Bottomline | Checking China

India needs to be careful about it military ties with Beijing

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

China should be New Delhi’s number one foreign policy concern if India is to rise steadily. It is not enough to have distant friends. It is essential that India have clout in the near and extended neighbourhood. For this, New Delhi needs to regularly press China to resolve the border issue, as well as avoid mislead its own people by misinterpreting Chinese statements. It is after all universally agreed that Asia will be the world focus this century. The four powers that will make the difference here are: China, Japan, India and the US. The US has an archaic relationship of a military alliance with Japan that requires a major bilateral review at a time when diplomatic engagements are the buzzword. The age of military alliances died with the Cold War. There is an unsteady relationship between the US and China because Washington is undecided between military hedging and diplomatic engagement with Beijing. Then, there is an uncertainty in relations between the US and India as New Delhi is unsure about how a rising power should conduct itself. All four nations are, therefore, adjusting themselves to the new reality of a multi-polar world. Considering that China’s rise began in early Eighties, two decades before India became conscious of its own potential, New Delhi could not only learn a lot about statecraft from Beijing, but apply it as well for good results.

In this context, it is instructive to read the book, ‘Ten Episodes in China’s Diplomacy,’ by Qian Qichen, China’s foreign minister and vice premier from 1988 to 2003. After the infamous Tiananmen incident, there was intense international pressure on China. Between 5 June and 15 July 1989, the US, EU, Japan, and the G7 Economic Summit announced varied sanctions and cancelled all bilateral high level visits to China. Conscious of the geo-political dynamics, the US President George H. Bush did not want bilateral relations with Beijing to be damaged irrevocably lest China gravitate towards Soviet Union. Behind US Congress’ back, Bush sent his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft to Beijing on a highly secretive mission to smoothen differences in the relationship. Scowcroft was to meet Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and Qichen during his visit. Qichen felt that bilateral relations should be repaired during this visit as the coning G7 summit could impose further sanctions on China. Deng instead instructed his colleagues that, ‘We will talk only about principles today. We shall not talk about specifics. We don’t care about the sanctions. We are not scared by them (the US).’ China maintained that the US and other powers had interfered in the internal matter of China. All Scowcroft got from his Beijing mission was to hear the Chinese proverb from Deng that, ‘It is up to the person who tied the knot to untie it.’ Chinese always negotiate from a position of strength and talk principles rather than substance until then.

What New Delhi needs to ponder over is why China is interested in only talking principles on the border issue with us? Both countries are engaged at two levels for border talks: special representatives and joint working group for final border resolution, and for peace and tranquillity and defining the 4,056km Line of Actual Control. Yet, there are few results to show. As a major power, it helps Beijing to keep India under regular pressure strategically and militarily by claiming 90,000sqkm (the state of Arunachal Pradesh) of Indian territory as its own. China is asking so much land for peace, knowing well that India cannot give it, because the time is not ripe for it to resolve the disputed border. Moreover, on the issues of Sikkim and Tibet, China has already got what it had wanted. While India has formally acknowledged Tibet as a part of China, Beijing has merely changed colour-code of its maps to indicate Sikkim in the same colour as the rest of India. New Delhi is more than happy with this progress and believes that Sikkim has been accepted as India’s territory because both sides have opened trade through it. The reality is that unlike Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing considers Sikkim to be an independent state; hence bilateral trade through Nathu La does not dent its stand.

Instead of catching the bull by the horn, India continues to play the Chinese game. Beijing is neither rattled by India’s nuclear deterrence however credible, nor cares much about its economic growth. The only thing troubling it is growing India-US relations that have the potential to tilt Asia’s geo-political dynamics to China’s disadvantage. For this reason, China signed the defence cooperation with India in 2006. Consequently, during the recent visit of the army chief, General J.J. Singh to China, Beijing laid out a roadmap for military cooperation between the two countries. This includes more and high-level defence personnel visits, observers at select military exercises, and anti-terrorism joint exercises. All this is fine. What should not be acceptable until the border issue is resolved is allowing Chinese officers to attend courses at premier defence schools of the three services. This route will provide Beijing with accurate intelligence about India’s defence preparedness, nuclear deterrence and military ties with the US. Surely, India does not wish to play its US card unwisely.


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