President Pratibha Patil plays into Chinese hands
The inevitable has happened and China had reason to rejoice. Hindi film songs were played at the formal banquet for the Indian President in Beijing. The single strategic outcome of the recent visit of President Pratibha Patil to China was that India formally expressed satisfaction with seeking peace, rather than press for an early border resolution, on the 4,056km contentious border between the two countries. This is well short of what the last visiting Indian President K.R. Narayanan had sought a decade ago.
In return, despite a formal declaration made by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee during his 1993 visit to China, Patil reaffirmed that Tibet is a part of China and Tibetans (read, Dalai Lama) will not be allowed to indulge in anti-China activities on India soil. On its part, China still did not do what it had promised to Vajpayee in 1993: that it will formally accept Sikkim as a part of India. But, of course, the world has changed in the last decade; China is viewed as a determined visionary power, while India, consumed by routine fire-fighting, has little time for strategic thinking. China has refused the United States’ offer of the G-2 partnership (knowing well that US does not tolerate equals), while New Delhi pines for a junior partnership with Washington.
President Narayanan was uneasy when he visited China in May 2000. Having been the first Indian ambassador to China after diplomatic relations were restored in 1976, the first Chairman of the China Study Group constituted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to monitor relations with Beijing, and the junior minister in the foreign ministry during the 1986 Sumdorong Chu crisis, Narayanan knew that the window of opportunity for border resolution was closing fast. He pressed his Chinese counterpart, President Jiang Zemin for an early resolution of the border dispute. When Zemin said that ‘time and patience are needed to overcome problems left over by history’, Narayanan responded by saying: ‘it is true these are problems left over by history, but these problems need to be resolved and not left over to history again.’
The sagacious Narayanan was conscious of China’s speedy resolution of the border dispute with Russia that helped it withdraw its large forces from the Russian border, and modernise its archaic weaponry with Moscow’s assistance. Once the trust deficit between Russia and China lessened, Beijing was free to concentrate on the Asia-Pacific region to challenge the US global supremacy. As China’s clout rose, it became clear that it had little intention of resolving the border dispute with India. The peculiarity of the border which is both undefined on the ground and maps works well for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to continuously intimidate and demoralise Indian security forces by regular nibbling of Indian territory; lacking in both political will and military capability, New Delhi remains in a denial mode about Chinese transgressions.
With no larger role for it across the land borders (having disputed borders with China and Pakistan), New Delhi sought to extend its reach in the Indian Ocean Area, unfortunately, without a determinate policy whether it could do it alone, or with the United States. While the excruciatingly long dithering did not help India’s case, the time was well used by China to eventually challenge the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. China is building its blue-water capabilities at an astonishing speed such that its naval strategy has formally been altered from one of ‘coastal defence’ to ‘far sea defence.’ Chinese admirals recently told senior US officials that China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea, which has now been added to Beijing’s list of ‘core interests of sovereignty’; the earlier two core interests being Taiwan and Tibet. It is unlikely that the US would go to war with China to safeguard ASEAN nations’ interests in South China Sea where Beijing claims large territories. While this development is alarming, for New Delhi, it will be instructive to note the home-truths that has made this happen. Fearful of growing Chinese clout, the smaller ASEAN states around the South China Sea had for decades sought an accommodation with China through the ASEAN and ASEAN Regional Forum. The strategy was to engage China with trade and investments. This position suited China as it was busy with its modernisation programme, until now when it is ready to assert its claims.
Two lessons about China from these developments are: One, while China is not an expansionist power, it is certainly a non-status-quo power implying that it will not forgo what it claims as its own territories. And China claims 90,000sqkm of Indian territory, which is the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh (called lower Tibet by Beijing). No self- respecting nation can barter away so much land for peace. The good thing for India is that as long as the Dalai Lama lives, China will not use force to re-claim it. However, given the alarming military capabilities gap, which continues to increase apace between the two countries, New Delhi, always shy of acknowledging a two-front military threat, may just buckle under Chinese pressure for an unreasonable border settlement into the future.
And two, China detests appeasement and views it as a sign of weakness. Thus, without an honest effort by China on border resolution, it is not in India’s interest to engage China with an imbalanced trade racing furtively to Beijing’s advantage, or to downplay the need for an early border resolution. While continuously pressing China for the border resolution, India should tell Beijing that the closure of the Sikkim case will be the litmus test of its sincerity of growing cordial relationship. With a mere 200km border with Tibet, Sikkim has the highest concentration of troops anywhere in the world. If China accepts Sikkim as a part of India, an entire Indian 33 corps in Sikkim can be used elsewhere on the border. In any case, China does not regard Sikkim as part of the bilateral border dispute. As in the case of Tibet, where India inherited certain privileges from British-India on Independence, Delhi assumed the British-India mantle and in 1950 signed a treaty with Sikkim on lines similar to the 1890 convention, which identified the Sikkim-Tibet border, to which Communist China, when it came to power in October 1949, never objected. Under the 1950 treaty, the external relations of Sikkim were the sole responsibility of the Indian government. China regarded the 1950 treaty as imperialistic, and thus did not recognise the eventual 1975 merger of Sikkim with India.
The other thing that India needs to do is to formulate an unambiguous defence policy for China. An appreciation would suggest that China will not want a war with India; it views the US as its main rival, and thus strategically supports Pakistan to keep India knocked into the subcontinent. India must build adequate military muscle and garner political will to not get cowed down by PLA ingresses on the border. This requires both an acceptance that the PLA indeed indulges in frequent intrusions, and that a higher military priority ought to be accorded to the front. The present China policy does not help. On the one hand, the government has half-heartedly permitted accretion of army strength (for the first time since 1983) without enough push for acquisitions, and allowed a few new airbases against China. On the other hand, the government pretends that relations with China will continue to improve. Not a single Chinese leader has repeated the official Indian mantra that there is enough space for both countries to grow in the world. Moreover, mandarins in the external affairs ministry should forgo amnesia. There is a long list of Chinese refusal to India’s reasonable requests, which grows unabatedly. The insistence of issuing separate visa for Indians living in Jammu and Kashmir, the promise to give additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan, and assistance to projects in disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir are recent instances which should be assessed holistically. To even suggest that China will support India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the United Nations is delusionary. New Delhi should adopt a pragmatic China policy: while it is good to maintain cordial overall relations, it is necessary to remember that without the settlement of the border dispute, uncertainty and distrust will not go away. Importantly, India must play the Dalai Lama card well to limit China.