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India-China Connectivity:No Need to Over Hype

I feel honoured to address this gathering in Kolkata of eminent China scholars in India, convened by the Rabindranath Tagore Centre,ICCR, Kolkata and the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies for the purpose of discussing a specific aspect relating to India-China connectivity – the Stillwell Road.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you may agree that the very nature of a keynote address would demand an approach at macro-levels and I therefore propose to follow the same.

The term ‘connectivity’ has indeed a positive connotation; it cannot be disputed that connectivity between India and China contributes to better mutual understanding among them, which in turn positively influences their policies towards each other. One cannot miss the fact that the two nations presently enjoy a high degree of connectivity, encompassing a variety of fields – say political, economic, military and cultural. But People to People contacts do need further strengthening.

What has led to such a connectivity surge? It can be seen without difficulty that the main contributing factor has been the congruence, to a good degree, of strategic interests among China and India which gradually came about over years in response to the profound geo-political transformation, witnessed both at global and regional levels, for e.g. end of cold war, post 9/11 situation etc.

The term ‘congruence’ may need elaboration. China, especially since 1978 when reforms began, is following a strategy aimed at guaranteeing the success of its modernisation programme under conditions of a ‘peaceful international environment’ and a ‘stable neighbourhood’; an offshoot of this strategy has been a foreign policy based on ‘harmonious world’ concept providing for a ‘win-win’ relationship with rest of the world including India. China at the same time explains that it is still a developing nation and its international role will be within its capacity, meaning thereby that it does not intend to play a domineering role in the world affairs. On its part, India under its reform path, initiated in early nineties, is also linking its development requirement with ‘peace and stability’ in the region; a concept of economic linkages with outside world especially with China and other East Asian nations, has been introduced by it accordingly. India’s Look East policy has been its specific manifestation. From the point of view of International Relations theory, academicians may see that the courses undertaken by India and China fall under the “Realism” School which gives primacy to national interests.

It is not surprising that the India-China congruence of interests has resulted in a substantial increase in the comfort level in their bilateral relations. Especially since the landmark visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988 resulting in setting up of a Joint Working Group to address the border dispute, a series of significant events have influenced the progress in bilateral relations; they included the appointment of Special Representatives ‘to explore the framework of a boundary settlement, from the political perspective of overall bilateral relation (2003), agreements signed on ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity and Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question’ (2005), ‘Promotion of Civil Nuclear Cooperation (2006) and ‘Shared Vision for the 21st Century ( 2008).

India-China ties have now acquired a global character. Accordingly, the two nations are cooperating on international issues related to the diversification of global energy mix, climate change, arms control and disarmament, non-traditional security threats, counter-terrorism, WTO, WMD, human rights and South-South Co-operation. Bilaterally, the two sides now aim at building ‘ a relationship of friendship and trust, based on equality, in which each is sensitive to the concerns and aspirations of the other’. They are not viewing each other as a security threat and are by and large satisfactorily implementing confidence building measures in the disputed border, besides carrying out joint military exercises. Special Representatives of India and China have so far held thirteen rounds of border talks, though with no tangible results. Most important is that with an attitude of promoting ties looking beyond the unsolved and ‘complex’ border dispute, India and China are speeding up their trade and economic contacts. Bilateral trade is fast gathering momentum, with the volume to the tune of US$ 40 billion now and projections for US$ 60 billion by 2010. China has emerged as India’s largest trading partner, replacing the US, in April 2008-February 2009 period. Also significant is the ongoing momentum in their exchanges of high level visits reflecting the desire of each party to forge stronger ties, of which the recently concluded state visit of Indian President Ms Patil to China is a prominent example.

We at the same time should not forget that for India and China, the connectivity factor entails some limitations; it may no doubt generate a positive atmosphere in India-China relations, but such atmospherics, may not necessarily lead to eradication of the existing gaps in the respective strategic perceptions, which are based on self-interests. There are some talks in India and China about the past civilisational contacts helping resolution of the dividing issues; such arguments look invalid as the two nations , once emerged as modern nation states, have come to face geo-political compulsions, which tend to put one against the other.

On perceptional gaps, the situation on the boundary issue comes first. The point to be noted is that the growing India-China connectivity, say in the form of political level talks, can only help the two nations in understanding the perspectives of each other. Whether it can lead to a permanent settlement of the border issue, is open to debate as each party may not be willing to make compromises on strategic aspects concerning territorial sovereignty.

Indian perspectives tend to project China as a country with territorial ambitions. Examples being quoted in India in this regard include Mao’s description of China’s ‘palm’ (Tibet) and ‘five fingers’ (Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, NEFA and Ladakh); references are also being made in India to the PRC’s sense of ‘historical loss’ of territories expressed through their maps and atlas series, published in eighties. Such maps had even been seen claiming that India’s Assam, even Andamans, were ‘historically’ parts of China.

China’s claims are based on its historical stand – all its borders, including with India, are as defined during the Qing dynasty period which ended in 1912. The root of the border problem with India lies in Beijing’s position that a large chunk of its territory, especially the 90,000 Sq km area in the Eastern sector, were illegally taken away by the British India, after the 1914 Simla Convention and that India inherited the British legacy. This has provided the rationale for Beijing in rejecting the McMahon line, a product of the Convention and in claiming the entire Arunachal Pradesh state of India as part of Chinese territory, called by it as ‘Southern Tibet’. Authoritative scholars in China have categorically stated that Beijing cannot recognize the McMahon line; if it did so, it would amount to Chinese admission of the 1962 conflict as a ‘war of aggression’ as well as an implicit acknowledgement that Tibet was once independent of China . On the other hand, for India, McMahon line remains the ‘de facto’ border with China.

The current scenario firmly points to China’s strategic thinking disallowing any compromise on the border. Sino-Indian border talks, despite thirteen rounds of talks so far between two Special representatives, have been useful in building confidence among the two sides, but have not led to any tangible result in finalising a ‘frame work’ for a boundary settlement in accordance with the Agreement on Political Parameters, reached in 2005. While Beijing’s stand is to approach the border issue in the spirit of ‘mutual understanding and mutual accommodation’, India wants ‘ground realities’ to be taken into account. About the reported Chinese claim over Tawang, an interesting argument is that besides strategic factors, the same has been due to the China’s fears that Buddhist monasteries in the border including the one in Tawang have been centers of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese authority and as such, they should be taken over by it. Interestingly, the Chinese have introduced some new elements to the border question by questioning the already agreed position of keeping areas with settled populations out of the dispute. Is China ready for accommodation on the border issue? The statement made by the PRC Ambassador to India in November 2006 that both sides should make ‘compromises’ on the ‘disputed’ Arunachal may be meaningful in this regard.

As indicators of China’s tough stand on the border, it is of late claiming the 2.1 Sq km ‘finger area’ of Sikkim, the status of which as an Indian state has already been recognized by Beijing ‘de facto’. The reported Chinese intrusions, said to number 270 in 2008, into the Indian border, the adverse reaction of Beijing to the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to Arunachal Pradesh, China’s bid to stop the loans for Arunachal Pradesh from the Asian Development Bank, strong Chinese state-controlled media criticisms of India’s dispatch of additional troops to and positioning of advanced fighter aircraft in its Eastern border and the rise in the level of Chinese media rhetoric against India, noticed in 2009, need to be seen in the same light.

China’s general stand is to ‘shelve’ the difficult border issues like the one with India and instead work for ‘common development’. For e.g the PRC wants to ‘shelve’ the South China Sea territorial dispute, leave the Senkaku issue with Japan for ‘future generations’ to solve and ‘put aside the Sino-Indian border dispute waiting for a suitable climate for solution’ (Deng Xiaoping to the then Indian leader Vajpayee, Beijing, 1979). What should be noted is that China never gives up its claims on sovereignty over disputed areas. An example is Japan-China settlement on exploring the disputed Chunxiao gas field in the East China Sea. Though Beijing has agreed for joint development of the field, it has declared that China’s sovereignty over the field is indisputable. A ‘Draft Law on the Environment Protection of Sea Islands’, which stipulates that ‘ownership of the uninhabited islands shall revert to the state’ and that ‘the State Council of the People’s Republic of China shall exercise control’ over them, is under discussion of China’s parliament. The Draft appears to include the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands disputed between China and Japan in the East China Sea and Nansha (Spratly) Islands disputed between China and a number of countries including Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. China’s ‘shelving’ formula, while it keeps territorial claims intact, may look suspicious to all neighbouiring countries having territorial disputes with China. As this writer views, this formula has inherent flaws – for some at least, the projected completion of China’s military modernization in 2050 may create new pressures on the leaders in Beijing at that time to become aggressive on all border issues. Especially for India and China, serious efforts are required to be made by them to find a ‘compromise’ based solution to the border issue, much sooner than later.

For the same strategic reasons, India-China connectivity may not go far in attending to other issues, for e.g. Tibet issue, China-Pakistan nexus, the PRC’s defence modernization, China’s policy towards India’s neighborhood, India-US relations and East Asia integration process. On the first, it can be said that with India accepting the Tibet Autonomous Region as an integral part of China and standing firmly against any anti-China activity of the Dalai Lama from India’s soil, this issue does not figure in Sino-Indian state to state relations. However, Beijing appears to be having reservations on India’s motives with respect to the Dalai Lama. China’s fears need to be understood in the context of March 2008 unrest in Tibet, posing a challenge to China’s sovereignty over that territory, even weakening Beijing’s position in its border negotiations with India. Also, the question as to why India is tolerating the Tibetan Government in Exile in its soil, seems to be bothering China. Premier Wen Jiabao’s description of the Tibet issue as a ‘sensitive’ one in relations with India, assumes significance in the context of what has been said above.

I feel that Chinese suspicions on India-Dalai Lama relations are not going to disappear soon; the picture may change if talks between Beijing and the exiled spiritual leader succeed, but chances in this regard appear to be bleak at least for the moment.

China-Pakistan nexus is the next major bilateral issue. India-China connectivity has not led to any visible improvement on this account. A better understanding is required in China about India’s sensitivities on this subject. The Chinese military, missiles and nuclear help to Pakistan continue. The latest example is China’s plans to establish two civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan, by- passing the stipulations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group mechanism. It is obvious that Beijing wants to ensure India-Pakistan nuclear balance.

India-China connectivity has also not been able to build confidence in India about the peaceful purposes of China’s military modernization programme. China’s policy is to mesh its ‘peaceful development’ and ‘military modernisation’ into one goal. It wants to create a ‘prosperous country and strong army’ (Fu Guo Qiang Jun). Chinese strategists explain that the PRC should utilize the peacetime to prepare for war contingencies as well as to deter wars. China’s assertiveness in South China Sea and East China Sea, witnessed in recent times, indicates that its uncompromising stand on territorial issues would last forever. Outside China, it is therefore being realized that there is a mismatch between China’s peaceful development goal and military modernization objective and that Beijing is displaying a deliberate ambiguity.

India’s concerns over China’s military modernization are being expressed through its important government documents, for e.g. the Defence Ministry’s Annual Report (2008-2009) has said that the programme has implications for India’s defence and security. Asking Beijing to show greater transparency in its defence policy and postures, particularly on the double-digit growth in defence spending in last two decades, it has observed that China’s stated aim in its Defence White Paper for 2008 to develop missiles, space based assets and blue water naval capabilities will have an effect on the overall military environment in the neighborhood of India. China, on its part, is alleging that India’s defence strategy is visualizing war on two fronts- Pakistan and China. A Chinese comment (China Youth Daily) has said that India’s real target is China, not Pakistan. India is especially viewing the ongoing momentum in building military infrastructure in Tibet, with concern.

India’s concerns also relate to China’s attempts to establish a strategic presence in India’s neighbourhood, for e.g port projects like Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota(Sri Lanka), Chittagong(Bangladesh). They are giving rise to fears in India of a Chinese encirclement of the country, under what has come to be known as a ‘string of pearls strategy’. The PRC has taken care to officially repudiate such concerns, by asserting that it has no plans to try for domination of the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and has no intentions to establish a chain to encircle India.

Chinese critical positions on the India-US relations are also complicating India-China ties. The Chinese have welcomed the India-US Strategic Dialogue and are themselves promoting ties with the US. Still, China seems to nurture fears about US-India collusion against it. Its official media description recently of India’s policy as one ‘befriending the far and attacking the near’ is unmistakably an indirect, but strong criticism of the developing strategic relations between India and the US.

It would also be necessary for China to pay attention to the Indian perception that it hesitates to accept India’s leading role in the East Asian regional integration process on the plea that the process should only be based on ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) cooperation, and that ‘ outsiders’ like India, Australia and New Zealand have no place in it.

The Indian public does not understand the reasons for appearance of hawkish views on India in some of China’s strategic journals/websites. Global Times and writers like Colonel Dai Xu, have often given controversial views on India. How far such views reflect official thinking remains a question in India. Is the People’s Liberation army (PLA) influencing China’s foreign policy making? Even the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has hinted to such possibilities (Shangrila Dialogue, Singapore, 2010). The answer to such misgivings may lie in the need for reporting transparency in China.

Both India and China can however immediately exploit the connectivity factor in addressing issues of non-strategic nature, such trade imbalance, unskilled Chinese labour in India and import into India of Chinese telecom equipment.

In conclusion, it can be said that the existing India-China connectivity should not be over-hyped; strategic issues dividing the two sides are very deep and not going to disappear too soon; this will have implications for the region’s stability and prosperity. Connectivity efforts should however continue, irrespective of their inherent limitations with respect to solving strategic issues. But solutions to dividing issues can come only from within the two nations. As far as India is concerned, the nature of the issues demands it to be reactive to China’s policies and China has therefore a greater responsibility to solving them. Basically, much would depend upon the ability of the future leaderships in the two nations to effectively address the problems arising from their different strategic perceptions in a spirit of trust and mutual benefit. If this is not done, the strong expectations now on the 21st Century being an Asian Century with India and China playing pivotal roles may have little chances of becoming a reality.

(The above formed the basis of the Keynote Address, given by Mr D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India, at a seminar on “ A Journey Through the Stillwell Road”, organized by the Rabindranath Tagore Centre,ICCR,Kolkata and the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies,at Kolkata on 23 June 2010.

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