Contained by China

The border dispute is an intentional thorn in India’s side

Two years* ago, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India the two countries agreed on a set of principles that would be used to determine the final settlement of the decades old border dispute. When borders are redrawn, it was agreed, they would not disturb settled populations in either country. But China’s position has undergone a sea change since then. Yang Jiechi, China’s new foreign minister, recently stated that the mere presence of settled populations does not affect China’s territorial claims. Mr Yang’s statement confirmed what a series of events—including the Chinese ambassador’s remarks last December, its refusal to issue visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh (thereby implying that they are Chinese nationals) and the lack of progress in the latest round of high-level border talks—suggested: China’s negotiating position has hardened. Why and why now?

Well, because China sees the border dispute as an instrument in its policy to contain India. Inscrutable though it might sometimes appear, China’s strategy towards India involves a combination of co-operation and containment. It co-operates with India—both bilaterally and in multilateral fora—to the extent that such co-operation is not only mutually beneficial, but also relatively more advantageous to China. So while there is some India-China co-operation in the domain of trade and investment, China is more inclined to compete in the global quest for energy resources despite attempts by India to prevent bidding wars.

Co-operation however, is limited to the extent that it does not adversely affect China’s strategy of confining India to the subcontinent. Globalisation and India’s transformation into a major regional power are changing the dynamics of containment—while India’s larger regional role is taking it to the Eastern Pacific, Central Asia and Africa, China has made significant military and economic inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Containment was historically effected by three instruments—indirectly through the UN Security Council and strategic proxies and directly through the border dispute.

After India’s 1998 nuclear tests, the Kargil war and 9/11, China could no longer act through the ‘international community’
to use nuclear proliferation and the Kashmir issue to press India. But it has enhanced its use of strategic proxies— in addition to its long-time cultivation of Pakistan, it has added Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal to its list. However, India’s strategic partnership with the United States and an emerging quadrilateral ‘alliance of democracies’ involving Australia and Japan in addition to the two is well-placed to counter these moves.

Hence the need to keep the border dispute alive as a thorn in India’s side. That Beijing has managed to settle all its border disputes except the one with India suggests its utility to China more than it exposes ‘democratic India’s inability to compromise’. The timing of the hardening of China’s position on the border dispute, moreover, is consistent with ongoing regional power alignments. But it has been assisted by presence of a Communist party-supported ruling coalition in New Delhi. The Indian Left, being pro-China, will hardly allow the Indian government to take a stronger line against China. Meanwhile, public statements from the UPA government disavow balance-of-power geopolitics. It remains to be seen if these statements actually reflect its foreign policy thinking. It would be unfortunate if this were so, not least because it would be a repetition of Nehru’s mistakes in the late 1950s. Clearly then, there is an urgent need for India to review the way in which it engages China.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is caught in a reactive mode—building infrastructure in remote border regions in response to China. If done with due care to the environment this is a positive outcome of the rivalry between the two countries. Yet roads and railways do not always buy affection and China in any case can build them much faster than India can. A far more effective way for India to bring its most distant citizens into the national mainstream would be to empower them through tangible political equality. Reconstituting the Rajya Sabha along the lines of the American Senate—and giving states like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland the same number of seats as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the rest—will not only be far more effective than big but leaky development programmes but is also more democratic. It is also be a move that China cannot match.

This article was first published in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review, No 4 | July 2007.

6 thoughts on “Contained by China”

  1. The first and important necessity for India to respond to the Chinese (or any other) threat is to have an independent and competent executive. Until we keep our foreign, security and defense policy captive of legislators, very little progress can be made.
    As an aside, check the first line Nitin. Should it not read “two years ago”?

  2. Sriram,
    Until we keep our foreign, security and defense policy captive of legislators, very little progress can be made.

    On the contrary, our policies might be better than they are if they were even debated by our imperfect legislators. They don’t debate these issues as much as they used to; policies and decisions are prepared by NSA Narayanan and his clique and cleared by ministers and cabinet committees. Legislators just vote along party lines.

    Dragging policy debates into parliament is a good idea. Much has been made of legislators wasting time in parliament; and this has been used to justify transfer of authority to the cabinet. Perhaps we’re mixing the cause and effect: the legislators do nothing useful because they are not given anything useful to do.

  3. Dragging policy debates into parliament is a good idea.

    But the quality of legislators and their warped notions of national interest and people’s cause chills ones spines. One only have to have a look at the debates of 1975 session when person after person employed rhetoric to justify the perversion. The best thing to do is to have legislators arrive at a framework and let the executive handle the details. I dont know if that would work either.

  4. Sriram

    But the quality of legislators and their warped notions of national interest and people’s cause chills ones spines.

    As Uncle Winston said, democracy is the worst form of government save the alternatives.

    Both realism and faith in democracy make it incumbent upon us to work with (and attempt to change) the people and institutions we have—however imperfect they might be.

    Indeed, the thrust of the argument in this post, as well as in recent email discussions with readers, is that India must counter China by being more like itself, than being more like China.

  5. Nitin, India should remain a democracy but I wonder how representative (of national interest and people’s interest) that is. With declining voter turnout in elections, it becomes easy to win an election by securing a chunk (read caste) – say 10% of the overall votes. Do you want to trust foreign/defense/security policy in the hands of someone who cannot (and has not) see(n) beyond his caste base?

  6. Sriram, I have agree with Nitin with regards to debate in parliament. It’s not so much that every one of 500 odd members will be experts in foreign policy. Few will be and they will provide a guidance to the rest. Obviously a few will have their own agenda – Commies will always support China in Indian parliaments and will always be anti-US. Instead of doing their biding via surrogates at the likes CNN-IBN and the Hindu, they can at least layout their cards openly in the debate.

    But MEA and PMO are comfortable with the current arrangement. They don’t have to bother with opposition or even their own party legislatures and pesky debates. A speech here, a speech there, with media leaks and seal a border deal with no input from lawmakers. If these guys had any power, Arunachal MPs (and others) would have dragged Manmohan and MEA over the coals for saying China is our great neighbour even as it wants to swallow up a big chunk of the country.

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