THE talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hu Jintao at the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Sanya, in China, has led to yet another step— albeit incremental— to restore some kind of normality to Sino- Indian ties which have been buffeted by controversy in the last three years.
The problem, to be fair, was not the fault of one or the other side. Beijing’s calculated go- slow on the dialogue between the Special Representatives was to signal its unhappiness with the growing proximity of India to the US. This was sought to be countered by India through a media driven campaign to paint China as an aggressor on the Sino- Indian border. Events in Tibet on the eve of the 2008 Olympics compounded the problem.
The Chinese then escalated matters by stapling visas to Indian passport holders who were residents of Kashmir, signaling a shift in its Kashmir stance. When this, in August 2010, included the then chief of the Army’s Northern Command, Lt Gen B. S. Jaswal, India terminated military- to- military exchanges.
The Wen Jiabao visit in December and the meeting with Hu have clearly reversed the slide. As is its wont, China won’t announce that it has ended the stapled visa regime, but they will revert to the regular visas henceforth. India will send a military delegation to visit China, and will include a representative of the Northern Command. Just when the special representative level talks will press on from the high- point of 2005 is difficult to predict, as is the immediate future of Sino- Indian rapprochement.
The reason is that some of the underlying causes for the estrangement remain.
One instance of this is the media- driven effort to derail Sino- Indian relations. Early this month, a TV channel known for its steroid- driven approach to news, came up with what appeared, at first sight, to be a sensational report claiming that Chinese troops were deployed alongside the Pakistanis along the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The news package, complete with stock footage of massed tanks, missiles and marching soldiers, was clearly designed to scare. The hidden subtext of the programme was the growing danger to India of a two- front war.
A closer scrutiny revealed that the report was based on a speech made by Lt Gen K. T. Parnaik, the new Northern Army commander, at a media seminar that had taken place in Jammu some nine days previously.
At least two on- the- spot media reports merely have the general talking of Sino-Pak cooperation emerging as a possible future threat to the country. Referring to Chinese road and bridge building activity in Gilgit and Baltistan, the general said that the developments could “ jeopardise our geostrategical interests in the long run and pose great military challenges not only along the Sino- Indian border but also along the Line of Control for us.” All quite kosher stuff, the kind of things generals are paid to think about, and, note, that the danger was talked of in the future tense.
So alarming has been the effort by some media groups to promote bad blood between India and China that last December, at the end of his three- day visit to India Wen Jiabao complained that despite the fact that not a shot had been fired on the Sino- Indian border for a long time, “ the boundary question has been repeatedly sensationalised by the [ Indian] media…”
China’s close military relationship with Pakistan is no secret. Neither is the fact that there are hundreds of Chinese personnel in the region participating in some 30 odd projects in the Azad Kashmir- Northern Areas region of Kashmir. But any talk of the Sino- Pak nexus must also take into account the fact that the Karakoram highway linking the two countries is virtually dysfunctional, with some 24 km of it under a lake formed by last year’s floods and landslides. Indeed, many Chinese personnel are involved in rebuilding this road.
We can, of course, make a fundamental objection to the presence of all Chinese personnel in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir based on our claim over the entire state.
But India has not formally taken that view.
Instead, the criticism has come via what appear to be clearly inspired efforts to heighten Sino- Indian tensions through the media. This is a dangerous game and has, alarmingly, been played once earlier in 1959- 1962 when a belligerent Indian media pushed an unprepared Indian Army into a disastrous war with China.
Those who see some sinister design in the Chinese presence in Pakistan, or parts of territory claimed by India are missing the wood for the trees. Improving Pakistan’s infrastructure or helping maintain it, is the least pernicious nature of the Pakistan- China link.
By providing nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, China has already done far greater harm to Indian security than it can now do in any other way. As the record shows, the Chinese did not merely facilitate Pakistan’s nuclear programme, they actually gifted a weapon design to them, and tested that weapon at their own range in 1990. Since then it has provided Islamabad ballistic missiles, and more recently, cruise missiles to carry these weapons.
India can shout this from the rooftops and denounce China with all its might and main.
But that is unlikely to get us anywhere. We can, of course, contemplate war to redress our wrongs, but no matter what our chicken hawks may say, that would be an act of lunacy. India could alternatively ally itself to a big power like the US to settle scores with China. The US may pull Pakistan’s chestnuts out of the fire, but it is unlikely to oblige India. We could well end up pulling America’s chestnuts out of the fire.
If you look at the current situation, it would appear that Indian policy feels compelled to move on two ruts called Pakistan and China. Those who advocate unrelenting hostility to Pakistan and China are actually trying to take us deeper into those ruts.
Any Indian grand strategy must have as its principal aim the need to weaken the links between our two inimical neighbours.
How you do it is not the issue. Because if you can’t you will lose the game. This strategy has to yield a policy that makes better ties— rather than hostility with New Delhi— the preferred option in Beijing and Islamabad.
India has managed to establish a mutually beneficial economic relationship with China. It now needs to shape the ties in such a way that Beijing is made conscious of the cost of alienating New Delhi.
Pakistan is a more complex problem. For the present, the Pakistani deep state comprising the Army and hard- line religious fundamentalists have the upper hand.
Broadly, Manmohan Singh’s policy of persisting with what seems to be a Sisyphean effort to normalise ties with Pakistan is a better option than adopting a hostile posture towards it. Carefully planned and executed engagement, at least points to a way out instead of remaining mired at a dead end.
The irony is that those who are warning about the dangers of a two- front war are doing everything to make that a reality.
Instead, they ought to be educating us about a viable strategy of delinking the China- Pakistan connection— our key strategic headache— one that will define our geostrategic footprint in our region and Asia.
India may be right to demonise China and denounce the sinister nature of the Sino- Pakistan relationship, but unrelentingly hostile rhetoric cannot substitute for a viable strategy that will ensure a peaceful neighbourhood, in which India can race against time to use its demographic dividend to eliminate poverty, and become a developed country.
Mail Today April 15, 2011