Originally Published 2010-12-31 00:00:00 Published on Dec 31, 2010
India has seldom been demanding on strategic issues. At the strategic level, one requires a long memory and a longer foresight and vision. With China, we need to balance our strategic, security and economic relationships.
India-China talks: Never ignore India's strategic interests
One does not require much intelligence to realise that India-China relations over the territorial integrity of India have been on the back-slide for some time. After the joint statement of the Prime Ministers of India and China in April 2005, the Chinese government has backed out on the principle which accepted that “in reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”. In November 2006, in complete disregard of diplomatic norms, the Chinese Ambassador in India publicly announced China’s claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Since then China has called this Indian state as Southern Tibet. It strongly opposed a proposal in the Asian Development Bank for a soft loan for some hydel power stations in the state. It protested when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Arunachal Pradesh, and when the Dalai Lama visited Tawang.

About three years ago, China started issuing “stapled visas” to visitors from Jammu and Kashmir, thus bringing into question the status of J&K as part of India. It refused a visa to Lt-Gen B.S. Jamwal, GOC-in-C, Northern Command, who was to make an official visit to China as part of ongoing military-level exchanges. Meanwhile, it has increased its civil and military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), purportedly to improve infrastructure there. Among the infrastructure reconstruction projects to be given priority are those related to the repair, upgradation and recommissioning of the Karakoram Highway, which was damaged recently. China also plans to construct railway tracks and oil pipelines from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Pakistan.

Much, therefore, was expected when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who had signed the joint statement in April 2005, visited India on December 15-17. But the sheer inanity of the India-China joint communiqué issued after the talks between the two Prime Ministers came as a surprise and disappointment. The joint communiqué had much to state on developments and new benchmarks in the economic and cultural fields. On other strategic issues, however, there was only the often repeated “firm commitment to resolving the outstanding differences, including the boundary question, at an early date through peaceful negotiations”, and the “commitment to the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question agreed in 2005 and the process of negotiations being undertaken by the Special Representatives”.

From Delhi, Premier Wen Jiabao went to Islamabad. There he highlighted China’s economic solidarity with Pakistan and the growing strategic partnership and military relations between the two countries. When top leaders of Pakistan’s defence forces called on him (in India, the Services Chiefs were not invited by the President or the Prime Minister to the meetings and dinners hosted for the Chinese Premier), he agreed to their proposals to enhance military links. Addressing a joint session of the two Houses of the Pakistan Parliament, Wen Jiabao stated, “To cement and advance the all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation between China and Pakistan is our common strategic choice… The two neighbouring countries are brothers forever. China-Pakistan friendship is full of vigour and vitality, like a lush tree with deep roots and thick foliage. China-Pakistan relationship is strong and solid, like a rock standing firm despite the passage of time.” Talking to the media after Wen’s address to Parliament, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik described it as a strong message to the “enemies” of Pakistan.

Recently, it has come to light that Beijing perceives the length of the common border with India to be about 2000-km, around 1600 km less than what is believed by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. On December 14, 2010, Indian Ambassador S. Jaishankar in an interview to a Chinese newspaper, Global Times, had stated the length of the common border to be 3,488 km. The newspaper, while publishing this interview, added its own comment: “There is no settled length of the common border. The Chinese Government often refers to the border length as being about 2,000 km.”

Such a discrepancy is too large to be treated as an inadvertent error by China. This, in fact, is the length of the boundary/LAC that separates J&K with Xinjiang and Tibet, which is not being recognised by China. The Chinese are known to be far-sighted and deliberate on such strategic issues and statements. They have made the figure 2,000 km as a new norm in the official characterisation of the border with India.

The boundary confusion gets further confounded as the length of the India-China border is considered by the Ministry of Defence to be 4,056 km and not 3,488 km as stated by the Indian Ambassador. This length includes 2,175 km in the western sector (including PoK, the Shaqsgam valley — ceded by Pakistan to China in an India-disputed agreement in March 1963 — and Aksai Chin), 556 km in the central sector, and 1,325 km in the eastern sector.

It is now becoming obvious that in the India-China boundary discussions, (a) India seems to have given up its claim to PoK, Shaqsgam and Aksai Chin; (b) China has knocked off almost the whole of the Western sector boundary; and (c) by reducing nearly 1,600 km from its definition of border with India and questioning Indian sovereignty over J&K, it has added a new twist to the India-China boundary dispute.

The strategic implications of such a move can be as follows: One, China has become a new factor in the Indo-Pak debate over J&K. Two, the India-China boundary dispute may get divided into two parts. While the eastern and middle sectors remain a bilateral issue, the western sector becomes a trilateral issue involving India, China and Pakistan. Three, repeated references to the length of the India-China border as 2,000 km with the exclusion of the boundary that separates J&K from Xinjiang and Tibet would impact any future global discourse on J&K relating to subjects like construction and international loans or the financing of development projects. Four, China can now question India’s locus standi to discuss the western sector while its own territorial integrity and authority over Aksai Chin remains secure. Five, in the security scenario and defence planning for the western sector, Indian armed forces would now have to seriously factor in joint, two-front Pakistan-China threats.

Without going into other Chinese military-related developments in Tibet and the Indian Ocean, it is obvious that India-China economic and security relations are moving in opposite trajectories. The competitive relationship over our long-term security interests outweighs the cooperative one in trade, commerce and culture. China is known to be assertive in its diplomacy over security and military issues. Strategically, it will attempt to exploit our appeasement postures to its advantage. It will become more aggressive and create new pressures on the border issues as it completes its projected military modernisation.

India, on the other hand, is perceived as a soft state. Our leaders and governments, more often than not, have lacked strategic thinking. There is a sense of self-righteousness and singular faith in words without looking for underlying falsehoods and incompetence. We have seldom been demanding on strategic issues. At the strategic level, one requires a long memory and a longer foresight and vision. With China, we need to balance our strategic, security and economic relationships. Our dialogue with China must not compromise our present or future national interests. I hope that we will not agree to any change in the ground rules, which may restrict the border talks only to the eastern and middle sectors and exclude the western sector.

(The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff)

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