C3S Paper No. 0116/ 2015
“All advancement in bilateral relations that we make vis-à-vis China centre around the border dispute. Maintenance of peace on the border is important for this”. This observation was made by the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval while addressing the Border Security Force (BSF) raising day on May 21.
The statement assumes significance since it comes soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to China earlier in the month, which attracted wide media coverage showing apparent bonhomie between the leaders of India and China. The Chinese gave little or no indication of a forward movement on the border issue which now awaits exchange of maps of the Western and Eastern sectors of the long border, progressing to the next step of identifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Doval also expressed India’s unhappiness over Chinese claims on Tawang in the Eastern sector, although the 2005 agreement between the two countries on modalities and framework on resolving the border issue explicitly states that there will be no exchange of territories with settled population. Tawang has been part of India since “ancient times”, a term the Chinese often use when arguing their territorial claims. The people of Tawang have been connected intrinsically with the rest of India.
The NSA did not hesitate to say that China as one of the world’s largest economies was important to India, it had a special relationship with Pakistan, both China and Pakistan were nuclear nations, and they were not the kind of democracy that India was. Doval also remarked that while bilateral relations with China was improving, the Indian armed forces needed to remain vigilant.
While China has incrementally encroached on Indian perceived territory in the Western sector in a manner known a “salami slicing”, the Eastern sector has assumed higher sensitivity in recent years with Beijing repeatedly staking its claim on the state of Arunachal Pradesh of which Tawang is a part. The Chinese reasoning that the 6th Dalai Lama was born in Tawang and it is a part of Tibet, is hogwash. The Dalai Lama’s place of birth has no geographical limitations. The 14th Dalai Lama is on record to say that the 15th Dalai Lama may be born outside Tibet and China, or the Dalai Lama lineage may end with him.
China’s reference to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet in recent years has further complicated the situation. And the bilateral relations have been vitiated in part by China deciding to issue stapled visas to people of Arunachal Pradesh visiting China. In addition, Beijing obstructed an ADB package for infrastructure development in Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that it was disputed territory.
India and China are two major powers in Asia. China’s economic clout and military power are superior to India’s. But India is growing. China has a weakness in its foreign policy or diplomatic influence. In its quest of territorial overlordship it has antagonized most of its neighbours in the Western Pacific.
China is playing the Russian card to the hilt in its foreign and economic policy. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fall out with the US and Europe attracted stringent western economic sanctions, rendering it somewhat weak. Otherwise, the recent agreement of US $ 400 billion gas supply from Russia to China may not have happened.
The Russians are not oblivious to the games that the Chinese are playing, including pushing its influence in the Central Asian States which Moscow considers its sphere of influence. The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Belarus, and efforts to wean Belarus, was not viewed kindly by Putin.
Russia also has interests in South East Asia, especially with Vietnam, which do not run parallel with China’s. Bilateral trust between Russia and China has not been fully established and will not be, for a long time. If Russia and Japan apply themselves seriously with give and take on territorial issues, it would be a game changer. This can only happen if the US can get rid of its cold war anti-Moscow mindset, which is a big ask.
Returning to India-China relations, India’s core interests need to be addressed seriously. For example on the Sikkim issue, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had shown a map to his Indian interlocutors showing Sikkim as part of India. This happened in 2005 when Wen visited India.
Immediately after, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated in Beijing that the Sikkim issue will be resolved with the boundary issue. This exposed China’s double-speak. Otherwise, ten years is long enough time to change their official map.
Modi flagged India’s concerns during his China visit. This includes Chinese infrastructure construction in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), a disputed territory. China only mouths platitudes on India’s quest for permanent membership of an expanded United Nations Security Council. They only support a so-called greater role for India in the UN, which precisely means nothing. Expansion of perm-UNSC is not in China’s interest. China’s policy on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is dependent on what Pakistan gets.
China-Pakistan relations are strong and enduring. Its strategic issues lie in using Pakistan’s influence in the Muslim countries in the region across. It is difficult to say if the Gwadar to Xinjiang (China) oil pipeline will materialize, and it would cost an enormous sum if completed. But Gwadar deep sea port built by the Chinese and to be operated by the Chinese for the next forty years, will be China’s hub for its Indian Ocean and Gulf strategy. Work is already in progress.
What India has to do is some real and urgent work to strengthen its economy. This is a critical task, as a strong economy is required not only to upgrade its armed forces’ capability including putting the mountain strike force into action, it is a guarantee for the security of the Eastern Sector.
A strong economy is also required to assist its neighbours in their economic construction. This will help greatly in consolidating its friends in the SAARC. Pakistan can be left behind.
Modi’s visit to Mongolia and South Korea onwards from China carried a message China would not have missed. He carried India’s history and culture well, with Buddism as the spearhead. India has a greater right to own Buddism than China.
Modi’s forthcoming visits to Russia and some of the previously neglected Central Asian countries can rejuvenate old relationships.
India may not bank too much on investments from China. This has inherent negatives. Activating E-visas for Chinese citizens may bring in foreign exchange. But the Indian tourism ministry’s enthusiasm for Chinese tourism has ignored security considerations. Modi extended this Olive Branch to China. It is to be seen how China reciprocates. The main task here is to address the skewed trade balance, and provide incentives to India’s soft industries to compete with substandard Chinese low end commercial goods being dumped in India.
India must tell China in as many words if necessary, that it would pursue relations with China’s neighbours with as much alacrity as China does with India’s neighbours. It may be a late start, but the situation is right and ripe.
Finally, India must strengthen the Foreign Service and the intelligence agencies. They are too small to adequately meet the rising challenges as India steps into an expanded world.
(Note: The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)