Manmohan Singh and Li Keqiang in New Delhi, May 20, 2013
The sabre-rattling in the Himalaya has been replaced by a cool optimism that India and China will not waste their energies over a desolate frontier where ‘not a blade of grass grows’. The two Asian giants are close to signing the border defence cooperation agreement that lays down the framework for controlling tensions of the kind that nearly scuttled the visit of the Indian foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, to Beijing on May 9 — and the visit of the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, to India later that month. War is too important a matter to be left to generals, so it goes to the credit of Indian and Chinese diplomats (like the national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon, his counterpart in the border talks, the former foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, even India’s envoy in Beijing, S. Jaishankar) that they have pulled back bilateral relations from the brink of a fall that would have cost 2.5 billion people and the rest of Asia dear.
Those closely watching the negotiations on the China-proposed BDCA would argue that this will be one of the ‘sideshow agreements’ needed for a State visit like the one planned for the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, this year in October — the month when the Indian army was routed in the 1962 Himalayan war. Others would say that there is enough in existing treaties like the one signed in 1993 to control border tensions, and this pact was not really needed. But the fact that the two countries have worked hard to finalize a pact to control border face-offs is evidence of the high priority the two Asian giants attach to their bilateral relationship — something that cannot be allowed to wither away in smoke and gunfire on the desolate Himalayan wastes. It is also significant that the Chinese who proposed in January to ‘freeze’ building military infrastructure that would have allowed it to retain the military edge in the Himalaya have finally backed off, leaving the Indians to attempt a catch-up. Their reaction to India raising a mountain strike corps, 45,000 troops with airlift , artillery and armour, after having two mountain divisions in the recent past, has been guarded .
China has more to gain from India than in a battle over a frontier where it enjoys a decisive advantage of terrain and resources. It is not willing to fritter away the impact of Li’s India visit, when he offered the “handshake across the Himalayas” and reminded Delhi that a “close neighbour is often more useful than a distant relative”. A commentator from the influential Beijing think-tank, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, expressed the optimism recently in Global Times that India will stay “non-aligned” and not become a “vassal state of US” because it cannot risk a confrontation with China. The hint is clear when he talks of India’s “economic interests” — India has so much to gain from trade with and investments from China. That was brilliantly argued by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in his August 18 article in The Telegraph (“Jane Eyre from China”). If the United Kingdom, in spite of being so close to US, can welcome Chinese investments with open arms to boost its sagging economy, why should India not do the same?
This is what India’s brilliant envoy in Beijing, S. Jaishankar, has been trying to achieve through the India-China Investment Forum —raising chances of a $160 billion investment in Andhra Pradesh alone. In fact, the foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, wanted the proposed Chinese industrial park to go to his state, Uttar Pradesh, because it promises — and showcases — Chinese investments. Mulayam Singh Yadav, in spite of his fiery Parliament speech on Chinese ‘incursions’, may not disagree. The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, would be a strong competitor anyway. Datta-Ray ’s economic inter-dependence argument is timely, because it envisages a really big Chinese stake in promoting India’s growth and stability — and not in threats, as one hawkish Beijing commentator once said of India that it ‘can be broken into 27 pieces’.
What Britain is doing India should do too — and what Andhra Pradesh or any other Indian state does is suggestive for West Bengal and other eastern and northeastern states. When it comes to attracting Chinese investments, there is no reason why India and its states should not follow the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ rather than the one better known for its cowboys. If 270 companies attended the India-China Investment Forum in February, at least 50 of them, mostly based in Yunnan but also elsewhere in the country, will be participating in the 9th K2K (Kolkata-Kunming) summit due in Calcutta on November 21-22.
This Track Two effort — the only one involving border states like Yunnan and West Bengal — has led to some breakthroughs in the past, like air connectivity between Kunming and Calcutta. The K2k summit in Kunming last year resolved to push the two governments to open the road that would connect Yunnan — China’s ‘bridgehead’ province for developing relations and influence in South and Southeast Asia — with West Bengal. The proposal to open Stilwell Road of World War II vintage was avoided because the Indian defence and commerce ministries are wary of it — instead the route on which the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar car rally took place this February was advocated. Li took this a step further by proposing the BCIM growth corridor all along this proposed highway. India has found the idea of a regional corridor crossing through Bangladesh and Myanmar connecting Calcutta to Kunming worth pursuing. The Li-Singh communiqué promised to “explore” the possibility of this growth corridor than can then potentially link up to Singh’s dream ‘Calcutta-Amritsar’ corridor.
It is natural that overland economic engagement between India and China through India’s east and Northeast and China’s southwest makes sense because these are relatively poor regions of the two countries. So West Bengal and the northeastern states, whose chief ministers are going all the way to Mumbai seeking investments, should push Delhi on the BCIM growth corridor for all that it promises for their states and the sub-region as a whole. India’s Look East policy makes sense only if it involves linking China’s southwest for trade and investment — for southeast Asian countries, the sea makes more sense for obvious reasons. The BCIM growth corridor not only has the potential for attracting huge Chinese investments — it is capable of attracting Bangladesh capital (if it can invest in Tripura’s agro-based and rubber-based industries, why not in West Bengal or Assam?) and other foreign capital, including the Japanese, now rushing into Myanmar.
Fifty Chinese companies have agreed to participate in the 9th K2K summit in Calcutta this November. This is a great opportunity for West Bengal, where the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has announced a new policy to attract investments and rushed to investor summits in Mumbai to sell ‘Advantage Bengal’. But with India in a serious economic downturn, the captains of Indian business may lack both the mood and the wherewithal to oblige her. The Western economies — both the US and the Eurozone — are barely emerging from a long recession and may be less than willing to try out India, let alone West Bengal, as an investment destination. Market watchers say the Chinese option is the only viable one for Banerjee to explore.
The BCIM corridor straddles both the crossroads of civilization and commerce and the K2K is an useful sub-regional supplement to the trans-national BCIM process. States like West Bengal and Assam have a bigger stake in the process — and the sooner their leaders understand it, the better. When Mani Shankar Aiyar, as minister for the department for northeastern states suggested opening out the Northeast to Bangladesh capital, he was only being realistic because Indian private capital has never really taken much interest in the region.
It is not just important to open out India’s Northeast and east as a passage for trans-regional trade because of the spin-offs involved. It is time to get big-ticket investments into the region from neighbouring countries. The BCIM process has the potential to develop the weak infrastructure of the east and Northeast India that will draw investments for a spectrum from traditional manufacturing to plantations to modern service industries like information technology.
The former army chief and Arunachal Pradesh governor, General J.J. Singh, used to rip apart the hawks predicting a Sino-Indian war anytime between 2012 and 2020, describing them as naive. He even advocated the reopening of Stilwell Road, as, indeed, many like the Assam industries minister, Pradyut Bordoloi, have pushed for a while. J.J. Singh advocated “maintaining our guard” and pushed the development of defence and support infrastructure as Arunachal Pradesh’s governor, but he had good reasons to be upset with the hawks who only add to Sino-Indian tensions. They also miss the key point — if India cannot get into a 1971 type conventional war with Pakistan because it is a nuclear power, can China start a 1962 type war with an India which has Agni V capable of hitting Beijing and Shanghai? J.J. Singh also saw the futility of a military argument that Stilwell road will help China in a war — not only because he felt it was a remote possibility but also because the road is already developed in China and Myanmar all the way up to the Indian border and only 60-odd kilometres of it lie inside India. It makes better sense to have a presence on the other side of the road rather than avoid using it and then be taken by surprise if China actually moves troops and material on it.
As India wades into an era of strong regional parties and coalition governments, it is not just important for its new generation of regional leaders to aspire for a ‘larger role’ in Delhi. For that, they have to understand the larger picture first — and the litmus test of their foreign policy acumen begins in the sub-regional dynamics of the BCIM or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, in allowing a Teesta deal or a Land Boundary agreement to go through or a Stilwell Road (or a BCIM highway) to open, so that their states can leverage trans-regional factors to promote corridors of growth rather than be stuck in symbolic sentimentalism that promotes conflicts.