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.

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