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China misses its chance with India

May 02, 2005

The only sure rule in analysing China-India relations is never to take what is apparent as real. In the weeks preceding the April 9-12 visit of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to India, there were several 'informed' analyses, each putting forward as fact what in fact was merely a wish list of certain lobbies active in the Indian system case

China and India cannot be de-hyphenated from the US. Beijing has taken full advantage of the Cold War, allowing itself to become an accomplice in covert measures taken to weaken and eventually destroy the USSR.

Even today, several within the Chinese strategic establishment seek a strategic partnership with Washington that would enable Beijing to displace Tokyo as the lead ally in Asia. In exchange for such a privilege -- the Chinese historically have always regarded the mere possession of their goodwill as a priceless gift -- Beijing expects the US to nudge Taiwan into accepting a 'Hong Kong status' and continue sourcing as much of manufactures as possible from China.

Chinese ogre has a giant appetite

There are many statues of Chairman Mao in China but none of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, who has done as much for Chinese prosperity as any other individual. Some estimates claim that as much as 13 per cent of Chinese GDP is accounted for by Walmart.

Unfortunately, for Beijing, rather than embrace the PRC, Washington appears to be moving in the direction of attempting to co-opt New Delhi into serving as a counter to China. When this writer spoke of such an inevitability in the early 1990s, he was debunked by those analysts who regarded anything not retailed either by South Block or Embassy Row as being fallacious and fanciful.

Several wrote as though a solution to the boundary dispute was imminent. The reality is that the boundary dispute is nowhere near settlement. The other fact is that it is the Chinese side that is the spoiler this time, whereas in the 1950s, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who refused the settlement offered by Zhou Enlai in 1961.

The Zhou offer was practical and, in view of ground realities, fair. Even after the 1962 conflict, when an Indian Army that had been weakened by nine years of fiscal neglect and sacrificed by political direction even at the tactical level had been pushed back by Chinese troops, Beijing withdrew to the lines that its forces had been in occupation of prior to the conflict.

Today, were there to be a boundary settlement based on the status quo, both in India as well as in China public opinion would accept it in the interests of the two 'Giants of Asia' abandoning their animosity towards each other.

'China no longer a threat'

Had the Chinese side followed up on the opening created by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and P V Narasimha Rao seven years later, by now there could have been a boundary settlement. Unfortunately, in order to placate the generals in Islamabad, the Chinese leadership has sacrificed its national interest by refusing to even demarcate on maps the true position of the respective forces on the Line of Actual Control.

Had such a process got completed, it could have been quickly followed by a legal acceptance by both sides of the current effective boundary between the two countries. Instead, despite several rounds of talks,little progress has been made on substantive issues.

While this would be hard to discern from the raft of rosy reports about the Wen visit, the reality is that it has been a disappointment to those looking for an India-China strategic alliance. For the first time since 1962, the Chinese had a chance to demonstrate that they were sincere when claiming that they sought an equal partnership with India. All that needed to be done was for Prime Minister Wen to state unequivocally that Sikkim was a part of India, the way Atal Bihari Vajpayee had in the case of Tibet in 2003.

Instead, the Chinese statements on Sikkim were watery and prevaricating when contrasted with Vajpayee's position on Tibet.

Apart from repaying India for its conciliatory attitude on Tibet by a similar show of grace over Sikkim, there was a second benchmark for judging whether the Chinese show of comradeship could be taken at face value, and this was the United Nations Security Council.

The dragon's preferred option

It was hoped that Wen Jiabao would clearly position China on the side of Russia, France and the United Kingdom in asserting that it backed New Delhi's joining an expanded Security Council. Instead, what he uttered were words so general and anodyne as to lack commitment. While the Chinese have always insisted on clear statements from India, it was clear that they felt no compulsion to repay the favour.

Wen Jiabao came to India only as part of a general tour of South Asia, that naturally began in Pakistan and continued on to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka before finally reaching India. It is no coincidence that the only two countries with which China has a defence pact are Bangladesh and Pakistan, both of which (under their current dispensation) have only one country as a potential target, India.

Adding salt to the wound caused to India's security by Chinese assistance to Pakistan's nuclear programme, an enhancement of Pakistani capabilities thanks to Chinese help was announced during the Wen visit to Pakistan, while a nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in Bangladesh. Only the naive will accept the comment that all such activities fall within the parameters of the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines. If that were so, there would not be the visits by Chinese military personnel to nuclear sites in Pakistan, nor would there have been a transfer of missiles to Bangladesh, neither of which has yet been covered in the Indian media.

Given that China has supplied an entire missile factory to Pakistan -- at Fatehjung -- and is now equipping the Bangladesh forces with missiles that can reach Lucknow and Kolkata, it is noteworthy that the foreign ministry in Beijing has publicly warned against the prospect of India getting the Patriot II anti-missile system from the US.

The Road Ahead

The official spokesperson claimed to be concerned about an 'arms race' in South Asia in a context when both the Bangladesh as well as the Pakistan forces have their main supplier in China. Far from Wen Jiabao backing away from such full-throated support to the jihad factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan, his officials have announced a slew of fresh military and nuclear/missile assistance that has only India as the intended victim.

Even more distressing to those eager for an alliance with China, the bulk of the weapons supplied to both these countries are offensive in nature. That the US too has been coddling Islamabad is not reason enough to ignore such transfers.

In the countries around India's periphery, Chinese diplomats and military personnel warn local elite informally about the 'hegemonistic' ambitions of New Delhi. Recently, such warnings have shifted to the economic sphere as well. The Sri Lankan authorities have been privately warned by Beijing 'not to encourage' Indian oil companies, 'as otherwise they may monopolise the sector'.

In Myanmar, local authorities recently withdrew from an MoU about surveying for oil, after pressure from Beijing. Similarly, behind-the-scenes efforts are on by the China lobby in both Taiwan as well as in India to abort nascent efforts at cooperation between the cash-rich island's petroproduct companies and Indian entities.

It is not only the UN Security Council that China seeks to keep free of contamination by India. Despite repeated requests, Beijing remains cool to the idea of an Indian entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Council or to any role by New Delhi in East Asia. Indeed, the Chinese foreign ministry has been explicit that 'India has no locus standi in talks involving the Korean peninsula.'

Future friends?

This from a country that seeks to join SAARC as a full member. While Beijing has been energetically prodding and pushing in India's neighbourhood, it resents the 'Look East' policy initiated by Narasimha Rao and is unhappy at India's increased visibility in ASEAN, just as it is with the increase in contacts between New Delhi and the Central Asian republics.

The fear in Beijing is that India will team up with the US to increase its leverage in these regions, thus effectively checkmating China. The economic muscle of the US and the cultural and geographical advantages of India can form a combination impossible to resist, although it must be said that an India-China coalition would be almost as potent. Ironically, Beijing itself would be delighted to continue to partner the US, were it invited by Washington to do so. The Communist Party leadership in Beijing is aware that prosperity in China hinges on continued access to US markets and technology.

Although Europe is emerging as an alternative destination, the numerous market restrictions preventing genuine competition within the European Union mean that the US will continue to be needed to provide buyers for Chinese products.

Sadly, the hand being played by the Manmohan Singh government has been severely weakened by past actions of the former National Security Adviser and principal secretary to the prime minister, Brajesh Mishra.

The reflective and usually efficient M K Narayanan has not even bothered to quiz Mishra about why he gave oral instructions to the top brass at the R&AW headquarters not to arrest CIA agent Rabinder Singh, despite repeated requests to him by the agency. Neither has the former National Security Adviser been asked to explain the circumstances in which he apparently -- and again orally -- offered to 'be generous' on water sharing with Pakistan and on the question of the retention of Indian control over sections of liberated Kashmir.

What concerns this particular narrative is Brajesh Mishra's involvement in the secret talks with China, a factor that almost resulted in -- but for the May 2004 electoral defeat -- unilateral Indian concessions. Mishra's attempts at generosity have created expectations in the Chinese that have resulted in an intransigence by them towards reasonable solutions.

It was Mishra who, according to senior officials, first gave the impression that India would make concessions on the Tawang tract. It was Mishra who ensured in June 2003 that Vajpayee made a total surrender to the Chinese position on Tibet without any return concession from Beijing, much less a matching one. It was again Mishra who sought to slow down the efforts by those less prejudiced to engage with Taiwan, an island that exports nearly $5 billion of capital a year, and which is looking for an alternative to China as a manufacturing hub. In nanotechnology and several other fields that India needs help in, Taiwan is a world-beater.

As a result of the Mishra interlude, there is now a ratcheting up of Chinese pressure on New Delhi to place onerous conditions on the Dalai Lama, so that he either returns to China or leaves for a third country. The effect of this would be to create disaffection among the 680,000 inhabitants in the sensitive border regions who owe spiritual allegiance to the Dalai Lama, apart from turning into enemies the significant groups of individuals and institutions worldwide who revere the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Under Mishra's personalised rule, several decisions got taken by the PMO that were never even brought before the Cabinet Committee on Security, much less taken after consultations with its members.

Fortunately, both under J N Dixit and now M K Narayanan, the administration has made clear that any oral commitments made by Brajesh Mishra cannot bind the Government of India. As a result, Beijing is coming to realise just how big an opportunity it missed by promising so much and delivering so little during the Wen Jiabao visit. It is no accident that the India-US engagement has accelerated just hours after Wen's Air China jetliner left Indian skies for home.

Complete coverage: Wen Jiabao's visit to India

M D Nalapat is a professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education. The views expressed are his own.

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