Dialogue  April-June, 2010, Volume 11 No. 4

Looking at India-China Relations in a Wider Perspective

Bhaskar Roy*


For too long, Indians have viewed India-China relations/animosity or even acrimony through a very narrow prism i.e. the unresolved border issue, and the Sino-Pak co-operation to counter India. This is not to say, these two issues have gone away. They remain as important as they were earlier. But the ambit of the India-China interface has greatly increased impinging upon a much larger international canvas.

    It must be noted that both China and India have evolved and developed over the years, though in terms of pace China is ahead of India for several reasons. China is ruled by a single political party, a command system, which can completely ignore one area and deploy this entire resources to another area. The Chinese leaders decided from the early 1980s, and very wisely, that mutual dependence and correlations between economic development and military power was a must. Great power or super power status does not fall from heaven.

     Democracy or, at times, irresponsible democracy has hobbled India all along. There is sometimes opposition for the sake of opposition. At other times, there is a holier than thou attitude among politicians, journalists and civil society activists. During the Kargil war launched by Pakistan in 1999, India had the excellent Bofors gun. But because of the kickback allegations on the acquisition of these guns, not only was the original Bofors company blacklisted, the blacklist was extended even after the company was taken over by the Swedish government. This resulted in the shortfall of ammunition in the middle of the conflict. failures like this continue.

     Nevertheless, India has picked up pace, and consensus policies are far more sustainable than command policies which have a huge chunk of the population of a country disgruntled – the making of a future volcano.

    Notwithstanding the foregoing, the bare fact is that China is on a power surge on economic and military muscle that the world is beginning to take note of.

     China is becoming “arrogant”, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last year during his visit to Washington. Coming from a mild person like Dr. Singh, who has never been seen so angry (according to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen), this one word weighs ten times more heavily than it normally would.

       In spite of the border dispute or the unresolved border demarcation question, India and China are not at war. During Prime Minister Narsimha Rao’s visit to China in 1993, the two sides signed the “Peace and Tranquillity” treaty on the border, that helped disengage Chinese and Indian soldiers from an eyeball-to-eyeball position at some points along the disputed border in the eastern sector.  

    When Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to India in 1996 the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) Treaty was signed, laying the ground rules for exercise of each army in the proximity of the borders, military air flights in the vicinity of the borders, informing each other about planned exercises, among other confidence building steps. India also quietly gave proof of Chinese supply of nuclear weapons technology and hardware to Pakistan which was helping Pakistan to manufacture nuclear weapons. Jiang did not protest, and the Indian government did not disclose.

     Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee signed on the lines acceptable to China on Tibet, foregoing any Tibet card if India had one, on the assurance that China would similarly accept Sikkim as a sovereign state of India. China is yet to clearly accept that Sikkim is an integral part of India, and officially cleared Chinese reports continue to allege that India annexed Sikkim as a part of India’s expansionist and hegemonistic policies.

    China has also retracted from going forward on the modalities for settlement of the border issue agreement (2005), objecting as an after thought that settled population will not be dislocated. This reflects China’s claims on Tawang where the entire Indian population is settled.

   The Chinese side has been less than honest in respecting all the understandings and agreements, and has been pushing the lines of control (LOCs) both in the eastern and western sectors. The Indian response overall has been to hide the Chinese intransigence from the public.

    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s pique was provoked when the Chinese government took a strident position on his visit to Arunachal Pradesh last October. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman declared “We demand that the Indian side pay attention to the serious concerns of the Chinese side and not provoke incidents in the disputed region, in order to facilitate the healthy development of India China relations”.

    This was a very serious statement, arrogant and insulting, of the Indian Prime Minister openly. For once, the Indian government took the stand that Arunachal Pradesh was an “integral part of India”. This one statement persuaded Chinese  Premier Wen Jiabao to seek a meeting with Prime Minister Singh at the upcoming ASEAN meet in Han Hin, Thailand.

      But since then, India has gone on the back-foot. On his return from a China trip in April this year (2010), Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said that close interactions increase trust, and the Chinese had apprised him that they were building four hydro-electric projects on the river Yarlong (Brahmaputra) which will not impede the water flow. What the Chinese told Krishna was nothing new, and they added rather sarcastically that they need not have informed India but were doing so in the interest of friendship. There still appears to be influential foreign policy makers in India who think that it is better to concede to a rising global power like China than to confront it!

     This is a position of defeat, hoping for Chinese indulgence and openly accepting China’s supremacy. An abject surrender which China will use to the utmost. There is a Chinese saying “respect the strong, blackmail the weak”. Has India decided to be the “weak” even before it is tested? Because, in various Chinese internal assessments India is no longer a push over. 

   It appears Indian policy makers may be mistakenly accepting as friendship China’s latest signals since November 2009, as a turn over of Chinese heat. There is nothing more deceptive than that. China is married to its centuries old strategy of “denial and deception”.

   Since 2004, Chinese strategists have been arguing that Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “hiding one’s strength, and biding one time” has outlived its utility. Deng enunciated this strategy in 1991 when China was isolated after the June 1984 suppression of pro-democracy student activists. Today, that situation does not exist. China is a power to reckon with, and all powerful countries including the US are keen to do business with China and accord China a high pedestal at the global table.

      The Chinese are not wrong in their assessment. But over enthusiasm has caused problems with the US and the European Union (EU), and to some extent with Japan and Australia. Russia is cognizant of the fact that China is trying to oust them from their global position because of economic power. China is also not sure how far they can push Russia out, given the fact that the cold war syndrome is history, and Moscow is carrying its own strategic relationship with the US.

     A strange arrogance appears to have engulfed the Chinese polity, where the military seems to be on the ascendancy in strategic foreign policy area. At a recent US-China conclave in Beijing in mid-April (2010 – People’s Daily) Vice Admiral (Retd.) Yang Yi, who is a policy promoter, said China’s main adversary was the US. Russia was not interested, Japan was weak, and India was worried about China. He added that the only nuclear war, if fought, will be between China and the US on the Taiwan issue. This is in stark contrast to the earlier Chinese strategic position that the possibility of a nuclear war was receding.

    China’s “no first use” of nuclear weapons doctrine has also been beckoning towards ambiguity.

    Statements from Chinese military strategists of the possibility of acquiring military bases in the Indian Ocean region surrounding India to ensure the free passage of their energy shipments is significant. Military bases have a very potent meaning. The Chinese naval exercise (March-April, 2010) extending beyond its coast, challenging Japan and flying its sovereignty flag in the South China Sea gives new meaning to China’s hegemonic ambitions. Its military base concept in the Indian Ocean rim countries and a seeming permanent deployment of its navy in the Indian Ocean going across India to the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy operations is certainly not pacific.

    Diplomatically, China has challenged the US, in EU (France and Germany), Japan and Australia in the last one month. The results were mixed, and China is tabulating that.

      Armed with this ascendancy, China is just opening a new strategy to squeeze India in South Asia and the SAARC. The Americans, in their usual self-centred and non-perspective policies have agreed to invite China in the South Asian scenario involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. The Americans are known to dump their foes and friends alike. They are desperate to get out of Afghanistan, keep Pakistan as an ally and invite China to join in.

      The Chinese, however, are historically shrewd and do not trust the Americans. They understand they have a strategic competition with the US in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are yet to bite the American bait.

    Therefore, India’s strategic position with China has travelled a full circle. When China confronts India, it will be working on a huge advantage. How does India respond?

      Very briefly, India must stand on its own feet firmly and understand that the India of today is not the India of 1962. The Chinese propaganda wants India to believe that it remains far inferior to Beijing. They continue to play on India’s vacillations and indecisions, and they have their supporters in India who adulate China as the saviour against imperialism.

       While China has dazzled the world with its power, India still remains unsure of its own strength. There is a world which wants India to demonstrate the power which it actually, has to extricate them from the Chinese shadow. This exists in South East Asia and the Central Asia. To say the least it is up to Indian policy makers if they want India to be a respectable power, or a country with potential yet subservient and defensive. 

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati