Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Chinese are not ten feet tall

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first visit to China comes amidst a welter of scare stories about Chinese “incursions” into Indian territory and how its rapidly developing infrastructure in Tibet poses a threat to India. But there is another, more astonishing side which scarcely makes it to the headlines: Sino-Indian trade that totaled $5 billion in 2003, has touched $34 billion (January-November 2007).
This could not have come without the development of another relationship, not across the inhospitable Himalayan border, but the seas, between Indian and Chinese enterprises, entrepreneurs and managers. Since the 2003 visit of Prime Minister Vajpayee to Beijing, the bandwidth of Sino-Indian relations has broadened and, to change metaphors, while it is possible to see them as a glass half empty, it would be more correct to view it as one half full.


Blaming the Chinese for doing something we have fallen behind on — building roads and investing in communications and other services in the difficult mountain regions — is, to say the least, perverse. India has had similar plans on the books since the mid-1960s, but most are decades behind in implementation. The Chinese rightly saw their Tibet railway as a prestige project and completed it ahead of schedule; India’s Kashmir rail project, is probably a decade from completion.
As for the incursions, the issue is more complex. Indo Tibetan Border Police chief V.K. Joshi said in October that the Chinese had made some 140 incursions into Indian territory all across the Indo-Tibet border, but none were serious. “Their perception of the Line of [Actual] Control could be different from ours...,” was his simple and straightforward explanation. The 4056-km India-Tibet border is not an international border in the legal sense. It is a Line of Actual Control which is itself not clearly defined, unlike, say, the Line of Control with Pakistan in Jammu & Kashmir. Its ambiguity is best brought out by the Chinese formulation that in the east it “approximates the illegal McMahon Line” but it is not the line, as defined by the 1914 treaty. There are also important differences in the Sikkim-Bhutan-India trijunction.
In the west the situation has been much more fluid. The Chinese themselves have presented various versions of the LAC. One was affirmed as the “correct” line in December 1959, there was another put forward in 1960, and finally there were the positions that the Chinese occupied during the October-November 1962 border war; at each stage occupying more and more of territory that India claimed as its own.
The border is important. As long as it is not settled, it can be used to quickly ratchet up tension. There is a certain symmetry in Indian and Chinese claims which could aid its settlement. The Chinese hold what they claim in the western sector, India holds what it claims in the eastern sector. Both contest what the other side holds — New Delhi says China’s control of Aksai Chin is illegal and Beijing disputes India’s control of what is now Arunachal Pradesh. A dispassionate look at history will show that both established control over the disputed territories they hold in the 1950s. Major R ‘Bob’ Khating took control of Tawang, the most significant town in the North East Frontier Agency, in February 1951; the Chinese, too, began building their road and consolidating their hold over Aksai Chin in this period.
The 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for the India-China boundary question has outlined the only basis on which the two countries can resolve their dispute — on a largely “as is where is” basis. Yet, movement is painfully slow. There was a time in 2003 when there were expectations that there would be quick movement. That was the time when the Vajpayee government expected it would be voted back to power. Since then, though there is agreement on the principles, there has been no significant movement. The reason seems to be that the Chinese are not sure whether this is the moment to settle.


So, they have raised the issue of the Tawang tract. In May 2007 Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi told his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee at a meeting in Hamburg that the presence of settled populations in regions under dispute would not affect China’s claims on those regions. Yang’s statement appears to undermine the crucial Article VII of the guiding principles that says: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard settled populations in border areas.”
Relations between India and China would have been complex even if there had been no border dispute. But to see the Chinese as being aggressive, or hell-bent on domination, is to court enmity, a luxury that India cannot afford. Both countries have known strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis each other. If China has the advantage of easier lines of communication on the Tibetan plateau, the region is also thousands of kilometres away from its core territory, as compared to a couple of hundred on the Indian side. The Chinese have never quite gained the loyalty of the Tibetans and worry about the impact of the Dalai Lama and the exiles in India. But India also knows that it suffers from a strategic disadvantage since the Indian heartland is so close to Chinese air and missile power in Tibet.
But this military talk is itself archaic. In 1962, the hapless Indian brigade ordered to capture Thag La had no idea what lay behind the ridge. Today Lhasa is open to Indian tourists and richer pilgrims en route to Mansarover. The Nathu La route has been opened up and traders travel all the way to Lhasa. In addition electronic and photo reconnaissance provides India a detailed picture of the PLA deployments. A Chinese surprise attack is simply out of the question. Indian military strength is substantial and it possesses the means of nuclear reprisal.


So the Chinese “threat” has migrated to Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and various Indian neighbours. But, here, too, there is a tendency to overstate Chinese strengths and understate its weaknesses. A look at the map will reveal that almost all of Beijing’s oil supplies have to pass through India’s territorial waters, a jugular if ever there was one. Geography ensures that China can never be a threat to India in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region, in the same measure that India cannot really threaten China in the South China Sea. So there is no real basis of confrontation at the maritime level either. Actually, given their internal demands, what both need and seek is stability, not just regional, but global.
China has in the past, and continues at present, to play an irresponsible role in aiding Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme and its actions have harmed Indian security immeasurably. But the same could be said of our history with our new friend, the US. History, in any case, should not determine future policy. It can provide a perspective, but should not hold a veto.
Anyway, in the Sino-Indian context, a great deal of what the future holds will be determined in Beijing, rather than in New Delhi. The very dynamism of its economy is bringing it to the point where it cannot postpone political reform for much longer. Such a development could have a wide-ranging impact on China’s internal relations with regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as its neighbours like India. Our task is to stay the course and offer China a relationship of friendship and cooperation, without being deferential or defensive on any issue.
The article was published in Mail Today January 9, 2008

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