Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Playing hardball with China

Nitin A Gokhale, 
Editor & Senior Fellow, VIF

In the midst of a rather euphoric narrative about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's three-day China visit starting 14 May, two factors must serve as a reality check.

One was the revelation by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that the Chinese Envoy in New Delhi was summoned and conveyed India's protest against the 46 billion dollar worth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) running through the Pak-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and two, a rather abrasive comment by a Chinese scholar in a semi-official newspaper that Prime Minister Modi is "“playing little tricks” over border disputes and security issues, hoping to boost his domestic prestige and increase his leverage in negotiations with China."

Both these developments remind us that no matter how much progress India and China make in economic and cultural fields, the contentious border issue and China's efforts to promote Pakistan as a cat's paw in South Asia, will always cast a large shadow over Sino-India relations. Prime Minister Modi's national security team would be well aware of the Chinese tendency to be two faced in its dealings with neighbours.

Twice in recent past, China has sought to up the ante on the border on eve of two important visits. In April-May 2013, days ahead of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Delhi, a platoon of Chinese PLA soldiers walked across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Depsang in Ladakh and camped there for three weeks before a diplomatic compromise end the mini-crisis. It was no different when President Xi Jingping came to India last year. In less than six hours after his arrival, 1000 Chinese soldiers tried to repeat Depsang at Chumur, again in Ladakh. However, a robust and swift response in 2014 (India mobilised a brigade plus--3,000 soldiers-- in next to no time) forced the Chinese to back down. Although President Xi tried to play down the incident, it was clear the operation was planned well in advance and with full knowledge of the top leadership.

Given India's decisive response at Chumur and New Delhi's growing bonhomie with US and Japan, a similar border incident again looks unlikely but the pinpricks on the border issue will continue in the form of acerbic comments and belligerent utterances by scholars and analysts working for various think-tanks in China. Thus the commentary in Global Times, the hawkish English newspaper published from Beijing is in keeping with the trend and should not come as a surprise to discerning China watchers. New Delhi on the other hand has used official channels to register its stand vis-a-vis increasing Chinese presence in PoK and the decision on CPEC.

Chinese interlocutors have surely noticed a subtle but firm shift in India's approach to China. When needed, Prime Minister Modi has not hesitated to use strong words to convey India's displeasure on Chinese. India has also been upfront about stitching together informal alliances that are designed to keep China guessing. Two examples will suffice. Speaking to business leaders in Tokyo during his official visit to Japan in September 2014, the Prime Minister said: “The world is divided in two camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies, while the other believes in development. We have to decide whether the world should get caught in the grip of expansionist policies or we should lead it on the path of development and create opportunities that take it to greater heights.” While he did not mention China by name, the signal was loud and clear. Beijing is seen by Asian nations, especially those around the East China Sea and South China Sea as an expansionist power. Then in January his year, India and the US went a step further in specifically commenting on the situation in South China Sea. The Joint India-US Strategic Vision document noted that “regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” In a clear signal to Beijing, the same statement added that the two countries “call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

The current Chinese leadership is surely aware of India’s recent efforts to re-calibrate its relationship with the United States and Japan. The attempt in Beijing would therefore be to ensure that India does not fully migrate into the anti-China camp. India will be offered lucrative economic investments and will be assured about reducing the burgeoning bilateral trade deficit between the two countries but no major breakthrough is expected on the boundary issue, notwithstanding External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s pronouncement in Beijing in February this year that an “out of the box” solution is still possible. The boundary issue is complex and is rooted in many historical developments. Through the decades, Beijing has played a dexterous game on the border issue, pretending to be friendly and accommodation some time, reiterating its claims by aggressive moves on the other, keeping the pot boiling.

In this context it is instructive to take a peep into what happened in the late 1950s in Ladakh. When India accidentally discovered China’s road building activity in Aksai Chin, it was assured that the road was only meant as a link to Singkiang.

On December 26, 1959 Peking (as Beijing was then known) sent a note to India talking about Aksai Chin. It said: "This area is the only traffic artery linking Singkiang to Western Tibet because to its north-east lies the great Gobi of Sinkiang through which direct traffic with Tibet is practically impossible...the area all along belonged to China." Now, nearly 55 years later when India confronts Beijing on its CPEC passing through PoK (which India claims as its own territory), China is likely take a similar stand—‘it’s just an economic compulsion; ‘not meant as a strategic encirclement of India,’ etc etc.

Clearly, the Chinese tendency of bullying weaker neighbours and its policy to keep redefining 'core' interests according to circumstances continues. Policy making in China is one continuous process. In India on the other hand, it has varied according to personalities and political parties in power.
While the military in India has overcome the trauma of the 1962 defeat, civilian policy makers appear to be still bogged down by the burdens of the past in dealing with China. Of course, these mandarins get their act together only under pressure of a crisis like they did post-1986 Sumdorong Chu face off. The 2009 sanction for additional forces and speeding up of infrastructure development projects also came after increasing reports of Chinese belligerence along the LAC.

It is therefore essential to push for another round of capability-enhancing drive. Simultaneously, India must re-look and re-tweak its China policy. For instance:
  • Insist with Beijing the need for exchanging maps for all sectors immediately so that each side knows the other's claimed LAC and border negotiations can resume
  • Bring the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) under the operational control of the Army to ensure uniformity in border management
  • Ensure timely and effective information sharing mechanism with Indian media and through them the Indian people rather than let different stake holders speak in different and sometimes discordant voices during times of crisis
  • Educate and prepare the Indian people on the need for give and take on border negotiations in the future
Policy makers in India must be mindful of the fact that military preparedness and trying to improve diplomatic relations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. By stating India's concern over continuing support to Pakistan in no uncertain terms, Prime Minister Modi has sent a signal that that while his desire to deepen economic ties with Beijing and taking the relationship to the next level is paramount, New Delhi cannot be ignoring the developments in its neighbourhood. Hopefully, as he lands in Beijing in the next 24 hours, Prime Minister Modi's Chinese hosts would have got that message very clearly.

Published Date: 13th May 2015, Image Source:

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