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Home > India > News > Columnists > Kanwal Sibal

India should stand up to China as an equal

February 22, 2008

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India's China policy has been marked by friendship, sentimentalism, fear, diffidence, appeasement, brinksmanship, wishful thinking and engagement. This mixture of attitudes reflects the complexity of the relationship, our difficulties in managing China's challenge, the nature of the Chinese regime, China's strategic advantage over India and the fulgurant rise of China in recent years.

Some very far-reaching strategic mistakes were made in not comprehending the Maoist take-over of China and its implication for India. Mao Tse-Tung seized China through revolutionary violence, while India won freedom through a non-violent struggle. China's leaders were Communist, India's were nurtured in democratic thinking. Mao's China wanted to settle historical wrongs against the country, Mahatma Gandhi [Images] and Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to forget and forgive historical wrongs.

In one country the militants had wrested power, in the other pacifists assumed power through a constitutional process. The political trajectories of the two countries and the nature of their leadership were so different, that a clash of thinking and ambitions should have been more than anticipated.

India could not physically prevent China from militarily occupying Tibet in 1950, but the dangerous strategic consequences of this for India's security should have been flagrantly obvious. A political and geographical buffer was being removed for the first time in history. Given the absence of a formally demarcated border in the western sector and China's position on the MacMahon Line, China's occupation of Tibet should have warned India, that the Chinese would sooner or later assert their physical control over the entire Tibetan border as they saw it. Our so-called 'forward policy' should have been insured with adequate military preparations on the ground.

The 1962 border conflict scarred us politically, militarily and psychologically. It made India look militarily feeble; it provided China reason to support insurgencies in our north-east; it damaged our standing in the third world as well as our leadership pretensions; it made China a potent player in South Asian affairs; it gave Pakistan an additional political and military crutch for confronting India; it gave space to our neighours to play the China card against us, not only Nepal and Sri Lanka [Images], but later Bangladesh too.

China's disinclination to settle the border issue and our non-existing capacity to force it to do so in its own interest, left us no choice but to try to stabilise the situation on the border through the Agreements on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity and on Confidence Building Measures in the 1990's. These have contained the border problem, but have also frozen it to India's disadvantage. The status quo always favours the side not anxious for change. India wants peace on the border but also wants a border settlement. It suits China also to have peace as it defuses the border issue politically and militarily and gives it a free hand to settle Tibet internally.

China, on the one hand, wishes the world to believe that it has pacified Tibet, with Tibet riding the crest of prosperity under Chinese rule. And yet China takes ground decisions which reflect a sense of insecurity about its hold over the territory. The railway line it has built, at great expense, makes less economic sense and more military/security sense as it augments China's capacity to move troops and munitions to the border and meet any future local challenge to its rule in Tibet. The impressive road infrastructure that China has built along Tibet's border with India, along with expansion of airfields in Tibet in recent years, is surely intended not for border trade but for border domination, behind which Tibet will be held secure.

The importance of the Dalai Lama [Images] factor should not be underestimated, no matter China's posturing about his growing irrelevance to the reality on the ground in Tibet. India, as the most concerned party, has always had a timorous policy towards him. The Dalai Lama has himself said publicly that India is over-cautious in dealing with China.

There is no international pressure on China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. China can revile him as a 'splittist', even when he has publicly reaffirmed on various occasions his acceptance of Chinese sovereignty and has limited his demand to real autonomy. China realises that once, on the back of an agreement with him, the Dalai Lama were to return to Tibet, their position in Tibet would become complicated as would their policy towards India. Reconciliation with the Dalai Lama means in effect reconciliation with India.

China's claims on Indian territory, and indeed, China's military pressure on India is on account of its direct military occupation of Tibet. The extent of Chinese cynicism towards India is reflected in its claim on Tawang because of its Tibetan links and the fact that one of the earlier Dalai Lamas, an institution that they have tried to destroy politically, was born there.

The Chinese unabashedly play the Tibetan card to the hilt against India. Yet we are reluctant to play the Tibetan card against China. A reasonable settlement between the Dalai Lama, the recognised spiritual head of Tibet, and the Chinese is good for China, good for the Tibetans and good for India.

It will resolve a festering issue of denial of political and cultural rights of a distinctive people and the suppression of their separate identity. Equally importantly, the example of Dalai Lama leading a peaceful, non-violent struggle to redress grievances and injustice, is deeply relevant in the context of the rise of extremism and terrorism to fight real or imagined grievances and injustice by people and communities elsewhere in the world.

The world needs to press China to deal with the Dalai Lama with transparency and sincerity.  

There are two possible approaches to the border issue. One is to envisage a settlement which will involve fairly substantial give and take, in favour of India in the western sector and China in the eastern sector. The border would be settled not on the basis of actual ground control but based of complex agreed principles. China could easily make concessions in the western sector as they are occupying territory much beyond their own historical claims. For India making equal concessions in the eastern sector would be impossible  for political and security reasons. India cannot but seek to move back China in Aksai Chin in view of their very advanced positions, which gives the Chinese a handle to raise the ante in the east.

The other approach would be that to have a realistic solution, it would be necessary to work on the basis of the hard realities on the ground. What China is actually holding, it will not cede in negotiations, and so would it be in India's case. This implies a very limited give and take, only to make the border more rational and remove anomalies here and there. If one is to proceed on the basis of what each country is holding, then the delineation of the Actual Line of Control (LAC) on the maps becomes necessary.

In some areas, the two sides have conflicting views of where the LAC is and in these pockets both sides do patrolling to assert their claim. Periodic reports about Chinese incursions relate to their patrolling in the areas we claim are under our control, bearing in mind that the entire length of the border is not permanently manned on both sides.

The understanding between the two sides to exchange maps of their respective perceptions of the LAC in order to identify the physical extent of the disputed areas, was important. On completion of this exercise in the middle, western and eastern sectors (in this order) the process of actual negotiations of give and take in these areas was to have begun. After exchanging maps in the middle sector, and after India presented its map of the western sector in 2002, the Chinese halted the exercise without any cogent explanation.

During Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to China in 2003, we decided to abandon the earlier agreed approach and proposed a 'political solution' to the issue. To this end, Special Representatives of the two countries were nominated and given a mandate to establish a set of guidelines (which they have done) for proceeding towards resolution. The Chinese, having rejected the approach of first delineating the LAC as an attempt to maintain the status quo, are making the subsequent approach unworkable by demanding significant territorial adjustments in the east, laying claim to Tawang, China's Tawang claim shows absence of any real desire for a border settlement and the tactic is to contrive an issue so as to transfer the responsibility for an impasse on to the Indian side.

In 1962, China had captured Tawang and yet it withdrew from it and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh largely to what is the MacMahon line, thereby de facto accepting its validity. In the western sector, it did not go back to the pre-1962 line and retained the fruits of its aggression. If they needed to hold Tawang for religious or security reasons or felt that their legal claim was rock solid, they would not have withdrawn. 45 years later to demand Tawang is sheer political effrontery.

The phenomenal growth of India-China trade (almost $40 billion or Rs 160,000 crore) is a welcome development as it contributes to increasing mutual prosperity. It is important to note that on the Indian side the decision to boost economic exchanges is a political one based on the logic that the border issue should not stand in the way of normalisation of relations in other fields. Its political character is underlined by the completely opposite attitude of Pakistan, i.e., no normalisation of relations with India, including in trade, unless the core issue of Kashmir is settled. For the Chinese the decision is not political. China controls what it wants on the border and claims more as a pressure point.

China has strategically neutralised India by supplying Pakistan with nuclear and missile technologies. It is the biggest defence supplier of Pakistan. While it is extremely sensitive on the issue of 'One China', on which it has extracted support from us, its position on Jammu and Kashmir [Images], veering from support of Pakistan's position to a quasi-neutral position, and notable for the absence of any endorsement of our legal position, stands out as a contrast. Its claim on vast swathes of Indian territory, in any case, makes mockery of "one India". Its export dependent growth needs all markets, and certainly a large one like India's.

Given China's size, its view of itself in historical terms, its claims  on India, on Taiwan, in the South China sea etc, its rise has implications for the region and beyond. As China grows muscles, it will flex them. China's opaque political system adds to outside concerns  as it makes its conduct unpredictable. Countries hope that prosperity and integration with the global system will make China more responsible and more transparent internally, increasing confidence levels abroad.

While a policy of containing China would be imprudent, yet it cannot be given a free hand in Asia. Other players in the region have to caution China about political and other costs of seeking domination.

Any initiative to that end serves our interests even as engagement with China continues. However, engagement does not mean acquiescence to Chinese hegemony in Asia.

China's calculatedly ambiguous position on India's permanent membership of the Security Council as well as on opening doors of international cooperation in India's civilian nuclear sector indicates a serious adversarial posture towards our rising aspirations.

If Russia [Images], Britain and France [Images] can support India's candidature and these countries, with US in the lead, can support us on the nuclear issue, why shouldn't China, if it wishes to build a strong, forward-looking, cooperative relationship with India as the second biggest Asian power.

The satisfaction we seem to derive from semantic play by the Chinese on these two issues reflects our mental acceptance of an inferior status vis-a-vis China and our readiness to be patronised by that country.

We should not demand equality from China, we should behave as equals. We should protect our interests more forcefully. Our border infrastructure should be developed rapidly. Our strategic programmes must be accelerated. The prime minister's visit to Arunachal Pradesh in January was a very welcome development. With announced plans to integrate the state more closely with the rest of the country, it signalled to the Chinese that our land of the rising sun will not be relinquished.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary of India.

Kind courtesy: Indian Defence Review.


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