A small toothache that has paralysed body
Ashok K Mehta
When the National Democratic Alliance Government came to power last year, its main advocacy was that it was a ‘different’ and more muscular government than the previous one, and would not be pushed around. In foreign policy, its first show of strength was in suspending dialogue with Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s deep but bold embrace of the US in venturing jointly into the South China Sea was perceived as a strategic alliance that China’s Global Times described as “India sliding into the Western trap”. Modi’s visit to China, barely eight months after President Xi Jinping’s to New Delhi which produced a 28-para joint statement defining Closer Development Partnership, is intended to
re-order relations, emphasising the economic content.
That the Chinese will not deviate from their delaying strategy on a border settlement was made clear when Xi ignored, during the joint press conference, Modi’s request for clarification of Line of Actual Control after the failure of the Special Representatives talks to find a political framework.
Referring to the Chumar border stand-off during Xi’s India visit, Prime Minister Modi told him, using a Chinese euphemism that “a little toothache can paralyse the entire body”. The focus now, like in the past, is in keeping the LAC calm and avoiding the showdowns of 2013 and 2014 in Ladakh. An unprecedented number of meetings took place – on April 14, 20, 24 and May 1 – to ensure that the LAC did not steal the limelight from the Modi visit.
In his book, India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement, Ranjit Singh Kalha says that in March 2000, having agreed to initiating a process for the clarification and determination of the LAC in all sectors of the border, maps of the central sector were exchanged. On June 17, 2002, both sides met again and maps of the western sector were seen by both sides for 20 minutes.
Soon, maps were hastily returned due to major differences and the LAC alignment process simply petered out by 2005. Similarly, the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settling of the Boundary Question (April 2005) implied a package deal. Article VII of the Agreed Parameters read: “In reaching a border settlement, two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in border areas.”
This would cover Tawang, which the Chinese covet. Soon they backtracked, invoking Article V of the Guiding Principles that referred to ‘national sentiment’, which was against parting with territory. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who mentioned “out-of-the-box” thinking, has apparently read Kalha’s book and briefed Modi. Whether to press for the clarification on the LAC as an interim solution or move on with trade and commerce, is the question.
A Minister in the earlier NDA Government, Mr Arun Shourie, last month described China as an adversary who “rains evil”. Mr Modi has been quoted as saying that India and China are two bodies with one soul, a turnabout from what he said last year about expansionist China in Japan. Diplomacy is the art of verbal gymnastics that the Indian Prime Minister has mastered. The Pentagon’s annual report (2014) titled, ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’, has noted that while tensions remain on the India-China border, Beijing continues to pursue a long-term comprehensive military modernisation programme, designed to improve its Armed Forces’ capacity to fight short- duration high-intensity regional conflicts. A Chinese defence White Paper confirmed that the PLA would be ready for such a war by 2025.
China’s blatant arming of iron brother Pakistan with conventional weapons, nuclear and missile technology, and lately economic assistance, ensures it keeps India tied down to the neighbourhood. As China now matters more for Pakistan’s economic future, Beijing will not let Pakistan fail. The $46 billion worth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through the disputed territory of Northern Areas in Jammu and Kashmir, is billed to lift Pakistan out of its financial and energy crisis.
Not only has China succeeded in making India commit one-third of its military on the border, it has also put Pakistan at par in the military balance with India, emboldening it to upscale its campaign of cross-border terrorism. China’s upgradation of its String of Pearls strategy encircling India, has a new name – Maritime Silk Route.
This will be supported by Chinese outreach to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar and to the Arabian Sea through the CPEC to Gwadar, providing access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. China has also strenuously engaged in subverting India’s interests in the latter’s backyard – Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It has used its economic wealth to establish a foothold in India’s neighbourhood. China uses a plethora of political economic, diplomatic and intelligence means of undermining India’s rise and growth so that it can never become a rival and competitor.
Modi goes to Beijing as militarily and economically an unequal dialogue partner. This allows Beijing to exercise coercion to dilute the statement of India’s core concerns. As little new is likely to come out on the border dispute, except the need to keep the LAC peaceful and tranquil, Modi must emphatically raise the proposed construction of the CPEC through Gilgit-Baltistan and the presence of PLA soldiers and engineers in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. China prevented the International Monetary Fund from funding a hydel project in Arunachal Pradesh in 2008, which it claimed as South Tibet.
Now that the SR talks have reached a cul de sac, Modi should propose reviving the process of delineation of the LAC and exchange of maps till both sides are ready for a border settlement. Beijing will be loath to accept this proposal as any LAC map-marking is likely to freeze the status quo, something it wants to avoid in order to possess Tawang, the home of the 6th Dalai Lama and possible point of advantage in choosing the next Dalai Lama.
Modi’s eye is on China’s nearly four trillion dollar reserves. His priority is correcting the widening bilateral trade deficit which accounts for $167 billion in favour of China since 2007. This deficit makes for more than half the current account deficit of India. The Indian Prime Minister wants Xi to spur investment in India. On his last visit, Xi pledged $20 billion over the next five years for various projects in India.
Modi should not overlook a little toothache if the body is to remain fit. The only way of dealing with China is from a position of strength and to create leverages. India has failed on both counts.