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In the shadow of the Indo-US agreement, China tries to engage India

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Three things can be said about the maiden Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defence signed between India and China during the recent visit of defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee to China. One, China has taken the growing ties between India and the United States more seriously than it took the 1998 nuclear blasts by India. Two, the MoU is undoubtedly a Chinese initiative to seek a better understanding of the thinking within the Indian armed forces. And three, the MoU will not assist in a speedier resolution of the bilateral border dispute, without which let alone strategic, bilateral relations will not attain a level field with China willingly permitting space for India to grow in Asia. Even as each of these issues requires an elaboration, India will do well to appreciate that China views itself as a determined world power whose rise clashes with the US’ global interests. Therefore, anything that the US does is dissected threadbare in China. 

For example, China is uneasy about the growing relationship between India and the US. More than the nuclear agreement, it is the bilateral defence framework that is troubling Beijing. China will oppose India’s acceptance as an equal partner in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and will continue to insist that Delhi sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. It is already pleased that the US has slowed India’s nuclear weaponisation and will desire that India give a formal commitment outside the CTBT to permanently forsake nuclear testing.

The trouble, however, is in the details of the defence framework, where the US has sought bilateral interaction at four levels: comprehensive staff exchanges, higher end joint military exercises, selling of US arms, and co-production of military hardware. Should the defence framework progress well, the Indian armed forces, a decade from now will be comfortable operating as part of the US coalition forces in the region. This is not all. Taking inspiration from the US, all western powers have sought strategic relations including improved military ties with India. The latest in the list is Japan, whose relations with China are unfriendly. Moreover, India has made it known that its relations with the US will not sour even if the nuclear agreement fails to fructify.

Under these circumstances, China’s only way of determining the progress of military relations between India and the US is by having formal ties with the Indian defence ministry. And this is what the MoU that has sought ‘frequent exchanges between the officials of the ministries and the armed forces, in addition to developing an annual calendar for joint exercises and training programmes’ will seek to do. The aim of taking Pranab Mukherjee to the Lanzhou military command area (equivalent of India’s army command) that abuts Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Uttaranchal was to encourage exchanges between opposing commanders on the disputed border. This would help in understanding the psyche of field commanders. Tibet, that faces India, is the responsibility of both Lanzhou and Chengdu military command areas.

All this, however, will not translate into quicker border resolution that is being examined at two bilateral levels: the joint working group under the bureaucrats is meant to maintain peace on the border and delimit and demarcate (agree on maps and identify on ground) the 4,056km long Line of Actual Control (LAC). At another level, special representatives are seeking political breakthrough for border resolution. The two countries have signed the 1993 agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the LAC. With the LAC remaining undefined (both sides has only agreed on the least contentious middle sector), the agreement is not worth the paper it is written on. The 1996 protocol on military confidence building measures depends on the 1993 agreement that remains unfulfilled. The 2002 agreement was meant to appoint special representatives, who have had four rounds of talks. All they have produced is the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for settling the border dispute that is vague and laced in verbosity. The reality is that while India has accepted Tibet in writing as the part of China, Beijing still maintains ambiguity regarding the status of Sikkim. There are two reasons why China will not resolve the border dispute with India in the foreseeable future. First, a settled border will allow India to shift its defence forces facing China to reinforce those against Pakistan, Beijing’s protégé. For this reason, the border resolution with China is unlikely before India permanently resolves its Kashmir issue with Pakistan. And second, it would lesson India’s worry and allow it more strategic space for growth in Asia. At present, even if India’s political leadership is pretending about improved relations with China, the military leadership is certainly not sanguine about the Chinese threat. There is concern about Chinese better border management and increased infrastructure in Tibet and along the LAC. In addition, Chinese have stocked sizeable numbers of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads in Tibet. Unlike the Indian defence forces, they believe that ballistic missiles are like the air force and just require better control. Under these circumstances, India would do well to move cautiously on the defence MoU with China and assess it for what it is worth: to exploit China’s vulnerability regarding Indo-US relations.


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