The uncalled for polemics between the Chinese establishment which includes the Chinese official media, and the Indian media which was drawing in the Indian officialdom, was put into cold storage in the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – Premier Wen Jiabao meeting at Hua Hin, Thailand, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, on October 25. It was a welcome closure, at least for now, to a situation which was beginning to turn ugly.
Dr. Manmohan Singh carried his own personality and Indian culture to the meeting. Economics Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen had commented recently that in the 60 years he has known the Indian Prime Minister he never ever saw him getting angry. But deep inside him Dr. Manmohan Singh has a steely resolve. In a warm statement made across the table he congratulated Premier Wen on the 60th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic, and said India shared with China’s progress.
China’s fourth generation leadership with President, Party General Secretary, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Hu Jintao as the leader takes most decisions in consensus. Hu is primus inter pares, but as officially declared, he is no longer the core of the Communist Party of China (CCP). The issue with India and the Dalai Lama’s planned visit to the Tawang monastery, Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India, and the form it was taking, must have been seen by Beijing leaders as detrimental to China’s political profile in Asia. The decision to cool down the situation was surely a consensual decision. Otherwise, Premier Wen Jiabao would not have asked visiting Indian minister Jairam Ramesh for a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Thailand.
According to the briefings to the Indian media delegation accompanying Dr. Manmohan Singh given by the Indian delegation, neither Arunachal Pradesh nor the Dalai Lama figured in the Manmohan Singh – Wen talks. At the end of it Wen looked forward to healthy development between the two countries, and both sides reiterated their commitment to pursue a strategic relationship.
To state briefly, a serious crisis between India and China was averted, and credit must be shared between the officials of the two countries who worked out the agenda of the meeting between the Prime Ministers.
Premier Wen Jiabao, obviously conveying a message from the Chinese leadership, conceded there was enough space in the world for both China and India to grow. This should be true for the Asian space also. This vision has been the central piece of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s China policy, otherwise it will be a lose-lose gambit.
This short phase of heightened acrimony between the two countries have lessons for both India and China. Both have to make historical reviews of their internal development of bilateral relations and how to manage them in external dimensions to avoid a brink situation.
The Indian government has made it a habit of sweeping negative moves from China under the carpet. They are yet to learn from the blunder made by Prime Minister Nehru when he delayed informing Parliament for three years, about Chinese encroachment and consolidation of position in Aksai Chin. He informed them in 1959 after it had become a fait accompli. Had Parliament and people been informed from the beginning there may have been better preparation to bolster and arm the forces on the border. This syndrome to hide threats to national security from China, hoping it was a bad dream, is self-defeating. The Indian media, though it is independent and has its own mind, must be kept informed to avoid hysterics. The Indian media is supposed to be a constructive critic of the government and society at large, and informs the people. If not briefed properly, the media would tend to rush to conclusions of their own which could lead to misunderstandings.
The Indian media has far too long been focussed on Pakistan. There has been a lack of interest in China in terms of geopolitics, it appears. Why does every major development in the Indian defence sector have to be depicted as aimed at China? The Agni missile series is discussed in terms of whether it can reach Beijing or the latest controversy over the Pokhran-II thermonuclear test is discussed in the context of China. Development and sophistication in military development have much wider connotations. The key word is “defense”, and the object is not necessarily constant for all times. The objective is “deterrence” against anyone who threatens India. Pointed mention of these types only give China the pretext to project the “India threat” theory.
China has a huge responsibility to correct itself. All these years, since 1959 China at both official levels and through media PSY-war has continued to berate and insult India, and increasingly projected India as a threat to its neighbours. It has helped most of India’s neighbours militarily, politically, economically and diplomatically to corner India. China’s biggest blunder was to arm Pakistan with nuclear weapons, and helping Pakistan through the plutonium route to nuclear weapons continues at Pakistan’s Kushab facilities. If things go wrong in Pakistan, China may be the first country to regret it. Pakistan’s Islamists along with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda will ask China questions over its treatment of Muslim Uighurs, and these questions may be asked with nuclear backing. Anyway, to cut India, China has vitiated the atmosphere in South Asia, and Beijing cannot remain unaffected by the consequences. China has been flaunting India’s defeat in the 1962 border war, and threatens with a similar “teach a lesson” slap. This kind of message has been noticed in the Chinese official media in the last one month. They believe a lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth.
They state that the Chinese forces withdrew in the Eastern Sector out of kindness and consideration. Nothing is further from the truth for the following reasons: (i) with heavy winter approaching after November, their troops would be cut off from supply lines and would be easy prey for the Indians, (ii) the Indian troops were well equipped and, in the confusion, the air force which was close at hand was not used, (iii) military supplies from the USA and the UK had started coming to India and (iv) the world opinion was turning against China. The Chinese troops did not have a chance to hold on to the territory they gained. But even in declaring ceasefire, they cheated and held on to extra territory beyond the line of demarcation understood by both sides.
The 21st century is by no means 1962. The entire equation has changed – militarily, regionally and globally. The recent Chinese threats are already beginning to cost them credibility with their South East Asian neighbours, a region very important for their strategic security and economic development. A little noticed fact is that China has recently softened its stand with Vietnam and the Philippines on the Spratly Islands dispute.
Any Chinese misadventure along the borders is unlikely to remain limited to the extent of 1962. Notwithstanding the fact that India is at the disadvantageous end of the terrain in the eastern sector, and that China has built far better infrastructure along Tibet’s borders with India, military equations along the borers may not yet be to the advantage of the Chinese. Their air force will still remain ineffective, and the armies matched. They will have to rely on the medium range DF-21 series of missiles. But that is a questionable preposition and will lead to much wider implications regionally and globally. The India-China co-operation on international and global issues like human rights, environment and climate change, South-South Co-operation will all go down the drain.
The Dalai Lama is an issue for China. The CCP mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, China’s most authoritative media outlet, recently (October 24) alleged that India was colluding with the Dalai Lama to split China. To note, this article came on the eve of the Manmohan Singh – Wen Jiabao meeting in Thailand. This is almost suggestive of a split on the India issue in China.
India has no role in the China-Tibet-Dalai Lama issue. In 2003 Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee signed on the Chinese definition on the status of Tibet. That should have taken care of Chinese suspicion. From India’s point of view the issue between the Dalai Lama and China is not India’s concern, responsibility or involvement. The Dalai Lama enjoys huge popular adoration as a spiritual leader among the Indian people, but he is not allowed to indulge in politics in India, and he is an honoured guest, free to travel anywhere in India in his personal and religious capacity. As for Arunachal Pradesh, it is India’s sovereign territory and there is no space to debate on it. That includes Tawang.
To promote healthy relations and strategic co-operation, China must not be seen seeking to put impediments in India’s strategic developments and bilateral relations, as well as territorial integrity. China continues to oppose the Indo-US nuclear deal, seeks to force India to sign the CTBT and sign on the NPT, roll back its nuclear programme, suspects and opposes India-US high-technology and military co-operation, and keeps India out of any regional grouping where it has a say, or allows India in only if Pakistan is also given an entry. Recently the People’s Daily indicated that India’s “expansion” in the North-West was blocked by Pakistan and in the north-east, by China, and India must bow down to both. It was a deliberate revelation that China – Pakistan alliance was determined to coerce India into a corner.
In conjunction, China is reverting to its old policy on Kashmir, promoting the Indian portion of Kashmir, (which swears by the Indian constitution) as an independent state. This is a very serious provocation. India could response with equally damaging policies on China. Some constituents in Beijing are angling for the “rotten fish”.
If China really wants to settle the border issue there are ways. India made a mistake by not agreeing to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s proposal of 1960, offering China would accept the McMahon Line in the east if India accepted the line of actual control in Ladakh. Both countries can revert this formulation to see if still holds strength in political constituencies on both sides. If proposals come, both sides must be clear to each other. Hedging like the Chinese proposal “if India makes concession in the west, China will consider concessions in the east”, will always have grounds for suspicion. Parabolic expositions do not work.
China appears to have more problems with its internal constituencies than India has. When Chinese Vice Premier for South Asia, Hu Zhaoyue told Indian journalists in Beijing on October 21 that the upcoming meeting between the two prime ministers in Thailand was “a very important one” and “there has been good progress in bilateral relations”, it found little or no mention in the Chinese media. This is significant. The Chinese official media has been promoting an anti-India nationalist jingoism. Apart from the People’s Daily, its affiliate, the “Global Times”, has been in the forefront to promote a hate India campaign. In its October 16 edition, it quoted Chinese internet bloggers to say China should strengthen co-operation with its neighbours because of India’s defiant provocative actions, and China and Nepal should devise a political strategy to deal with any Indian opposition to the Lhasa-Kathmandu railway. Since November 2008 China at an official level, has been offering Kathmandu assistance against Indian influence in Nepal.
Given the foregoing, any clear conclusion of Chinese intentions as articulated by Wen Jiabao, becomes difficult. For one, China’s top leadership does not want the Party Central Committee, party cadres and the people to know that the top leadership is coming down a notch with India. If the Chinese leaders want to save face for the greater good, the Indians including the Indian media must allow it. Expressions on a television channel that “Indian aggression works” must be avoided. Great sensitivity is involved.
On the other hand, there appears to be differences in important sections in the Chinese system over their India policy. If China’s top political leadership wants a co-operative partnership with India, they will have to set their own house in order. This may be a difficult task with factional struggles becoming visible before the 18th Party Congress in 2012, but not impossible if the will is strong enough.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)