Left behind for long, we must catch up
Ashok K Mehta
The most powerful President of China since Mao, Xi Jinping visited India from 17th September 2014, armed with charm, guile and $100 billion. My mother used to say, “With Pakistan you act tough but when it comes to China you become docile”. After all, the Chinese inflicted a humiliating Himalayan defeat in 1962. China’s tumultuous economic and military rise has left India way behind, nursing an inferiority complex. That imposes costs and diminishes leverage and bargaining power to settle border disputes. But now, worried that India may align itself with the US, China has offered a strategic and cooperative partnership agreement.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Earnest is seeking the hand of his beloved, Gwendolyn. While probing his status, Lady Bracknell enquires about his family. She is informed that he has lost both his parents. “To lose one parent”, she tells Earnest “is unfortunate.” “But to lose both is carelessness”. New Delhi has been both unfortunate and careless in carrying the baggage of two unsettled borders with all-weather allies, China and Pakistan. The indirect cost of unsettled borders is nearly five percent of the GDP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has wisely identified growth and strength to boost influence and bargaining power.
From offering a swap deal in the 1960s, China raised the stakes from concessions in the East for concessions in the West, to demanding concessions in both sectors. It spurned the clarification of Line of Actual Control and exchange of maps, and has now stalled the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for settling the border dispute. According to a mandarin in South Block, during the Special Representatives talks, the addition of the word “due” – on the insistence of the Chinese – to the parameter on settled populations, created ambiguities to the detriment of Indian interests. .
On a visit to Beijing last year, I was told by eminent geo-strategists from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations that a resolution of the border dispute was difficult for three reasons: Absence of strong leadership that can make compromises; public opposition to concessions; and differences in perceptions of agreed parameters and principles for finding an agreed border solution.
Not only have the Special Representatives talks run aground, but the People’s Liberation Army with the full backing of the Central Military Commission has been acting assertively in Ladakh all of last year and continues to transgress the LAC despite a host of existing confidence-building measures including the latest Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. Keeping the border peaceful helps trade and commercial relations to thrive and the skewed bilateral trade increase to $100 billion by 2016. The UPA ended its two innings with an undistinguished score of ‘managing differences’ on the border. It had created no usable leverages to alter the strategic balance currently favourable to China; Beijing has used its enormous geo-economic advantage to ensure that its view prevails.
The potential for creating a more level-playing field is in sight. India’s near neighbours and key international players have recognised that the Narendra Modi Government is the first non-Congress regime to be returned with a strong leader and a massive mandate. This allows both the pursuit of strategic autonomy and strategic flexibility, largely unencumbered by domestic politics, to follow Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies…Our interests alone are eternal and perpetual…”
The post-UPA era provides profound opportunities which have to be operationalised with political and diplomatic finesse to enlarge Delhi’s strategic space. The first few small but meaningful steps have already been taken in the Asian balance of power without seemingly containing China. Modi’s visit to Japan, which heralded a strategic and global partnership – and which China’s Global Times noted was to India’s peril – fetched notable strategic and economic dividends and also made a huge symbolic splash. President Pranab Mukherjee travelled to Vietnam and secured new oil exploratory rights in the contested South China Sea. Tony Abbot’s visit yielded not just Australian uranium but strategic endorsement of India’s primacy in the Indian Ocean Area. Later this month, Modi will address the UN and become a privileged visitor to Barack Obama’s White House, re-setting relations with the only superpower, the US. Months before Modi occupied 7 RCR, vigorous debates in Washington’s think-tanks considered whether swing state India would lean towards the US or China. As New Delhi has no treaty agreement with any country (the last was with the USSR), it will be able to secure its from a multi-polar world.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has already stressed that for China to get India to reaffirm the ‘One China’ policy (Tibet and Taiwan), it must endorse the ‘One India’ policy (Arunachal Pradesh). She also clarified that the remark by Modi in Japan about expansionism (reference to China) was not directed against any one country. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, while in Beijing, said that China-India relations were poised for an ‘orbital jump’ given that the two countries had powerful, popular and decisive leaders. But on whether this factor alone would result in the resolution of the border dispute, he was not sure.
This evening, on the Sabarmati waterfront, the two leaders will have a quiet chat on ways to move India-China relations into a higher orbit by fixing the trust deficit and fast-tracking settlement of border dispute. President Xi should accord priority to this problem instead of leaving it to future generations, by pledging to resolve it in his 10-year presidency – and in the interim, return to the unfinished work of clarification of the LAC in the next three years. Such a commitment will be the most durable CBM, far more reassuring than the statement by Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao that “China has never and will not use so-called military or other means to try and hem in India”. Beijing, recognising India as a nuclear-weapon state, supporting India for permanent membership of the UNSC and clarifying its nexus with Pakistan, will comfort New Delhi.