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'China-India maritime rivalry is NOT inevitable'

March 25, 2013 23:04 IST

India is treading cautiously on the eve of the crucial meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and China's new leader Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit in South Africa.

A senior government source explains to Rediff.com’s Sheela Bhatt why India cannot pre-judge a rivalry with China.

India is cautiously looking forward to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first meeting with China's new leader Xi Jinping in Durban on Wednesday, March 27, during the BRICS summit.

Many questions have arisen over Xi’s five step plan for the India-China relationship, and particularly about his fifth step that says, 'We should accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences existing between the two countries.'

On the eve of the Durban encounter, when asked to elaborate what China’s concerns could be as mentioned in Xi's five steps, a senior Indian official said, “That is something we will have to go through. I don’t want to pre-judge. Let us see what happens when both leaders meet.”

When asked to define how India looks at the much-talked-about issues of the South China Sea and China’s firm stand on it, as described in recent books on the geopolitics of the South China Sea, the senior official said, “You can’t assume that India-China maritime rivalry is inevitable.”

“Indo-Pacific is one geopolitical area," the official said, "but look at the situation in the Indian Ocean. The situation near China, whether in the East China Sea, near Japan, or in the West Pacific, is completely different. India, China and the United States of America -- everyone needs sea links; everybody’s energy goes through it.”

“Look at the sea near China where there are tremendous disputes," the official added. "Japan and other countries in the South China Sea have issues (with China). It’s a different situation. You look at the security situation in the Western Pacific. There is only one single provider (the US) of the security in the Western Pacific."

"You can’t compare what happens in the Western Pacific with what happens in the Indian Ocean," the official felt. "To my mind, it’s not sensible. It’s a different situation altogether in the geopolitical game. The solution may work in one, but not in the other.”

Importantly, the government official said, “It’s almost 19th century thinking that you will end up in a rivalry because of the nature of your history, geography, etc. You have passed that (time)! I think because of technology and because people are smarter today I don’t think we are going to end up in a rivalry.”

In recent weeks the issue of the Chinese management of Gwadar port in Pakistan, the announcement of three more dams by China on its side of the Brahmaputra river, and the renewed nuclear agreement between China and Pakistan, have concerned the Indian side.

On the eve of the important meeting between Dr Singh and Xi -- who as secretary of the Communist Party is China's supreme leader -- the Indian side is treading cautiously.

Asked to elaborate about these sensitive issues, the official insisted that these issues were not new.

When Rediff.com asked the official to clarify these issues beyond rhetoric, the official said, “Ask the Chinese why you do these things. Not one of these issues are new. Each one of these issues has been around for 20 years or more."

"I am hearing about Gwadar that Chinese are coming and will take over -- so what are we doing about it? They talk about the dams on the Brahmaputra. Every time there is any reduction of flow (of water) there is a huge fuss.”

The official also spoke about Pakistan’s nuclear plants, aided by China, in the same tone.

“Chasma one, Chasma two (nuclear reactors) have been around for many years and the talk about Chinese nuclear technology has been on for many years. We deal with reality as we see it. These are not new realities. I don’t think these (recent developments) are changing any realities. The prime minister once said quite clearly, 'Intentions are one thing, capabilities are another thing'.”

“We deal with both," the official said. "We will verify the reports about the three new dams ourselves. They may officially say these are run-on-the-river dams. Okay, then we have means today to verify that. Twenty years ago you relied on what somebody wrote. Today you can check yourself and do what you want to do about it. But don’t ask me about Chinese behaviour.”

India has noted Chinese utterances since the political leadership's transition began last October. India and China have since had contact at many levels including Xi's letter to Dr Singh.

“The context of all these exchanges was that the India-China relationship is high priority on both sides," the official elaborated. "There is more than just bilateral significance. We know what our core concerns are. We talk to each other, we can handle each other, we work together."

"We have shown that despite the differences we have strong financial relations. We are the single largest trading partner. We have shown the ability to work together in areas where we have confidence on issues like climate change.”

When asked about the long-standing border issue between China and India, the official said, “It is complex, it will take time. I don’t see any change on the border issue.”

While acknowledging the difficult relationship, the official said, “There are issues which could be difficult ones, but they are not new issues. Last year, for instance, we could start maritime dialogue for the first time; it’s a positive step forward. Last week, the Chinese deputy chief of staff was in India. Our officers will be going next. We have agreed on the schedule of defence exchanges. The signs are all positive.”

When asked about how Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India's other neighbours are being helped by China, the official said, “If you were a neighbour of India and China, what will you do? You will tell one what the other is doing for you. That’s normal politics. You must expect politics to go on. It’s not a static situation. Everyone will follow their own interests. It works for both powers.”

“You have means today which were not there 20 years back to work with these countries. China also has what wasn’t available before. You share a periphery. You work in common areas. That’s a geographical fact -- you like it or not. You can’t say this is my territory, you stay out of it. They can’t say so either."

"You drill for oil in the South China Sea, you live with your neighbourhood. This is normal. The question is: Can you both work together? Can you make sure you work without hurting each other’s interest? Over the last 30 years, since 1988, we have seen you can do that. You can actually talk to each other and deal with the situation in sensible ways.”

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi