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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Learning To Live With China

There was a surprise in store this week for those who chose to brave Arunachal Pradesh's damp cold and the three-hour rough ride from Tawang up to Bum La Pass, on the border with Tibet. They were greeted by "happy" arches erected by Chinese soldiers on the other side, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in power . The Chinese were preparing to receive Indian soldiers for a celebratory lunch - and some unfinished business on border management.

Most of this bonhomie is likely to evaporate in just over a month's time when the Dalai Lama reaches the 400-year-old Tawang gompa (monastery) to offer prayers. Historically, this region has had a close relationship with the Tibetan people. The sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, for example, was born in Tawang. So, it's not unnatural for the current Dalai Lama (the 14th) to want to pay obeisance at the Tawang gompa. Still, anything that's seen to accommodate the breakaway Tibetans gets Beijing's hackles up, especially when it's on land claimed by the Chinese.

And so it alternates - blow hot, blow cold - in the uncertain relations between India and China: one day, it's jaw-jaw , another day it's claw-claw . The inscrutable Chinese and the argumentative Indian find each other equally indecipherable. It's not surprising, therefore, that India's China policy rides a trough-peak roller coaster.

New Delhi has been playing down media reports of Chinese "incursions" in an apparent bid not to ruffle feathers in Beijing. Almost simultaneously, the ministry of external affairs was lashing out at China for stapling not stamping visas to the passports of Kashmiri Indians, a signal that J&K was disputed.

The rise and rise of China represents one of contemporary history's tectonic shifts. For an India that fancies itself as an emerging superpower, learning to live with an assertive China is one of its greatest foreign policy challenges, especially as its ambitions are sometimes aligned with the Chinese and sometimes at odds. A People's Daily commentary (Sept 15) points out, "India is still a lesser power than China in terms of its economic and military might, both conventional and non-conventional ."

How can New Delhi and Beijing achieve a steady state of equilibrium that gives both sides the comfort of predictability, and a resultant confidence in each other? That's a question nagging not just India's foreign policy mandarins, but students and practitioners of diplomacy worldwide. As one of the architects of India's China policy (who will be unnamed as will be many interviewed for this story) says: "For India, coping with the rise of China is not a luxury; they're right next door."

Indian policy makers find China's approach to India quite mystifying. On the border, China has vastly superior military machinery. Its economic muscle is much bigger. And yet it appears keen to avoid any confrontation along the 4,056-km undemarcated border. But on many issues of bilateral import, China takes a far more belligerent stand - like seeking to nix India's bid for a place at the UN Security Council; mounting a last-minute scramble to stop the nuclear deal in Vienna; trying to keep India out of an Asian economic community ; blocking ADB from giving Arunachal money for a water project; and denying Arunachal residents Chinese visas.

BULLY ON THE BORDER?

Indian officials will tell you China's assertiveness is there for all to see - in Australia, in Japan, with the US. Susan Shirk, former diplomat and author of China: Fragile Superpower , tempers the growing unease about Chinese aggressiveness. "I don't see China as being very assertive ," she told TOI Crest. "Its influence has certainly grown. But China makes a great effort to avoid being seen as aggressive , especially in international organisations and in diplomacy. With neighbours, China has been trying to prevent clashes, but that seems to have changed with India recently."

Shirk is possibly referring to the contrast between Chinese attitude with, say, Russia, with which it has speedily worked out border problems, and its tardiness with India on border issues. In a conversation with TOI Crest, Ashley Tellis, author of Interpreting China's Grand Strategy, described China's reaction to India as "atypical" . "China has generally been muted with the countries on its periphery . Except India."

That's not sinking hopes. Said a senior Indian diplomat, "The last thing China wants now is an aggravation of a dispute with the only other rising power in Asia. They have a greater stake than us in de-escalating problems." China analyst, Claude Arpi, offers a more nuanced view: "While the official stand is still the 'peaceful rise of China' , some PLA generals believe 'China cannot emerge in the midst of nightingale songs and swallow dances' . The official line is to avoid a confrontation that will lead nowhere for China."

A greater symmetry on the border, where India is still at a severe disadvantage , would probably give more traction to this official line. "While China has mobilized huge resources to develop its side of the border , our policy has been to keep the border areas underdeveloped because we believed the inhospitable terrain would deter the Chinese from trying to get to Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims 90,000 sq km of territory," says a senior government official. It's only as recently as five years ago that India woke up and started beefing up both military hardware and border infrastructure.

In 2007, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran in a report proposed a big ramp-up of border infrastructure: for instance, two inter-basin roads spanning four rivers in Arunachal, crossed by seven north-south aligned roads at precisely the points where there is a "perception difference" with the Chinese. In Sikkim, where the Chinese have "activated" what was believed to be a "settled" border, India has only one roadlink (NH-31 A), no railhead or airport.

The pace of construction has been maddeningly slow, often impeded by objections from the environment ministry, understandably hyper-sensitive about anything that threatens to unsettle the delicate eco-system of the eastern Himalayas. The glacial pace has meant that officials have had to think of innovative solutions. In Arunachal, where road building is painfully slow, one official said that entire construction teams were airlifted to the line of actual control (LAC), so that the road could be built backwards ! In any case, India believes it is in its interest now to keep things quiet along the LAC as long as it is hamstrung by sloppy infrastructure and defences.

GLOBAL SWEEPSTAKES

In the global sphere, the story is somewhat different. Despite the pretence that the world is big enough to accommodate the rise of both India and China, the competition remains intense - over markets, construction orders, minerals , land banks - you name it. 
 

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