Saturday, December 25, 2010

India remains in S Asian bottle

Here's the link to an article of mine on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit that appeared in today's Pioneer.

The biggest success for China insofar India is to derive maximum advantage from her emerging economy status while at the same time keeping India tied down in sub-continental squabbling. The Wen visit achieved just that.

Premier Wen Jiabao’s three-day visit has produced mixed results, with the business community somewhat satisfied with Wen’s promise to open Chinese market for Indian products, although there was no progress on major political issues that were of critical importance to India. On the other hand, this visit was not expected to result in major breakthroughs. Rather, it seems to have been designed to cool temperatures after a series of face-offs between the two countries. But it may not have achieved even this limited objective because the visit appears to have led to even greater wariness in Delhi about China.

From the Chinese perspective, the focus was almost exclusively on economic and trade issues, evident in the 400-member business delegation that accompanied Wen. But contrary to what many have argued, strengthened economics ties have not contributed to better relations on the political front. If the last few years have seen a dramatic increase in trade, so has been the increase in tension on a range of political issues.

India’s focus, on the other hand, was on several political issues, on which the Indian leadership wanted some resolution from Beijing: the changing Chinese policy on Jammu & Kashmir, China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation and terrorism.

From a neutral approach on J&K in the 1980s through 1990s, China has in recent years adopted a more aggressive and partisan role, questioning even the territorial integrity of India. China’s attempt to carve out areas out of the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is reflective of the Chinese intent in rewriting history and redrawing geographical boundaries. How far back would China go into history to make new territorial claims is something to be watched out for. While the recent deletion of about 1,500 km from the boundary is a new phenomenon, the Chinese questioning of Indian territorial integrity has been evident in a series of recent Chinese actions. The issuance of stapled visas to people from J&K, denial of travel permits to senior military officers commanding the region are but two instances. Chinese unwillingness to exchange maps of the western sector at least for a decade is reflective of the Chinese intent to question India’s territorial integrity on J&K. While these may be tactical and minor pricks, India should not lose sight of the strategic thinking behind these tactics.

Second, China-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation of the 1980s and 1990s has had lasting geopolitical effects on India. The recent Chinese proposal to sell additional nuclear reactors, grandfathering the agreement as it were in total defiance of the international regime, is a dangerous development. This has implications not just for the India-Pakistan military balance but for the global community. Pakistan is on the threshold of being a failed state, and breeding a dangerous cocktail of terrorism and WMD proliferation. The global non-proliferation regime and the US seem unable or unwilling to put the necessary pressure on China not to go ahead with the proposal.

Third, terrorism should have ideally formed an issue of commonality between India and China given that both countries have been victims of terror. But the Chinese selective approach to fight terrorism places New Delhi and Beijing at two ends of the spectrum. More importantly, Beijing refuses to come on board in acknowledging and putting the onus on Pakistan when the Pak-based terror groups have been actively promoting terrorism in India. The best evidence was the post-Mumbai terror attacks, when China refused to be party to UN action against Pakistan-based terror groups like let for their role in the Mumbai attacks. Selectively fighting terrorism in Xinjiang alone will hurt China in the long-term.

It must be borne that these are rather tactical issues in the bilateral relations to keep India embroiled in the Indian neighborhood. The larger question is whether Beijing recognizes the fact that India is also a rising power that needs its strategic space.

The new policy approach towards India is part of a well-considered, clearly articulated and well-orchestrated policy to deny India the space and potential to move beyond South Asia. In 2005, the Chinese leadership had got an internal study done on India, written by the top South Asia specialists including Prof Ma Jiali, who used to frequent India in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The study recommended, among other things, that China take steps to maintain its strategic advantages over India and try to keep India bottled within South Asia. While the study may be a bit dated, the conclusion of the study appears to have been taken to heart by the Chinese policy elites.

India has been admirably careful and diplomatic in handling Chinese provocations so far. India has little need to open up a northern front while it continues to have trouble from Pakistan. But New Delhi also has limitations, especially in justifying its passive policies domestically. Thus, its forbearance may not last. Hopefully, Beijing will realize that its hardline policies towards Delhi will be counter-productive and that India and China have complementary goals that require cooperation rather than confrontation.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wen Jiabao Visit -- Expectations and Deliverables

Here's the link to an article of mine on the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, looking at the potential areas that the Indian leadership is likely to take up with the visiting leader. For the full article, click here.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is on a three-day visit to India against the backdrop of both increasing rivalry between the two Asian giants as well as opportunities for greater cooperation. This is manifested from time to time as both tension and cooperation, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. Whether tension or cooperation predominates this visit will reveal a lot about the long-term prospect of this important bilateral relationship.

The two sides have improved their relations to a great extent in the last few years, particularly in the economic domain. The trade ties have grown from just US $ 1.99 billion in 1999 to nearly US $ 60 billion this year, but without seeming to have any positive impact on the political relationship. This article outlines the major concerns that New Delhi has. How they are addressed by the two sides will decide how this visit is judged.

For the Indian side, there are four key issues that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will likely take up with Wen Jiabao. These are the opening of Chinese market for Indian goods; Chinese policy approach on Jammu & Kashmir, including that of the issuance of stapled visas; nuclear cooperation with Pakistan; and terrorism.

Opening up of the Chinese Market

India-China economic and commercial relations have improved tremendously in the last few years. Even while there is imbalance in the trade, this is one area that has continued to flourish without major hurdles. The trade deficit is hugely in favour of China. Another area of concern is that India continues to export mostly raw materials while we import manufactured products. This imbalance is an issue that needs to be addressed.

One major demand from the Indian side has been the opening up of the Chinese market for India. India has demanded opening of the market in three key sectors – pharmaceuticals, IT and agriculture. In spite of efforts by the Indian government and the private sector, there has been hardly any movement. India has a sizeable R&D and technological base in the area of pharmaceuticals and India has produced a variety of cheap and effective drugs for a number of diseases including AIDS. However, India has not been allowed to operate in the Chinese market. Similar has been the case in the areas of IT and agricultural products. This is another issue that the Indian leadership has to take up with China.

Chinese Policy on Jammu & Kashmir

China’s policy on Jammu and Kashmir has oscillated from one end of the spectrum to the other. From a policy of neutrality in the 1980s and 1990s, China has adopted a more active and partisan role today. China’s policy on J&K today represents a mix of aggressiveness and determination, emboldened by the rising politico, economic and military might of the nation. This change in its stance is partly contributed to by the fact that the US is a declining power and there are other power centres in the making, including that of New Delhi and Beijing. The Obama Administration, particularly in the first year of its administration, followed an extremely pro-China policy, adding to the confidence of Beijing. Because of this, China began to sense that it was an important power to reckon with, not just in the region, but even in global terms. Such confidence on the part of Beijing led to more aggressive behaviour in China’s dealing with all of its neighbours and even the United States. The number of maritime issues between the PLAN (PLA Navy) and the US Navy and conflicts involving Vietnam and Indonesia, and India on the land border, are reflective of China’s growing muscle and its willingness to flex its muscles. This new more interventionist policy on J&K appears to be an outgrowth of the US-China joint plan of action vis-a-vis South Asia. It appears to be an after-effect of the US-China Joint Statement in November 2009 for the two countries to jointly manage South Asia. While the issuance of stapled visas may not be directly linked to the changed policy on J&K, China has begun to make serious assertions that the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir is a disputed territory.

Nuclear Cooperation with Pakistan

Nuclear and missile cooperation in India’s neighbourhood has had long-lasting impact in the geopolitics of South Asia. China’s proliferation of nuclear weapons/technology along with its delivery vehicles has clearly altered the India-Pakistan military balance. While some analysts suggest that this is a thing of the past, the recent Chinese proposal to build additional nuclear plants in Pakistan indicates otherwise, in addition to being a clear violation of the international agreements that China is party to. China is seeking to ‘grandfather’ the current agreement into an earlier agreement for the supply of the nuclear reactors. The international community, including the UN and its associated bodies, appears to be unable to persuade China to desist from supplying these reactors. The US appears unable or unwilling to put the kind of pressure needed to stop Beijing from carrying out this arrangement.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the issue of nuclear proliferation have continued to be major issues of concern for US, India and the global community at large. Earlier revelations about AQ Khan having assisted Libya, North Korea and Iran with materials related to uranium enrichment is neither forgotten nor can it be ruled out in the future. The US’s overlooking of Pakistan’s nuclear activities in the 1980s to achieve its Cold War objectives has led to these dangers in Pakistan today. If the US is unwilling to take strong measures against the latest Chinese proposal, the effects could be much more damaging not only for India, but for Pakistan, China and the US.


While India and China are “victims” of terror, the two countries differ drastically on the definitional aspects of terror. For India, terror has originated and continues to originate from Pakistan while China has refused to put the responsibility on Pakistan. The best illustration was the post-Mumbai terror attacks when the UN was to take action against the Pakistan-based terror groups for their role in the Mumbai attacks. China refused to see India’s or even the larger global community’s point of view on fixing the responsibility on Pakistan. China has to recognise that it cannot selectively fight Islamic terrorism only in Xinjiang.

While these are some of the issues that India should take up with the Chinese leadership, it will be naive to expect that China will give in on any of these issues. Wen Jiabao’s visit to India is more of a good will visit or a CBM (Confidence Building Measures) measure to cool the temperatures after the recent tensions on the border as well as the J&K issues. This visit is not expected to be a foreign policy success for either of the governments, from that limited perspective. However, the two countries will continue to be on an “engage” mode, since engagement is the mantra.

As far as China is concerned, Wen Jiabao’s trip is almost singularly driven by economic objectives, evident from the 400-member business delegation that is accompanying Wen Jiabao. China, particularly after the global financial crisis, is on a look-out for markets in Asia, and India offers the largest market. Therefore, China’s singular focus on economic issues is understandable, but India should not give into the Chinese demands without a quid pro quo.

Monday, December 6, 2010

North Korean Crisis and China

Here's an article of mine on the North Korean crisis, looking specifically at the role of China. The article was published on the ORF website and can be accessed here.

China has to recognise the pitfalls of its approach as it deals with North Korea. China has to recognise that North Korean actions are triggering several developments that are not necessarily in the interests of China. For instance, it has triggered major debates on defence in Japan about becoming proactive in defending themselves, including the option of nuclearisation. Can a nuclearised East Asia be ruled out in the next decade if Pyongyang is to continue on the same path?

North Korea appears to be in an aggressive mode with its second attack this year against South Korea, provoking the world at large, and certainly its neighbours, to respond. In March this year, Pyongyang had sunk the 1,200 ton South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, which prompted the United Nations to issue a resolution condemning the incident, although it did not blame Pyongyang for the incident. This week Pyongyang shelled a South Korean fishing community and military base in Yeonpyeong, a disputed island, on Nov.23 with highly inflammable ammunition that killed four people, including two civilian construction workers, and blew the windows out of a school and torched houses. As of November 29, the US and South Korea had completed their third day of naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast, although Seoul has cancelled the live firing drill at Yeonpyeong.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang has also clarified that it is pursuing its nuclear programme vigorously. It recently stated that it has a uranium-enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges, to provide for a light water reactor, for “peaceful purpose of meeting electricity demand.” Quoting an editorial from the ruling communist party’s newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, media reports said, “Our nuclear energy development, which is for peaceful purposes and to solve the electricity demand, will be more active.” In fact, this was the first time that Pyongyang has openly talked about its nuclear programme. The existence of the modern enrichment facility was disclosed by Stanford University professor and scientist Siegfried S Hecker, who was given a tour of the site on November 12.1

What has prompted Pyongyang to adopt such hardline measures in the recent years? The “military-first politics” of Kim Jong Il, the expansion of DPRK military capabilities and its increasing defence budget continue to be an area of concern. Pyongyang has continued to argue that nuclear weapons and missiles along with their conventional capabilities are required as deterrents against possible South Korean, Japanese and American military aggression against North Korea. The North Korean leadership has also maintained that this is one possible way that it can get the international attention and that the world will engage it only under such conditions. This argument is difficult to sell anymore given that the international community, and the US in particular, have been engaged with Pyongyang on a bilateral basis as well as through the Six Party talks format.

Second, is there a message for the world that the new leadership in North Korea is as hardline as the old one? In fact, continuity can be visualised as far as Pyongyang’s future trajectory is concerned, given that Kim Jong Il chose the youngest son and not the older one (who is considered a peacenik) to carry on with the Kim Jong Il legacy in Asian affairs.

What has been the role of China in this regard? The Chinese interests, while they seem congruent on the surface with that of the US and other regional powers, are actually different and incongruent. For instance, the Chinese and American perspectives about the issue of North Korean stability are very different. For the regional powers as well as the US, what they want is a denuclearised North Korea at peace with its neighbours, and also a country that protects the human rights for its own people, whereas Chinese interests are to ensure that there is no crisis that might prompt the influx of large number of refugees into China and that there are no US troops on the Chinese borders, say if South Korea takes over the North after a collapse. Therefore, the Chinese interests are driven by narrower perceptions of North Korean stability.

Pyongyang has adopted a defiant attitude in its dealings with its neighbourhood, with the possible exception of Beijing. Beijing has become almost the only friend of the Kim Jong Il regime, extending the crucial economic, political and moral support. China remains North Korea’s largest trading partner as well as an important source of food, fuel and arms.2 Given that Pyongyang’s relations, particularly with Seoul, have declined drastically after the two nuclear tests, Beijing’s bargaining power with the North Korean leadership should have increased dramatically.

Some analysts argue that the US is dependent on China to put any serious pressure on North Korea. While this may be partly true, it is also possible that China has not put any serious pressure on North Korea because they see it as a buffer state between itself and the US allies in its neighbourhood. Second, with the US having been preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, China has managed to create a vital strategic space in Asia, particularly as the US deals with problem cases like North Korea or Myanmar. In both of these cases, China has emerged as the conduit for any dealing, be it the democracy, human rights or the WMD proliferation issues. Therefore, China does not want to lose that privileged position where the West has to route itself through Beijing to achieve some of their foreign policy objectives.

However, some have argued that the West has overestimated the Chinese hold on North Korea and that Beijing is unable to exercise that kind of influence on Pyongyang. There are experts who note that China is beginning to reach a point of frustration with North Korea on three issues: its increasingly belligerent behaviour; growing economic crisis; and the leadership succession issues. The recently-released WikiLeaks too suggested that China may have been re-thinking its policy towards North Korea, although the Cheonan incident and the recent shelling incident have established that Beijing has not altered its policy towards North Korea. There have been undoubtedly subtle changes in the last few years in China’s approach towards Pyongyang, evident from the support lent by China in imposing sanctions on North Korea post-nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.3 There were reports which noted that after the Cheonan incident, although China did not issue any action against North Korea despite strong evidence, President Hu Jintao is believed to have directed the leadership to be less provocative and avoid confrontations.4 Nonetheless, the subtle change that one witnessed is clearly reversible, which was evident in the recent crises.

Whether there is a change or not, China’s role in finding a solution to the North Korean crisis is critical. However, like any other country, China will get on board with an effective response only if it sees that its interests are affected or its interests can be served better by an active role. For China, there are three issues that could drive a more active role. As mentioned earlier, one of the major imperatives for China keeping Pyongyang as an ally is because it is a buffer state between the pro-west US-allies and Beijing. The Chinese have been paranoid about the US troops on its border. Second, in the case of any instability in North Korea or a serious conflict, there could be a huge refugee influx into China -- a nightmare scenario becoming a reality for Beijing. Lastly, any serious crisis on the Korean Peninsula can also weaken the Chinese standing and hurt its leadership, exposing its inability to deal with a problem successfully in its neighbourhood. This will seriously damage the image of the global leader-in-the-making.

In conclusion, China has to recognise the pitfalls of its approach as it deals with North Korea. China has to recognise that North Korean actions are triggering several developments that are not necessarily in the interests of China. For instance, it has triggered major debates on defence in Japan about becoming proactive in defending themselves, including the option of nuclearisation. Can a nuclearised East Asia be ruled out in the next decade if Pyongyang is to continue on the same path?