Saturday, January 14, 2012

Don't talk up Chinese enmity

At first sight, we should not expect much on the Sino-Indian front in 2012. This is, after all, the year in which the Chinese leadership will have its decennial turnover. The highly successful team of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will give way to the untested and relatively unknown Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang. In the Hu-Wen period we  came tantalisingly close to a border settlement in the 2003-2005 period, only to suffer setbacks in 2008-2009. The future with Xi and Le is, therefore, an unknown quantity.
But can some qualitative shift occur in the coming months, which can set a favourable course for the future? Early next week, Chinese Special Representative, Dai Bingguo, will arrive in Delhi to hold the 15th round of talks on the border issues with his Indian counterpart, Shivshankar Menon. Both the officials are, of course, senior officials of their respective governments. Dai has many titles, but he is effectively the National Security Adviser to the Chinese President, and, Menon, of course, is the Indian  National Security Advisor.

Following Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit in 2003, the two countries were able to fast track their border negotiations by appointing Special Representatives to take the process forward. The immediate gain was the 2005 agreement on the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the settlement of the India-China border question.” The idea was that the two countries would next decide on a framework agreement that would incorporate their mutual concessions, and thereafter an agreement would be signed to delineate the border.
That there would be give and take was clear. So was the idea that the agreement would require concessions on the part of both sides. However, the second phase has got stuck and the talks have been going round and round since 2009 when the two sides actually expanded the scope of the SR’s talks, signaling that they had come to a roadblock on their primary mandate to resolve the border dispute. It appeared that not only did the Chinese want India to concede its demands in the West i.e. Aksai Chin, but also concede their claims in the East—if not all of Arunachal Pradesh, its key town Tawang with its important monastery. A negotiation where what’s yours is negotiable, and what’s mine is mine, is not acceptable to India.

At first, it appeared that the Chinese shift was occasioned by the Indo-US nuclear deal—with the Chinese recognising that this represented a major geopolitical gambit on the part of the United States whose aim was to contain China. But over the years it would appear that the situation is more complicated. It is linked to internal debates with the Chinese system where the PLA calls the shots when it comes to dealing with the border dispute with India.
More important it is linked to China’s Tibet policy. The demonstrations that hit Tibet in 2008— not just the Tibet Autonomous Region, but parts of Tibet which have been incorporated into various Chinese provinces— clearly shook the Chinese. Despite a huge investment for the development of the region, the Tibetans seemed unreconciled to the Chinese domination. Since then, the situation has not changed and protests by Tibetans have become a regular feature. An outcome of Chinese defensiveness was that they began to describe Arunachal Pradesh as “southern Tibet.” 
Another element of the changed situation is the Chinese perception that the 2008 economic crisis has enhanced their standing on the world stage. The Chinese have continued to grow at a fast pace, even while the rest of the world, especially the US and Europe, have seen depressed growth, unemployment and economic turmoil.
There is a clearly growing asymmetry in Sino-Indian relations. This is a consequence of China’s massive economic growth and its huge defence expenditures. While the latter do not specifically target India—they are aimed at Taiwan and the US—they do constitute capabilities that the Indian military cannot ignore. With the systematic  growth of the transportation infrastructure in Tibet, especially the railroads, India needs to keep up its guard in view of the fact that the entire Sino-Indian border remains disputed.

Unfortunately, some forces in India seem determined to push Sino-Indian relations over the brink. This comes from inspired reports of Chinese intrusions into Indian territory. Now there are parts of the Line of Actual Control that both sides claim.
They also patrol to the extent they consider their border. There is nothing unusual about this and there are protocols that have been established to deal with the situation though it is rare that the two sides actually meet up face to face at a place both sides claim.
On Christmas eve last year, for example, a few regional TV channels in Arunachal Pradesh started flashing “news” that the Chinese had intruded into the Tawang sector and damaged a wall made by the Indian army on its side of the border. The “news” gained such currency that the commander of the 190 Mountain Brigade formally clarified that no such thing had happened and that the news footage being aired with the news item was “false.” A leading channel in New Delhi, too, had done a detailed story on the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the news gained such currency that the number two man in the PLA, General Ma Xiaotian, personally told Prime Minister Singh, during a visit to New Delhi last month, that there was not a single Chinese soldier in Pakistan, leave alone POK. What has probably happened is that Chinese construction troops in POK, much like our Border Roads Organisation, are being conflated with the PLA.
Indian officials say that the Chinese do not seem to take India too seriously. While India meticulously follows the dialogue schedules on bilateral and multilateral issues between the two countries, the Chinese are wont to skip meetings. They put greater store by leadership summits which, though, are going well.
Indeed, one of the outcomes of Dai’s visit next week could be the establishment of a mechanism for consultation and coordination as an additional measure to ensure what the two sides call “peace and tranquility” on the border. This had been proposed by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in 2010 during his visit to Delhi and in the April meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Hu Jintao, the two leaders reached an agreement in principle to implement it.
This could well be Dai’s last meeting with his Indian counterpart. He started with Brajesh Mishra, went through J.N. (Mani) Dixit, M.K. Narayanan and will conclude with Menon.  The 70 year old Dai has publicly stated his intention of stepping down with Hu and Wen. While the Chinese do think in the long term, they are also human, and there are expectations that he would like to leave some legacy of the talks he has been holding since 2003.

In a recent speech at a Chinese Embassy function Menon noted that there was nothing pre-determined about the Sino-Indian rivalry. He said the two countries had erected a fairly robust framework for managing differences and building on commonalities. The issue he said was whether the two could manage their competition “within an agreed strategic framework” that allowed them to pursue their core interests.
History can never be a true guide to future foreign policy. Were it so,  Germany and France,or the US and Japan  could never have had good relations. Enmities would be permanent and the world would be a rather bleak place to live in.
 Sino-Indian relations have undergone such dramatic change, especially in the last two and a half decades, that dwelling on the past is to invoke ghosts which should now be exorcised. 
Mail Today January 12, 2012

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