Friday, July 16, 2010

Is that a green light in Beijing ?

Amidst all the buffeting that comes with uncertain times, India and China are patiently trying to bring their relations, that had gone off beam in the 2006-2009 period, to an even keel. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s visit to Beijing is an important step in this direction. Significantly, Menon went as a “Special Envoy” of the Prime Minister, not as what he happens to be— the NSA and the Special Representative on border negotiations with China.

The news from Beijing after Menon’s visit is positive. An important indicator is is that the two sides plan to resume their Special Representative-level dialogue— which had gone into a limbo of sorts— to resolve their border dispute. The cycle of ups and downs in the relations between the two countries indicates that the quality of their future relationship depends on their ability to arrive at a mutually satisfactory settlement on two key issues—the disputed 4056 km Sino-Indian border and the nature of Beijing’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan.
Putting these issues aside and proceeding to develop ties in other areas is a useful process, but its limits are now clearly showing up.


The downturn in their relations in the 2006-2009 period was occasioned by three factors: the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Tibetan uprising of 2008 and the somewhat more shadowy power struggle going on in Beijing between hardliners in the PLA and the reform-minded party leadership.
The poor ties manifested themselves in various ways. In June 2009, India declared that it was sharply enhancing its military presence in Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed in its entirety by China. In turn, Beijing broke tradition and opposed a $2.9 billion loan at the ADB because $60 million from it would be used for a flood management programme in Arunachal. China also tried, somewhat ineptly, to prevent India from getting an exemption from the NSG embargo on civil nuclear trade with India. This was also accompanied by a barrage of media reports in India claiming that Chinese forces had dramatically stepped up their incursions across the Line of Actual Control. In turn the Chinese media taunted India and issued
veiled threats.

Beijing understood the nuclear deal for what it was—a major geopolitical development wherein the United States sought to sweep away several decades of what is called “offshore balancing” of India by virtually recognising its status as a nuclear weapons state. China sought to block the deal by lobbying with smaller NSG member countries.
The Tibetan uprising on the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 caught China off-guard. While Beijing may have anticipated protest, it had not catered for its intensity or its geographical spread which went to regions of what used to be seen as Greater Tibet—now parts of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan. The Chinese were convinced that India and the Dalai Lama were behind the protests that so embarassed China.


It is a bit more difficult to assess the reports that the tough posture towards India has been an outcome of a power struggle between hardliners and reformers in Beijing. Given the opaque Chinese system, some of the reports are, what can at best, be termed “informed speculation.” Nevertheless, China watchers in Taiwan, Japan and the US testify to the fact that there has been, and remains, a constant tussle for power between various factions of the Chinese Communist Party and that the manifestation of nationalism, in the context of Japan and India in recent years, is not something that has happened by accident.
Conventional wisdom is that India and China have had a history of peaceful relations going back millennia. Today, they have complementary economies — we were good at some things, the Chinese at others. Both as rising powers seek stability at home and peace abroad and can therefore cooperate on a range of economic, social and political issues.
This was, of course, a fairly standard message till 2005 when the two sides signed an agreement on the “Political parameters and agreed guidelines for a border settlement between India and China.” This far-reaching agreement seemed to suggest that they would swap their claims and agree to draw their border roughly along the existing LAC.
But that June, the Indo-US nuclear deal was announced in Washington DC. In the years thereafter, the Chinese began to undermine the agreement. In June 2007, a statement of Foreign Minister Yang Jichei to his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee seemed to be going back on that agreement. Then, the process of applying this agreement to the border by Special Representatives seemed to run out of steam. Where they averaged three meetings or so a year in the 2003-2006 period, they had just one meeting in 2007, one in 2008 and one in 2009, after which they issued a statement declaring that henceforth they would discuss “the entire gamut of bilateral relations and regional and international issues of mutual interest.” A process to quickly resolve the border issue had been broadened to discuss the entire agenda of Sino-Indian relations.
The border settlement issue is important because it, along with the Pakistan issue, has the ability to destabilise Sino-Indian relations, as was evident from the reports of Chinese encroachments across the LAC in 2009. In the 1988-2000 period, the two sides thought they could set aside the border issue and proceed on developing relations in other areas. But it is evident from recent experiences, that the border issue must be resolved, as a pre-condition to good relations with China.

The other major issue is that of Pakistan. Whether or not India should take up the Pakistan nuclear deal issue with China is a matter of opinion. Some feel that since it is inevitable, India should not waste too much effort in blocking it. According to Menon, “this took less than 2 ½ sentences in the whole visit.”
We are the beneficiary of the NSG’s decision to overlook our nuclear weapons tests and the fact that we’re not NPT signatories. It does look a bit hypocritical for us to challenge the Chinese decision to supply two nuclear power reactors to Pakistan.
However, on the political plane, it is important to remind Beijing, which now claims to be an exemplar of non-proliferation norms, that it has been guilty of what is perhaps the most outrageous act of nuclear proliferation in history—that of providing another country with the designs of nuclear weapons, material to make them, and then actually testing the weapon in its own test ranges at Lop Nor.
Last weekend, at a workshop on Sino-Indian relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, a galaxy of top Chinese scholars and diplomats appeared to send a united message to their Indian counterparts: That good relations with India was central to Chinese foreign policy and that the Sino-Indian rivalry forecast by many was not inevitable.
On Pakistan, the Chinese scholars had an interesting take—while the all-weather friendship, with its nuclear and missile dimension, was part of the Cold War era to counter the Indo-Soviet alliance, at the present time China felt it was important to remain close to Pakistan so as to stabilise it against the threat of jihadist radicals.
China has in the past, too, used its think-tank community to put out feelers that are different from the tone and tenor of their official statements and dealings. It is significant that Beijing’s message right now is one of peace and cooperation. Given China’s importance as a rising power, as well as the “all weather” friend of our big headache, Pakistan, it is worth exploring the possibilities that seem to be opening up.
This appeared in Mail Today July 8, 2010

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