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Pranab Mukherjee's China visit- Ill Timed and Unproductive

Ahead of any Minister’s foreign jaunt for whatever inconsequential purpose, the spin doctors of the Ministry concerned invariably try to give it a tremendous boost, as if on it hinges the nation’s entire fate. Likewise, on the Minister’s return to his native haunts, the same spin doctors toil hard to create the illusion that his trip was an unprecedented success and worth every paisa of the tax payers’ money spent on it. On both counts, they get away with using nearly the same descriptive passages lifted from their earlier handouts. The fact that public memory is short greatly helps them in this legerdemain. The visitation of the Minister of External Affairs, Mr.Pranab Mukherjee, to China, was no exception. There was very little to show for it, other than the customary hoopla accompanying it.

Actually, there was nothing at all by way of any new development or issue in the relations between the two countries that called for an urgent face-to-face consultations prompting Mr.Mukherjee to thrust himself on his Chinese counterpart when the attention, resources and energy of the Government in China were wholly concentrated on the rescue, relief and rehabilitation matters in the aftermath of perhaps one of the greatest tragedies to strike the country in living memory.

In straining the hospitality of their hosts, the Minister as well as the mandarins of the Ministry could only be said to have displayed an inexplicable insensitivity to the pressures and tensions through which China must have been passing, with 70,000 dead and an untold number needing relocation and arrangements for food, healthcare and livelihood. In the bargain, they have set tongues wagging as to the exact message that the Chinese Premier, Mr.Wen Jiabao, meant to convey by dashing off to Sichuan and being away during all the days Mr.Mukherjee was in town. After all, it was more than a month since the province was hit by earthquake and all the needed mechanisms and measures to tackle the emergency were already in place.

Ritualistic epistle

What was the catastrophe that needed to be averted by the Premier himself having to rush without being able to spare even a little time for Mr.Mukherjee on any of the four days he was in China? Was Mr. Jiabao trying to rub in the untimely nature of the visit? Or, was it his way of showing displeasure at Mr.Mukherjee’s comments at Chennai on June 3 on the sanctity of the McMahon Line and inviolability of Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India, sounding as if India’s stand on the border issue was non-negotiable and final?

The questions do not become irrelevant simply because the spin doctors have sought to make much of the letter of regret that Mr.Jiabao had asked to be passed on to Mr.Mukherjee. It is nothing more than a ritualistic epistle typical of polite formality characterising diplomatic practice and one can only hope that at least the Minister had enough sense not to read into its proforma language any profound meaning. It certainly was not a solemn expression of the Chinese Government’s abject contrition for Mr.Jiabao’s cancellation of the meeting.

The visitation was ill-timed for another reason as well. Over and above the contentious nature of the Chinese claim of Arunachal, recent provocative statements of China claiming the right of possession of the 2.1 sq. km. area (known as ‘Finger Point’) in northern Sikkim are once again calculated to bring the border row to a boil. China thereby has gone back on its own unambiguous and unconditional acceptance of Sikkim as a State of the Republic of India in Article XIII of the Joint Declaration of April 11, 2005 by the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr. Wen Jiabao, and the Indian Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, following the former’s State visit to India.

This was nothing to be hoped for at this time from Ministerial confabulations, which could only be superficial and unproductive, with both delegations indulging in a dialogue of the deaf, by merely employing the same language as in the earlier proceedings of similar discussions.

The main reason why the solution has proved elusive so long is the fact of India and China sticking to their ‘differing perceptions’ not only of the border itself, but of the totality of the stakes. India believes that the pathway to a solution is by means of forging a strategic partnership, holding consultations to combat terrorism, promoting trade and commerce and taking all possible steps to broaden areas of cooperation in a spirit of harmony, goodwill, trust and confidence. China looks upon these staples as a diversion, and although not unwilling to play along on these innocuous lines to humour India, regards border settlement as the key to smooth and durable bilateral relations.

While India takes seriously the constantly repeated references in summit declarations to maintenance of peace, stability and tranquility at the border, observance of political parameters and guiding principles to solve the border issue, respect for the actual Line of Control (LAC), resolution of the dispute on a fair, rational, equal and mutually beneficial basis, China looks upon them as merely tactical formulations, reserving to itself the right to pursue its goals in a manner befitting the region’s super-power.

Short shrift

All the high-sounding but identical phrases in successive joint declarations have not stopped the Chinese troops from committing as many as 40 intrusions across the 206-km border between Sikkim and Tibet since January this year and 140 intrusions in 2007 across the 4,057-km long LAC in the western (Ladakh), middle (Uttarakhand, Himachal) and eastern (Sikkim-Arunachal) sectors (not to mention the latest contretemps over ‘Finger Point’.

In China, India is dealing with a determined disputant whose instinctive response, going back to the remote past, regardless of the complexion of those in power, to any kind of challenge to what it construes as its rightful due, has been to make short shrift of it even braving world opinion. China has desisted from any overt aggressive action so far, but India should not count on the situation remaining equable indefinitely.

It will no longer do for India to pretend that more of the same mixture dispensed on previous occasions will keep China eternally at bay. Neither trade ties nor any political or diplomatic advantages need hamstring China from putting an end to the state of suspense and uncertainty on the border on its terms. Compared to more than $ 650 billion trade with the US, European Union and Japan, divided equally, and $ 1.76 trillion of foreign trade in 2006, the total of $40 billion of trade between China and India as of now, (and targeted to increase to $60 billion by 2010) is something China can very well afford to do without.

There is no compulsion on China to keep relations going on the political plane, just to sign Memoranda of Understanding on sharing of hydrological data of Bramhaputra river in flood season, Protocols of Phytosanitary Requirement for Exporting Grapes and Bitter Gourds from India to China, agreement for exchange of young diplomats and transactions of a similar nature leading the summit meetings to a state of reductio ad absurdum.

Thus, China has hardly anything to lose were it to take a hard line with regard to the ongoing tussle over the border and put India in its place. Before this one thorn on the flesh of both countries, all other minor excitements such as opening a redundant Consulate-General at Guangzhou (within stone’s throw of the already existing Consulate in Hong Kong), handing over the Padma Bhushan scroll to the Chinese Indologist, Ji Xianlin, or being thanked by the Chinese for the smooth passage of the Olympic Torch in New Delhi pale into insignificance The sooner India realises this, the better.

Soft corner

India will, in this light, be well-advised to keep its ears to the ground and reappraise its policy towards its northern neighbour without blinkers or braggadocio. There can be no doubt that China too is doing a similar reappraisal following the Lhasa riots in which it suspects the Dalai Lama has had a big hand. The tone and tenor of news reports coming out of China are indicative of a resentment that the Dalai Lama continues to enjoy a soft corner in India’s political establishment to the detriment of China.

As per official briefing on the meeting of Mr.Mukherjee with his Chinese counterpart, China “naturally” raised the issue of Tibet and their concerns about the activities of Tibetan refugees and Mr.Mukherjee explained India’s policy of not allowing any illegal or political activity against China by refugees “who have to respect the law of the land in India”. The Chinese must have heard this many times before and are unlikely to be impressed. In sum, then, any sense of complacency, merely banking on diplomatic shibboleths, will prove highly injurious to India. Instead, it should follow a three-pronged strategy: (1) It should not hesitate to convey its objections to China’s ‘intrusions’ in straightforward language. (2) It should speed up fortifying the border areas adjoining China so as to enhance its capabilities of rapid movement and prompt defensive action. (3) The political leadership of both countries at the highest level should now take the matter in their hands with a view to reaching a final settlement on the border within a short time-frame. Without their stepping in, there can be no progress, especially if it involves giving up of territory on both sides.

(The writer, Mr B.S.Raghavan, IAS Retired, is a founder member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India).

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