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India plays crouching tiger to China's hidden dragon

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
Last updated on: November 17, 2006 20:26 IST
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High-level sources in New Delhi believe that the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to India has been adversely affected by his Ambassador Sun Yuxi 's claim over Arunachal Pradesh.

In a television interview, Ambassador Sun had claimed, 'In our position, the whole of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory and Tawang is only one place in it... We are claiming the whole of that (Arunachal Pradesh). That is our position.'

As the strong reaction poured in, Sun somewhat toned down his statement challenging India's sovereignty over the border state but media reports in India and the government's own assessment suggest that the public is once again suspicious of China.

China's proverbial capacity to negotiate through the art of hard bargaining, which is subtle, polished and vague, has intrigued Indians once again.

Although the Chinese spokesperson in Beijing, commenting on the larger India-China boundary issue and the ongoing negotiations, said, 'It was the strategic goal of the two sides to find a mutually acceptable solution to the vexed boundary issue', critics in India are not satisfied.

"She has merely said it's the strategic goal. But, she has not backtracked from Sun's position," says Brahma Chellaney, strategic analyst and author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

Mohan Guruswami, analyst and frequent visitor to China, argues, "I think Sun's quote has been taken out of context. The TV channels have played it up. Arunachal Pradesh is a matter of dispute for China which has never formally given it up."

"What is intriguing," he admits, "is the timing of the statement."

Guruswami agrees that Sun's statement has raised temperatures and doubts about China's intentions within India but he says this is due to "ignorant public opinion. This issue is the leftover of history."

However, most experts believe that a Chinese diplomat by himself cannot vitiate the atmosphere just before his President's arrival by being tactless.

China expert Srikanth Kondapalli says, "Ambassador Sun is very articulate, intelligent and extrovert. He is fluent in English. He is a person who doesn't need notes to speak."

So it's unlikely that Sun spoke without thinking, claims Srikanth.

Sumit Chakravartty, editor of Mainstream, says, "Even if Sun's statement was in response to a question he should have been responsible. I believe his statement could be a precursor to the kind of bargain that may take place with India on the border issue. Arunchal Pradesh will be the bargaining chip for China. The border settlement with China has to be a package deal where give and take has to take place, and this is a reminder to India. Also, it's possible that before Hu's visit the Chinese are trying to gauge the reaction on the issue."

Chakravartty thinks "China will first make its claim forcefully and then, get some other areas in a final settlement and leave Arunachal with India."

A high-level source in the government gave an entirely a different version while assessing the Chinese intentions. "There are chances that the ambassador spoke without realising the intense repercussions. In that case, we should overlook the issue. But if he has said it with the intention of telling India 'lest you forget', then I believe this is because they have found India on a weaker wicket after the Democrats won in the US.

"The Chinese assessment around 10 days back might have been that Indo-US relations are going offtrack. The seemingly weaker position of India might have tempted them to go on a bolder approach.

"India has never been a priority on China's strategic radar. It deals with India only when India is found to be getting stronger, as the stronger relation with the US attracted Wen Jiabao in 2005 to sign agreements with far-reaching implications," he added.

Sun's statement is also linked to developments in the ongoing negotiations between Special Representatives from both sides. Last week, in a surprising move, National Security Adviser M K Narayanan and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo's proposed ninth meet was cancelled.

The Chinese media's views about Narayanan's role could be one of the reasons behind the cancellation.

People's Daily-affiliated Global Times wrote on November  9 that 'There are divisions in the Indian government on security implications arising from investments by Chinese companies in India. While the Indian finance and commerce ministries favour imposing no investment restrictions on a specific country, the National Security Council headed by Narayanan is for total investigation of the origins of all foreign investments as a first step.'

D S Rajan, former director in the Cabinet Secretariat who has studied the recent media coverage in China's ethnic press says, "Beijing is signalling that the visit notwithstanding, a border solution is not reachable in the immediate future. Secondly, Beijing seems to queer the pitch for India's correction of its policy with regard to Chinese investments, indicating that the Chinese side will focus on the matter during Hu's visit. Last but not the least, is one aspect of China's regional strategic outlook brought out in articles in the regional press -- India in the long term poses a challenge to the security of China's South-West border."

China's way of reminding its claim over Arunachal Pradesh is not surprising if one peruses its domestic media.

People Net wrote on October 30 that 'In spite of Sino-Indian agreements on confidence-building measures relating to the Line of Actual Control, the Indian government has not given up its ambition to invade large tracts of adjacent territories. India has expanded its strategy in China's South-West border, while considering China as a strategic competitor and political enemy. India poses a potential threat to China in south-west.'

Four days before Wen Jiabao's visit to India in April 2005, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei had reminded India that the Tibet Autonomous Region was a part of China and promised to not allow the Dalai Lama to conduct anti-China activities within Indian borders. At the press briefing before Wen Jiabao's South Asia visit Wu had advised India that 'China appreciates and values India's stance on the Tibet issue. We believe India will continue to be prudent in dealing with the issue.'

Sun's recent statement is similar in nature, believes experts. 

Even if one takes the view that Ambassador Sun was merely reiterating China's official position and India should not worry unnecessarily, it's obvious that the issue of Tawang will be the bigger issue in coming years as the SR talks make progress.

The current controversy also suggests that the SR level talks haven't moved much.

If  Tawang eventually becomes a huge dispute, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement on the eve of the last ASEAN summit -- where he said 'populated areas will not be negotiated' -- is significant.

Tawang, part of Arunachal Pradesh, has great religious significance. It is is also an inhabited area.

Srikanth thinks the "Chinese are shifting their focus from the western borders to the east. It's the same old Chinese way to get something out of nothing. The Chinese like to say that whatever we have we will keep, whatever you have we will share. Rather, India should clarify Dr Singh's statement, does it mean India is prepared to give away the non-populated areas to China?"

Chellaney, too, recommends a hardening of stance by India. He recently wrote that 'gently shining the spotlight on the Tibet question will help India turn the tables on China, whose aggressive territorial demands have drawn strength from New Delhi's self-injurious acceptance of Tibet as part of the People's Republic.'

However, just two days before Hu's arrival the focus is likely to shift now to trade and other issues and the border issue will remain where it is. Although the political movement is slow and bland between two countries, China will be taking India seriously on Monday. As the proverb in China goes, 'keep friends close, enemies closer'.

China's demand for better business with India suggests that China wants competition and not rivalry.

According to World Trade Organisation criteria, China is not recognized as a market economy. Indian businessmen are having doubts over China's pricing of goods. India may recognise Russia as a market economy sooner than later but China's business practice of pricing its goods too low worries Indians. Recently Indian businessmen questioned how the Chinese were able to export their motorcycles a price below the cost of production?

The Chinese haven't answered it. India wants transparency in pricing and other factors. Abd China wants broader access to India's robust consumer sectors.

After Sun's controversial statement, President Hu Jintao has sent a message through the newly-appointed Indian envoy Nirupama Rao that he is satisfied over the 'sound' growth in Sino-Indian bilateral ties and hoped to 'turn a new leaf' in strategic relations during his maiden state visit to New Delhi next week.

Hu stressed that unless China and India develop, the Asian century will not be realised.

These are the typical ways of Chinese diplomacy and India is likely to take it in its stride.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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