CHINESE ambassador to India, Zhang Yan had it about right: “ I am of the view that China- India relation is very fragile and easy to be damaged and difficult to repair,” he noted, just four days ago, on Monday.
Don’t let the hoopla and exaggerated expression of good feelings that accompany the visit of a foreign dignitary mislead you into believing that Sino- Indian relations are hunky dory, because they are not. Indeed, it is taking all the effort of the two leaders who are deeply committed to promoting good relations— Premier Wen Jiabao and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh— to just keep things on an even keel.
Other forces, India, and, more importantly, in China, have created the conditions which make relations, which were good during 1993- 2005 period, “ fragile”. In China’s view, India’s was the hidden hand responsible for the storm of protest relating to Tibet on the eve of China’s coming out party— the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Indian officials subsequently and systematically leaked stories about alleged Chinese incursions and whipped up a climate of distrust against China. And then there was the Indo- US nuclear deal.
Viewed from New Delhi, China’s issuance of stapled visas in Kashmir signaled a shift in its long- term policy of studied neutrality on the dispute. This was compounded by the denial of a visa to Lt Gen B. S. Jaswal because he commanded the Northern Army which is headquartered in Jammu & Kashmir. The support and sustenance of Pakistan is not a new issue, neither are Beijing’s activities in our neighbouring countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.
What was new and really marked the shift was the decision in 2009 by China to block any movement in the Special Representatives process which had made considerable strides in resolving the Sino- Indian border dispute.
On Thursday, in an editorial, Global Times , Beijijng’s informal voice to the world put it this way “ Compared to promoting prosperity, the border disputes are not the most urgent item on either country’s agenda.” This is simply not true. When, in 2003, the Special Representatives were created, there was expectations that the border dispute would be resolved quickly, perhaps within 18 months or so. Unfortunately, the principal architect of that visit— prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was forced to retire after the BJP lost the elections of 2004, and the momentum was lost. Even so, during Wen’s last visit in 2005, the two countries signed a path- breaking accord on the political parameters and guiding principles for a border settlement. But in the past two years, the Chinese are making it known that India completely misinterpreted the agreement and there was need for more discussions before the succeeding framework agreement to delineate a new border was worked out. Indeed, China has begun speaking of Arunachal Pradesh as “ southern Tibet” a formulation it had never used before.
The Indian experience has not been unique. Beijing set the cat among the pigeons by declaring, in the context of China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea, that the region was a “ core interest”, in the same category as Taiwan and Tibet.
In response, the entire region— since the Chinese claims involve the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam— has lined up behind the US to fend off Beijing. More dramatic was the standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler ramming a Japanese coast guard vessel in an area where the two countries dispute the ownership of some islands. The Japanese arrested the Chinese captain, but Beijing’s hardball— suspending critical rare earth exports and arresting four Japanese nationals in China on trumped up charges— compelled Tokyo to yield.
What has spooked the Chinese? It is difficult to know. But it had something to do with its internal politics. This has made them take the angular, if not outright provocative, stands that they have on Kashmir and towards the ASEAN and the South China Sea. There is a certain hubris in China’s behaviour. But the world wonders whether this is the initial gawkishness of a newly risen power, or a forewarning of how the Chinese will behave when they become the truly dominant.
Critics charge that such talk, including the repeated propaganda on Beijing’s socalled “ string of pearls” strategy is paranoid.
It may well be so. But in international politics it pays to be suspicious, especially if you’re the weaker party.
There is a blithe assumption among some commentators that China’s system and government works in much the same way as ours. The system of the party- government diarchy, may not be as complicated as the one run by the mullahs in Iran, but it does not resemble the one that open societies like India or the UK or the US run.
It is a closed system and one in an important phase of leadership transition.
2012 is the year in which there will be a turnover of the top party and government leadership in China. Party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao and government head Premier Wen Jiabao will give way to new leaders who remain unknown entities. Most of the all- powerful Politburo will also retire along with hundreds of other top functionaries. In that sense Beijing is in a phase when there is an in- built tendency to kick the can of difficult problems down the road.
Of greater significance, perhaps, is the fact that many of the problem areas relating to India, Japan and the ASEAN outlined above are dealt with by the powerful People’s Liberation Army. The PLA has a unique role in the Chinese system and modern history. A position in the Central Military Commission, that runs the PLA, is even more coveted than a politburo membership.
Today, the only civilian in the CMC is its chairman, Hu Jintao.
It is difficult to forecast the direction in which China is headed. It would be wrong to outguess history. China has changed enormously in the last four decades. It is entirely possible that the China of 2025 will be a more open society with a transparent government system that will put its neighbours at ease. On the other hand, there is nothing to guarantee that this will happen. China could remain the same prickly authoritarian country that it is, or become even more overbearing and difficult, and, worse, more powerful.
Indian policy must ensure that we do not foreclose any options by being perceived as being part of some anti- Chinese alliance.
The perception that India was growing close to the US may have been the trigger for the Chinese to change the tenor of the relationship in 2007- 2009 period.
Our approach needs to be informed by the key characteristic of the Chinese themselves— pragmatism. India should use the enormous dynamism of the Chinese economy as an aid to its own development. It needs to have a flexible policy where accommodation is met with accommodation, and assertiveness with assertiveness.
But at the same time, prudence demands that we also build up our sadly run- down deterrent capabilities and coordinate our diplomacy with like minded countries to ensure that we are not left hanging alone, as we were in 1962.
In dealing with Beijing, there is need to build up trust, but at the same time, we must keep our powder dry.This appeared in Mail Today December 17, 2010