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Time not ripe for PM’s visit to China
 
A full-scale review of the state of play, both in respect of bilateral relations and China’s relations with other countries, Pakistan above all, is called for before any such move is contemplated.

By SAURABH KUMAR




The next round of Special Representative-level talks must not be fixed mechanically or in a hurry, but only after probing at the diplomatic level confirms Chinese readiness to move out of the groove the talks have stuck into in recent years

The Chinese are said to be pressing for a visit by Prime Minister Modi in early 2015. It will be unfortunate if the Indian side gets busy debating dates dutifully, without addressing itself to the root question — advisability or inadvisability of the idea, as such, in a strategic perspective.

This is no knee-jerk hawkishness on China. India-China relations are sui generis, quite unlike any other bilateral relationship. High-level visits between them need to be carefully prepared, especially in the present circumstances when the relationship is in a state of flux — with a fresh clearing-of-the-cobwebs approach by the BJP Government in India, on the one hand, and potentially far-reaching political developments in the offing in China’s neighbourhood and globally, on the other.  A full-scale review of the state of play, both in respect of bilateral relations and China’s relations with other countries, Pakistan above all, is called for before any such move is contemplated.  Some pointers follow.

Boundary Talks: The state of play

The question of questions for India is whether China is ready to change its approach to the boundary issue — of calculated procrastination of a settlement (see box) — now, in deference to the demarche made to the Chinese President by the PM himself. The answer will be known only when the NSA picks up the thread on the talks — now in their 18th round —in his capacity as the PM’s Special Representative.

Indications so far are that it is business-as-usual at the Chinese end. This is mainly the result of the methodology followed (at Chinese instance) — of the paraphernalia of a “three-stage road map”, proceeding “top-down” from abstractions (such as “principles” and “parameters”) to a “framework” for a settlement before getting down to specifics of territorial adjustments. The utility of this approach is questionable, especially in the light of the Indian experience with the 2005 “Agreement on Political Parameters & Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question”.

That Agreement was widely hailed at that time (including by seasoned China experts, not just laymen) as a breakthrough. This was because of its Article VII, which provided that the boundary “should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and that both countries would “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas” while reaching a “boundary settlement” — a formulation that was naively assumed (on the Indian side) as presaging Chinese readiness to finally drop their claims in the Eastern sector (i.e., Arunachal Pradesh) as part of a package deal involving Indian concessions in the Western sector (i.e., Aksai Chin).

The very next year China put paid to all such expectations, with its Ambassador in New Delhi publicly (re)asserting claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of his President’s visit to India. Moreover, the Chinese let it be known informally that any interpretation of Article VII envisaging concessions from the Chinese side would not be realistic.

That happened despite the fact that the 2005 Joint Statement had promised — nay committed — pursuit of “early settlement of the boundary question” as a “strategic objective”. It is a feat of Chinese diplomacy that it managed to do just the opposite in less than a year and a half, without raising eyebrows about the country’s standing as a “strategic partner” of India in the Indian discourse!

It is time, therefore, for the Special Representatives (SR) to return to basics. The “top-down” approach should be reversed to a “bottom-up” one (i.e., one beginning with the specifics of the eventual boundary alignment) so as to enable quick movement towards a settlement now finally. That would be a truly “political” approach, one entailing true “negotiations” and not just “talks”.

The next round of SR-level talks must not be fixed mechanically or in a hurry, but only after probing at the diplomatic level confirms Chinese readiness to move out of the groove the talks have gotten into in recent years and break new ground on the above lines.

Moreover, the Indian side must go prepared with a crystal clear idea of the alignment of the boundary it would be ready to sign on. And press for it with conviction unhesitatingly. For the present is a pivotal moment in the relationship and the time,  therefore, just right for such a “make or break” move, while the SRs (and their principals) — all free of the baggage of the past, fortunately — together cogitate on the next steps.And the PM’s visit, in turn, likewise be decided upon only after the SRs succeed in breaking new ground, as above —not otherwise. The boundary question is, however, not the only reason for that recommendation.

Sino-Pakistan nexus

The shadow play relating to the border takes place in a crass “confidence deficit” context created by an anything but benign Sino-Pak nexus (that continues unfazed and unchanged, moreover, even after India’s acceptance of China as a “strategic partner” in 2005). That factor was also underlined to the Chinese President by PM Modi plainly in his reservations regarding the Chinese initiatives for trans-country/continent connectivity with far-reaching strategic implications that China wishes to enlist India for. China’s response in this respect will naturally also be a major consideration on the Indian side as it takes stock of the relationship in the post-Xi Jinping visit scenario. The mutual pledge by both countries to show “respect and sensitivity for each other’s concerns” cannot, after all, be a one-sided affair limited to the future of Tibet and Taiwan only.

China’s External Environment

Furthermore, China has emerged as a concern for several countries in its neighbourhood, thanks to its muscle-flexing on territorial issues in recent years. The diplomatic dust raised by the recent round of high-level confabulations in the Asia-Pacific region is yet to settle down. Important decisions with a bearing on the security architecture of the region are likely to be taken in the coming period, with an eye on the strategic challenge posed by an expansionist and assertive China.

‘Pause’ mode for India-China relations

India would, therefore, do well to press the “pause” button to allow all these different factors — bilateral, regional and global — to play themselves out and mature in a natural manner. And to use the interregnum, inter alia, for a radical review of its diplomacy with China over the last four decades (of ‘normalisation’ of relations) — thrice the duration, notably, of its interaction with China in the pre-’62 phase — with a view to devising more effective pathways for a more fruitful engagement with that country in the future.

Looking back to look ahead

In particular, we need to ask the question (never raised in the strategic discourse in the country, strangely) whether the 1988 decision to give in to China’s insistence on setting the boundary issue aside was wise. (Until then, the Indian position was essentially just the opposite: PM Vajpayee had, in 1979, not accepted Deng Xiaoping’s plea to leave the boundary question to future generations. “Kal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab”, he had countered in his inimitable witty style. The foundations for that commonsensical approach were laid by late President KR Narayanan, the first Indian Ambassador to China after 1962, who was hand-picked by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1976 to explore possibilities of a dignified reconciliation.)

What did India get in return? Possibly some kind of a promise on settlement of the boundary but the Joint Working Group mechanism set up for this purpose made no headway in its 15 years. And the SR process that succeeded it has also not delivered, with its 17 rounds over a decade plus; well set to extend indefinitely.

Likewise happened with the 2005 decision to conclude a “strategic partnership” with China. The Chinese would, understandably, have been keen for it — to facilitate their efforts to blur strategic faultlines and sow seeds of for confusion on the global strategic landscape — but what was the compulsion for India to concede it, in advance of a settlement on the border, (with Sino-Pak relations being what they were, and still are)? And ahead of Japan, which had to make do, in that same month — April 2005 — with no more than a “strategic orientation” to its “Global Partnership” with India (established much earlier, in 2000) and wait another year and a half, till Dec 2006, before it could secure a full-fledged “Strategic and Global Partnership” with India? Could the description “constructive and cooperative partnership”, already agreed to just two years earlier during the visit of PM Vajpayee, not have done as well?

As with 1988, the unanswered — indeed unasked — question about 2005 is what did India secure in return for such a major  “give”? And, at any hand, what did that step yield, whatever the considerations behind its conception?

Lessons (to be) learnt

The defensiveness in India’s diplomacy is sometimes sought to be justified in the name of realpolitik — China’s rising economic strength and presumed power potential all round. But that does not hold water, ignoring as it does China’s overall political isolation and adverse strategic scenario regionally and globally.Lessons must be learnt from these (and other) strategic misjudgments in a spirit of introspection. What India-China relations require is a careful course correction, not (intellectually) lazy stumbling into yet another high-level interaction as an end in itself. That will throw away a historic opportunity of resetting political ties with the nation’s power obsessed Northern neighbour to national advantage.

Already, the leverage inherent in change of incumbency was wasted as a result of inexperience of the Government, which ill-advisedly rushed to receive the Chinese Foreign Minister within days of assuming office in May and, in the process, unthinkingly endorsed the vacuous “strategic partnership” inherited by it. Holding back on (commitment of the new BJP Government to) the strategic partnership, on the unexceptionable ground that it would need time to review the state of play, could have fetched the nation a handsome political price for that affirmation, unsolicited.

(The writer is a former Ambassador with a background on China, nuclear and other strategic issues. He has written this article exclusively for The Pioneer. The detailed version of the same is available at IDSA website)

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