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Signature moves

India's political will is being tested by China

By Kanwal Sibal
  • Published 20.07.17
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India's China-challenge is mounting with Beijing's growing power, its swelling hubris and increasing acts of bullying. China is utterly self-centred in its thinking and considers its self-defined interests paramount. It decides unilaterally the scope of its sovereign rights and, based on its own version of history and facts, determines when they are being violated. It uses offensive and undignified language in diplomatic communications, exposing the crude facet of China's ruling class.

All these reprehensible traits are visible in its dealings with India. To take only the recent years into account, there has been a spate of serious provocations against India. New Delhi has absorbed these blows and preferred engagement to confrontation for many reasons, not the least because of the expanding power gap with China and the realization that the cost of aggravated tensions would be higher for India than for China. This has only encouraged China to be patronizing in its dealings with India and to brush aside its legitimate concerns. This has happened even as the two countries have maintained regular contact at the top leadership-level, with numerous meetings, whether bilateral, during international conferences, or within the Russia-India-China format or the format of BRICS. Therefore, it is not lack of contact or communication at the highest levels that would explain China's objectionable behaviour towards India.

The roots lie elsewhere - in China's determination to be Asia's leading power, which necessitates curbing India's rise as a rival power as much as possible. To this end, China keeps the border issue alive in order to keep India under pressure. It bolsters Pakistan, tries to erode India's influence in its own region by various means and wants to steer India towards participation in its grand geopolitical design represented by the Belt and Road Initiative. If India joined the project, it would consolidate China's uncontested primacy in Asia. With the setting up of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has already marked its leadership position and, by accommodating this fact in the bank's structures, obtained India's endorsement of this China-led institution. The crux of India's China problem is that while India deals with China from a sense of weakness, China deals with it from a feeling of strength. Chinese commentators frequently underline the widening gap in national power between the two countries and the fact that the Chinese economy is five times larger than India's .

China is fully responsible for the sharpening undertones of the India-China relationship. A series of provocations have come from Beijing. China has aggressively revived its claims on Arunachal Pradesh, naming the area "South Tibet" to uphold its territorial claims, giving fictitious Chinese names to districts in Arunachal Pradesh with the same intent, protesting with temerity when our leaders visit the state, admonishing India for complicating the issue by developing infrastructure in the area - commenting even on the recent inauguration of the bridge in Assam that would facilitate access to Arunachal Pradesh - and, not the least, by making the cession of Tawang to China as a precondition for Beijing to consider a resolution of the border issue.

In Ladakh, China staged the Depsang incident to coincide with the visit of its prime minister to India in 2013; it staged the Chumar incident in 2014, when the Chinese president was making his visit to India. Its earlier provocations included giving stapled visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, refusing a visa to India's army commander in Jammu and Kashmir for official defence-level talks, shortening the length of the India-China border by excluding Jammu and Kashmir (and Arunachal Pradesh), which implied that it was not Indian territory. It has announced the China-Pakistan economic corridor in full knowledge of India's legal claim to this territory under illegal Pakistani occupation and India's known objections to Chinese presence there. It is unbothered that this initiative totally contradicts the position it takes on Arunachal Pradesh, where it disputes India's sovereignty. China is not concerned about its inconsistent positions as, presumably, it believes that its big power status now entitles it to the same double standards that it has been decrying in the case of other established big powers.

In addition to all this, China has not ceased to oppose India's membership to the nuclear suppliers group, despite Narendra Modi raising the subject with Xi Jinping. China has linked India's membership of the NSG to that of Pakistan in a policy of hyphenating the two countries, taking the cue from the Americans. By this, it seeks to achieve the political objective of treating India as only a regional south Asian power. This hyphenation downgrades India's stature in comparison to that of Pakistan. China has continued to oppose the designation of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist by the United Nations. Its call for India to settle the issue with Pakistan is again intended to sideline India's views and concerns as merely regional, and therefore ones to be resolved in that limited context.

All these provocations from China have come in spite of the establishment of the special representative mechanism to prepare the basis for resolving the border issue. In fact, by stepping up its claims on Arunachal Pradesh, staging incidents in Ladakh and generally poisoning the atmosphere of relations, China has deliberately hollowed out the purpose of setting up the mechanism. To boot, by claiming Tawang, it has violated Article VII of the 1995 agreement on 'Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question' for safeguarding the due interests of the settled populations.

The latest Chinese provocation in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan, which abuts Sikkim and is a matter of great security sensitivity for India, is part of China's growing belief - confirmed by the lack of any retribution for its aggressive postures in the South China Sea - that it has now become too strong and important to be made answerable for its arbitrary and illegal actions. It is India that is threatened through the Chumbi valley, not the reverse. China is disturbing the status quo in the tri-junction area in violation of its understandings with Bhutan and India, as pointed out in the official statements of both countries. China is also aware of the security arrangements between Bhutan and India and, having created a situation that would inevitably trigger India's intervention, China cannot accuse India or Bhutan of precipitating the current face-off. If China is committed to the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas - which includes the tri-junction area - its attempt to build a road on the disputed Doklam plateau in order to increase the threat to the Siliguri corridor calls that commitment into serious question.

Besides, China's attempt to build a road that gives it a security advantage violates Article III of the 1995 agreement, which speaks of a "package settlement" to the boundary question, covering all sectors of the India-China boundary. The tri-junction is logically covered by this article. It violates Article IV that stipulates that the two sides will give due consideration to each other's "strategic and reasonable interests, and the principle of mutual and equal security". China's action in the Chumbi valley violates the principle of equal security.

India's political will is being tested by China with its latest provocation. India must stand firm at all costs to thwart China's hegemonic ambitions.


The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com