Sino-Indian relations are back in public debate

Sino-Indian relations are back in public debate after the New York Times report on Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in Gilgit-Baltistan, visa denial to Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal, General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C), Northern Command, and on top of earlier Chinese transgressions like separate paper visas for Jammu and Kashmir residents. Were not the bilateral relations on the upswing since the handshake between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in 1988?

Three successive foreign secretaries have been China experts, S.S. Menon also being the curre­nt national security adviser. Ad­d­r­essing the Heads of Indian Missions, Mr Menon felt that despite the pinpricks the Chinese will not opt for confrontation as they are focused on economic gr­o­wth. Anticipating human or na­t­ional behaviour is tricky busin­e­ss. On December 19, 1979, the Ce­ntral Intelligence Agency (CIA) adv­ised the US President th­at “the pace of Soviet deployments does not suggest an urgent contingency”. A week later the So­viets invaded Afghanistan. Tim Weiner, in his masterly book on CIA Legacy of Ashes, comm­e­nts that it was not a lack of in­t­e­l­ligence; it was a lack of imagination.

China, since Mao Zedong’s demise in 1976, has been in a pragmatic and regenerative phase axiomatically prescribed by Deng Xiaoping for China to “disguise its ambition and hide its claws”. In 1978 China’s per capita was on par with India; by 1999 it was double. Therefore while the rise of China has been anticipated, its sudden prominence is due to the US and its European allies being militarily exhausted and financially challenged. The Chinese panda is now overnight a bear; Deng’s advice supplanted by Middle Kingdom syndrome.

The rise of China poses questions for Asia. The Economist ran a cover dubbing Sino-Indian relations as “the contest of the century”. They noted that recent Chinese behaviour has left the Sino-Indian relationship “bruised”. Martin Jacques in his book When China Rules the World, surmises that it is inevitable that China as it rises will revert to behaviour that its history and culture dictates, i.e. treating countries on its periphery in terms of a tributary-state. The countries bordering the South China Sea are already experiencing this. India, he feels, is a case apart as it too is rising. India could either concede China a permanent role in South Asia or assert itself as a regional hegemony. This is the challenge confronting India today, as China is well entrenched in Pakistan and an emerging player in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The game is not new. China was determined to reclaim its historical position and thus set out from 1949 to contain rivals in Asia. The focus on India increased 1959 onwards, when India gave refuge to the Dalai Lama. A rising Japan spurned, in November 1924, the advice of provisional Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen, imparted in a speech at Kobe, that pan-Asian relations must be governed by the “rule of Right” and not by the European “rule of Might”. In November 1962, while the two superpowers were distracted by their face-off over the Cuban missile crisis, China too decided to ignore Sun Yat-Sen’s vision and attack India. It broke Jawaharlal Nehru, demoralised India and sucked the US into the South Asian affairs. President John F. Kennedy rushed military assistance to India. The price was talks with Pakistan to settle the Kashmir issue. However when Swaran Singh, minister for railways, landed in Rawalpindi for the inaugural round on December 29, 1962, he heard over the radio that China had settled its boundary in the Pakistan-occupied northern areas of Kashmir, with Pakistan. A shocked US berated President Ayub Khan. While the talks had five more rounds, they basically were dead on arrival, thanks to China.

Chinese skulduggery has been a constant refrain since then, whether the clandestine assistance to Pakistan for their nuclear weaponisation or their delivery systems, or to develop the Gwadar port as a long-term asset. The second phase of the port will have 10 berths, three for special cargo and two for 200,000 tonne oil tankers. Chinese have a major interest in restoring the Karakoram highway, destroyed by landslides and perhaps upgrade it to create an integrated transport and energy corridor. Chinese foreign ministry while denying the presence of PLA in Gilgit and Baltistan refer to it as Northern Pakistan. This is an endorsement of the Pakistani construct that their Northern areas were never a part of Jammu and Kashmir. These are Shia-dominated regions, ethnically and culturally akin to Ladakh. It is regrettable that India has allowed Pakistan’s myth to go uncontested, as indeed never made an issue of the human rights abuses there. The Chinese endorsement may be a good point to commence a debate on this, as they are in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions despite being a permanent member.

The Indian response has to be firm and multi-pronged, while recognising that for the first time China has two competing power centres, one the Populist faction led by President Hu Jintao and the other an Elitist faction led by vice-president Xi Jinping, who is to be President in 2012. How much of the hardline posturing is due to this jostling is difficult to say. India needs to fortify its defences, use the trade leverage (largely in China’s favour), reach out with calibrated deliberation to Vietnam and other association of Southeast Asian Nations members who are objects of Chinese assertiveness around the South China Sea and blacklist all Chinese companies doing business in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

– KC Singh is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry