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China's India Signals-Listen But Verify

While sections of the Indian media reported the recent successful test of Agni-III nuclear capable missile (range 3,500 km) in terms of response to China’s strategic missile targeting India, the governments of both the countries skirted any reference to each other. Can we expect some realism and maturity from Beijing?

At the weekly Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing on February 9, spokesman Mao Zhaoxu refused to be drawn into controversy of India’s Agni-III test. He said “I don’t want to interpret or comment on the reports”. Ma went on to say that the China-India relation is friendly and co-operative, and China and India are not threats to each other.

Earlier, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a visiting Indian Minister that China and India were partners and not competitors. While Premier Wen did not elaborate, India and China have been working together on climate change though India’s green house gas emission is one-fifth of China’s. Both countries hold almost similar positions on outside interference on human rights issues, but there is an ocean of difference how the two countries deal with dissidence, religious freedom and freedom of speech. But politics makes strategic bed-fellows at times.

In the last few months, especially after China went ballistic over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, India responded with firmness emphasising that this state was India’s sovereign territory. The Indian media reacted with an unprecedented ferocity despite some government efforts to lower the pitch.

With such developments the Chinese apparently concluded that The Indian public opinion which was usually focussed on Pakistan, had woken to the threat emanating from China and were no longer willing to be satisfied with the government sweeping Beijing related security issues under the carpet.

More than that, there appears to have been a recognition that the writings and talk shows in the Indian print and electronic media were no hollow words. India’s profile had grown and what was being said in India was being heard abroad. It is not only the South Asian countries, but also the South East Asian countries and those in the west closely followed such reports especially when subjects like China, terrorism, economy and trade were concerned. Obviously, the Chinese interests are concerned. This did hurt Beijing’s credibility in South East Asia, where China has territorial disputes with several countries.

With no apparent reason, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (Feb. 02) posted a report that China had completed border negotiations with 12 land neighbours, signed ‘Guiding Principles’ on solving border issues with India, and a ‘Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea dispute’ and had also reached principled consensus with Japan on the East China Sea issue. Then it talked on co-operation with its South East Asian neighbours in protecting the maritime area.

The Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, had an inscription at the gate of his revolutionary base in Yenan – “Seek Truth From Facts”. A very significant statement, it embraced ideology, politics and strategy. It remains as a foundation of the Chinese Communist Party’s philosophy.

Therefore, the People’s Daily posting is very important to contemporary Chinese foreign policy towards neighbours. The fact is China has signed these declarations and arrived at understandings. But the truth is quite different.

Having signed the Guiding Principles with India on the border issue, it wants certain changes now, especially on the status quo of populated areas along the borders. China has also been quietly pushing the status quo as perceived of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the disputed borders.

Similarly, the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea issue, that is, the dispute on the various claims on the Spratly Islands, China’s position remains that it enjoys full sovereignty over the sea including the Islands but the claimants can be included in joint exploitations on the premise they acknowledge China’s sovereignty. The agreement remains frozen in action, and periodic stand offs break out. This is an explosive area and is a target of China limited strike and informative and electronic warfare. With Japan, there is no real understanding. In spite of the new relations with the Democratic Party of Japan (DSP) government in Tokyo, China knows that Japan is not going to give an inch on territories under its control.

The South East Asian and East Asian issues concerning China have a genuine link with China’s arrogant and assertive behaviour with India in the immediate past. For sometime, Beijing’s propaganda machinery was projecting that India was the only country that was stonewalling resolution of border and territorial disputes with China. China, apparently, is caught in its own machinations trying to prove all are culprits in some way or the other, and it is only China which is the honest party.

Unfortunately, the Chinese leaders do let things sleep. An article was posted on February 08 on an official website China.org.cn titled ‘India building a security barrier against China’. The author, Dai Bing, is not necessarily important. It may be a pseudonym, but what it said is important. Its basic thrust was India was “intensifying its military co-operation with the United States and Russia and stepping up its military penetration of small border states adjoining India and China”.

The article said India was increasing military co-operation with Myanmar, resumed arms transfer to Nepal, and suggested China pay more attention to Nepal as pro-India and pro-China forces in Nepal confrontation in the country had entered a critical stage. The article also spoke about India’s hold over Bhutan. Whether officially sponsored from a high level or not, it found a place in an official website to pronounce that India’s influence in the Indo-Himalayan States bordering China was considered a challenge to China’s security and strategic interests.

A paper prepared by the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘Study Cell on International Issues’ last December (Liaowang, Issue No.59/2009) examining global challenges to China, saw India on a strategic rise, co-operating and crafting new relations with the US, Russia, Japan in a loose bloc against China’s interest. The American ‘back to Asia’ strategy marked by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the region last year is seen as a US military co-operation with riparian states of the Mekong river and India. The thesis reflects a paranoia in Beijing. They are looking as if the world is closing on China.

This is not encouraging for the region. China seems to be fearing competition. It wants to develop and dominate alone.

Strangely, there is an advocacy in Beijing by the same experts the need to expand understanding and co-operation with India at the moment, and safeguard China’s interests. Such tactical positions are unlikely to last for long, and strategic planners in New Delhi must not be disarmed by this new apparent charm.

The Indian Ocean is a vast open area, China’s energy lifeline, and straddled by India. China requires India till its military bases are established in the Indian Ocean region in the coming years. But Beijing is going to keep the pot simmering from time to time. Incidentally, this gives India time and a great opportunity to carve a place for itself as a reliable broker of stability in the region.

(The writer Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. Email: grouchohart@yahoo.com).

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