Cross-border vandalism

Dropping canned food past the expiry date, painting graffiti on boulders—and that we should know now

First, relax. It would be a huge strategic blunder for China to get into a military conflict with India—less initiate one—for two big reasons.

One, nuclear deterrence imposes limits to how much a conventional military conflict can escalate. Even a 1962-like invasion is highly unlike in 2009, because even if the PLA were to somehow pooh-pooh India’s vastly improved conventional defences, China is highly unlikely to want to test whether India’s commitment to nuclear no-first-use is rhetorical or real.

Two, a direct military conflict—whether or not initiated by China—would have the inevitable consequence of pushing India unequivocally into an alliance with the United States. Now, if you are a strategist—of whatever stripe—in Beijing, why would you want to do that? A military conflict with India would not only consolidate two of China’s biggest strategic adversaries but also completely blow the myth of a “peaceful rise” that is behind the success of Chinese diplomacy in East and Central Asia.

With that behind us for now, let’s ask why China is dumping expired canned food off helicopters, and why someone used red paint to deface rocks on the Indian side of the border in Ladakh? After the initial media outrage in India, both the Indian foreign ministry and the armed forces are downplaying reports of these incursions. China, unhelpfully as always, has totally denied that the incursions even happened. It is important to note that these incursions are not recent but have been occurring for several months. Even the notorious helicopter flight took place in early July. Why did the metaphorical solid waste hit the rotor now, when an Indian military delegation is on a goodwill tour of China?

Why?

When in a corner, show teeth

A chastened but sanctimoniously aggressive dragon

Qin Gang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, made some eminently reasonable and sensible points yesterday. The Asian Development Bank’s approval of a loan package to India—which includes financing of a project in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (which China calls ‘Southern Tibet’ and claims as its own)—he said, “can neither change the existence of immense territorial disputes between China and India, nor China’s fundamental position on its border issues with India…On China-India border issues, China always believes that the two sides should seek for a fair and equitable solution acceptable to both through bilateral negotiation.” (via Indrani Bagchi’s Globespotting blog)

In other words, ADB’s approval of a loan doesn’t change the positions of India and China with respect to the territorial dispute, and that bilateral negotiations (not multilateral economic fora like the ADB) are the place to sort the issue out.

So who were those unreasonable and insensible people who thought otherwise? None other than the representatives of the People’s Republic of China. None of their counterparts on ADB’s governing board agreed. Diplomacy being the art it is, it was left to Mr Qin to sound as if it was someone else who was flagrantly violating the norms of conduct at multilateral economic institutions.

The Chinese foreign ministry, however, does not stop at that. Mr Qin goes on the offensive. The ADB, he warns, “should not intervene in the political affairs of its members. The adoption of the document has not only dealt a severe blow to its own reputation but also undermines the interests of its members. The Chinese Government strongly urges the ADB to take effective measures to eliminate the terrible impact thereof.”

China’s entire approach to the ADB loan issue signals a dangerous portent for Asia. It would perhaps have been understandable if China had limited its protest to a symbolic pro forma objection. To transform the ADB as a forum to push its position in a bilateral dispute is an entirely different matter—and one that has serious implications for its relations with its East Asian neighbours, with whom it has unsettled disputes too. A charitable explanation is that it couldn’t back down without losing face once it had fired the first salvo. If you feel less charitable, you will see fresh signs of a deliberate strategy to flex its economic muscles for purely political ends. When zero-sum games are pursued at positive-sum arenas, the latter quickly become the former.

Pro forma protests

Sit up and take note when China doesn’t protest, not when it does

There is no need to get too worked up about China registering its protests at President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. As long as the border issue is not fully and finally settled, China will hold on to its position that parts of Arunachal Pradesh are really Chinese territories illegally occupied by India. So registering a protest pro forma is part of the routine. Not protesting would have been unusual: and India would see it as a ‘concession’. Just why would China concede anything just like that?

Nothwithstanding China’s protests, both the Indian prime minister and president have visited the state in the last couple of years.

For a good overview of the dispute and the way forward on its settlement, check out India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond by Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulet Singh, reviewed in the April 2009 issue of Pragati.

But China might not want a settlement of the border issue at this time, for the dispute itself is a containment device.

On territorial compromises with China

It’s not at all trivial

It’s a seductive argument. That the longstanding border dispute between India and China is trivial. Aksai Chin, which China controls and India claims is not even habitable. Portions of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims are both populated and economically useful. Surely, then, it makes sense for India to agree to a border settlement that swaps Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh. It is the political difficulty of selling the compromise to the emotional Indian people, Arvind Kala writes, that is preventing India from settling the dispute. [Related Post: McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin]

One problem: it is China that is unwilling move ahead towards settling the border dispute. The reasons why it chose to do so underlies why Mr Kala’s arguments are flawed: first, the border dispute is not ‘trivial’, but as even Jawaharlal Nehru recognised, the manifestation of a geopolitical power struggle between India and China. Second, Aksai Chin is not ‘useless’ to India, not least because it is vital to China. And finally, China is not a ‘friend’, no country is. Indeed, Mr Kala fundamentally misreads the nature of international relations when he declares ‘nations are like human beings’, ‘shaped by emotion’. It is possible that it is this anthropomorphism that leads Mr Kala to misleading conclusions. But if at all an analogy can be made, it is more appropriate to say that nations are like wild animals, existing under the law of the jungle. The zoomorphism apart, nations do what is in their interests. And at this time, resolving the dispute is not in China’s interests.

Just like in the case the dispute over Kashmir, it is not uncommon to hear well-meaning people suggest that a territorial compromise is the ticket to peace. But it is naïve and dangerous to believe that giving away territory will automatically cause the other side to go away and leave India in peace. That’s because, by its very nature, a compromise that leaves both sides satisfied will not change the underlying balance of power.

A corollary to this is that a mutually satisfactory solution to the border dispute is only possible when the balance of power is stable and both countries are well reconciled to it. That is hardly the case at this point in time—when India and China are both jockeying for power in Asia and beyond. At this time, it is to be expected that both will be sensitive to relative gains and losses, and for that reason, unwilling to settle the dispute.

Afterword: From one of Nehru’s letters to chief ministers:

“It is a little naïve to think that the trouble with China was essentially due to a dispute over some territory. It had deeper reasons. Two of the largest countries in Asia confronted each other over a vast border. They differed in many ways. And the test was as to whether anyone of them would have a more dominating position than the other on the border and in Asia itself. We do not desire to dominate any country and we are content to live peacefully with other countries provided they do not interfere with us or commit aggression. China, on the other hand, clearly did not like the idea of such a peaceful existence and wants to have a dominating position in Asia.” [As quoted by Kuldip Nayar in Dawn]

How China went back on its commitment

…and India doesn’t even realise that it has been had

Did anyone notice how China’s support for the India-US nuclear deal has been matched by its backward movement on settling the border dispute? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came away with a “Chinese nod for him to underwrite India’s independent foreign policy”—as the Indian Express put it with dreadful (and unintended) irony—the Chinese breach of promise over settling the border dispute went unnoticed. The clever men in Beijing have every reason to be happy with Dr Singh’s visit: they gave away nothing while appearing to give a great deal, and in the bargain, ensured that they clawed back what little they had conceded in the border dispute. The best part for them was that despite all this, it was the Indian media that was celebrating!

Here’s the net outcome of Dr Singh’s visit: China has gone back on its position that the eventual border between the two countries will not disturb existing population centres. It did not show any enthusiasm to exchange official maps—a step that would have set the parameters of a final settlement. It is now not only quibbling over the meaning of the term population centres, but also sending its troops to demolish Indian bunkers. It is bleeding obvious that China wants to keep the dispute alive.

The gains that India achieved under the Vajpayee government have been lost under the UPA. Dr Singh’s visit only confirmed that. China could do this because it realised that Pakistan could no longer be used as a strategic lever against India after 9/11. It also realised that it could use the divisiveness of India’s domestic politics instead. The Left parties were anyway batting for Beijing, the BJP played into its hands and the Congress Party lacked the political sagacity to forge a non-partisan consensus on the nuclear deal. The Communists have reason to be pleased with the visit. But for others, there is no reason to celebrate.

The passage of the nuclear deal was only a matter of time. It was essentially a fait accompli for Beijing. Yet the UPA government and sections of the media projected Beijing’s blessings as a way to secure the approval of the Indian Communists. This came at a terribly expensive price: India didn’t lift as much as finger while China turned back on what it had agreed on the border dispute.

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