about its strategic ties with Pakistan, its continuing assistance in building Pakistan’s nuclear capability, its opposition to our joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group and our permanent membership of the Security Council, etc.
President Xi calls for harnessing each other’s comparative strengths and expand mutually beneficial cooperation in infrastructure, investment etc. India has comparative strength in Information Technology and pharmaceuticals for instance, but it faces hurdles in accessing the Chinese domestic market. China, on the other hand, has become India’s largest trading partner in goods despite our unsustainable trade deficit with it. Chinese telecommunication and power companies have bagged huge contracts in India despite serious cybersecurity concerns. China would like to have a share of the $1 trillion we intend investing in upgrading our infrastructure in the next 5 years, especially when it has huge unutilized capacities in this sector and opportunities abroad are declining because of a global slow down. It can use its financial strength to advantage in countries like India if the politics can be managed. Unsurprisingly with the border issue “effectively controlled”, the People’s Daily advocates more focus on trade and multilateral issues with India.
President Xi’s emphasis on strenghtening cultural ties is unobjectionable. Enhancing cooperation in multilateral forums to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries in tackling global challenges- another point that President Xi makes- is desirable although China has hardly championed the rights of developing countries in the past, though today its hunger for natural resources and markets accounts for a different stance.
When the Chinese President says that the two countries should accommodate each other’s core concerns, the hard kernel of his message becomes evident. India has never identified its core concerns to the international community or to China bilaterally. Consequently, President Xi is not talking about China accommodating India’s stated core concerns. In any case, whether in the case of transferring nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan, undermining our position in our neighbourhood, whether in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives or Bangladesh, China disregards our obvious core concerns.
The Chinese leader is expecting India, in a one-sided proposition, to accommodate China’s core concerns, evidently in South China Sea and Tibet, as Taiwan and Sinkiang are not contentious issues with us. China wants its sovereignty over these areas to be respected, while using Tibet to claim Indian territory and expanding its presence in territory under Pakistan’s illegal occupation in J&K.
We have chosen to interpret President Xi’s remarks positively. We possibly believe that we are in control of our relations with China, that China is reaching out to us and we must therefore seize this opportunity to explore the potential of the bilateral relationship. We are disregarding hard realities and confusing China’s tactical moves with its strategic intent. President Xi has signalled that China will not compromise on territorial issues, whether today in the east with others and tomorrow in the west with us.