Testing Chinese waters

India finds that China is unwilling to move towards a final settlement of the border dispute. (But let’s leave Taiwan out of it)

These days, it appears, official interactions between India and China are getting ever closer. Leaders are visiting each other more frequently, as are foreign ministers. The military establishments are trying to get to know each other better, both socially and professionally. On the other hand, China has continued to bolster Pakistan’s military and nuclear capabilities, while competing with India in and around the subcontinent, and indeed, in various other parts of the world. Officials charged with settling the border dispute negotiating the tourist trail but a solution appears to be elusive.

Given that negotiations have been in progress for several years now, the Indian side would no doubt want to get a sense of how much the overall development in bilateral relations has led to China being ready to move towards the end game of the border negotiations. You can’t simply ask, and China’s newspapers and television channels don’t really offer great insights into the workings of the Chinese leadership, at least not on such matters. So what you might do is employ a “screening” device to test the waters. Like including an official from Arunachal Pradesh—an Indian state that China claims as its own—in an official delegation to Beijing. If China reacts with its traditional ‘deliberate irrationalism‘, you know that there’s a long way to go. And as it turns out, there is indeed a long way to go before India can expect China to want to finally settle the dispute. Keeping India guessing, between direct conflict and abiding settlement, serves its current interests just fine.

India’s reaction to China’s refusal to issue the visa to the official from Arunachal Pradesh was apt. The entire trip was called off. The fact that this is being seen by the public as a demonstration of backbone is an unfortunate indicator of the perception that India has been too willing to bend over backwards to accommodate China’s positions. Yet, lapsing into an overdrive—like raising the bogey of widespread Sinophobia—is uncalled for. If anything, the Indian people have always been on guard against creeping encroachment (pun unintended) by the China, thanks to the popular post-1962 narrative. [See Maverick’s perspective]

Likewise, linking India’s relations with Taiwan to those with China is counterproductive. As two of Asia’s largest economies, there is a case for India to engage Taiwan more deeply in its own right. Doing so requires resolution and clarity of purpose if India is to prevail both over its own diffidence and China’s neurotic reaction. Connecting a Taiwanese politician’s visit to India to China’s granting a visa to an Indian official will unnecessarily complicate matters. India is playing host to Ma Ying-jeou, a charismatic politician from Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang party (that has drawn closer to China in recent years), not in response to the People’s Republic of China’s immigration policy, but because it will be difficult to host him after he wins the presidential elections next year, as he is likely to.

16 thoughts on “Testing Chinese waters”

  1. Likewise, linking India’s relations with Taiwan to those with China is counterproductive

    I don’t think so. Taiwan and Tibet are two very sensitive(to china) diplomatic cards that India can play as smartly to its advantage as China has played the Pakistan card to its own.

    Not squeezing these pressure points has what has led Indian diplomacy into the diplomatic doghouse it finds itself in.The Indian diplomacy simply do not have anything for a quid pro quo settlement.That is why China feels so comfortable to be as nasty as it is.It simply has no incentive to change its behaviour.

    We should be a good neighbour and provide them some incentive to do that. First stop saying that we accept that Taiwan and Tibet are inalienable part of China. I’am not saying that we should declare they are not. Just stop ever saying them, make some wrong maps and wrong quotations and withdraw them quickly when the Chinese protest blaming it on some useless lower level babu who has nothing better to do, is underpaid and totally incompetent and make a big show of suspending him and then when things grow quite make him the honorary ambassador to Timbuktu. I mean play the full diplomatic game :). show them who’s boss.

  2. @Apollo: Do you really think that anyone actually comes under any pressure whatsoever by these tactics (wrong maps, quotations etc)? Apart from generating some needless paperwork, they have no other results. This stuff is mere posturing, nothing more.

    Indian policy was under no extra pressure because China had not recognized Sikkim as India’s part for decades. And China doesn’t really care about who recognizes Tibet and who doesn’t. Both say stuff about it.. because stuff has to be said (someone is always shoving a mike in your face). And when the other party says something, you have to respond too.

    Bottomline: Unless a country is willing to do more than just publish wrong maps, such tactics do not work at all.

    What would be interesting to know is the parallel that you are drawing between Taiwan/Tibet on one hand and Pakistan on the other. What do you think we should do (apart from maps and stuff)?

  3. Apollo,

    Taiwan and Tibet are two very sensitive(to china) diplomatic cards that India can play as smartly to its advantage as China has played the Pakistan card to its own.

    The key argument I make is that we should not see Taiwan as a card in the sense that it can be traded off against something. India needs to develop deeper relations with Taiwan, full stop. India must resist Chinese pressure against this, just as it resists say (a weak analogy, but it works) American pressure against relations with Iran.

    In the current geo-political and globalised world, tightening relations with Taiwan is a better way of pressuring China than a strategy of trade-offs is. For this to work, you don’t even need the relationship to be high-profile; quiet diplomacy and economic engagement will work just as well.

    ‘Blog Owner Knows’

    Nice nickname. But this blog owner does not know.

  4. Do you really think that anyone actually comes under any pressure whatsoever by these tactics (wrong maps, quotations etc)?

    China does. The entire Chinese territorial claims on any place whether its Tibet, Taiwan, inner mongolia, spratly islands etc… is based on history. According to Chinese strategic thought if any land/country had accepted Chinese suzerainty at any point of time in history it stands good forever.

    Any future Chinese government when it becomes powerful enough will try to reassert its claims.Exactly what this current govt is doing. Even their current ‘string of pearls’ strategy and claims on spratly island rests on the 15th century voyages of Admiral Zhong ye.

    Hope we keep this aspect of China in mind. It considers itself an eternal middle kingdom to whom everyone else must be subservient.someone questioning any of those claims is bound to provoke a reaction from the Chinese.

    so now u have a negotiating card :).

    Nitin, India should reach out to Taiwan to offset the Communists.that’s my own personal opinion. Trade we can have with singapore and holland too. Taiwan’s real utility is elsewhere.

  5. Apollo,

    One little thing I learnt about military strategy was from a subedar-major from an the Maratha Light Infantry. We were a bunch of cadets all shocked and awed by Norman Schwarzkopf’s (remember him?) forces in Desert Storm, and were wondering what role we had as infantrymen. Infantry, the old warrior said, was the only force that could occupy and hold territory. And what’s the big deal about holding territory, an intrepid cadet asked. Holding territory, the subedar-major said, is everything.

    So we can all get excited about cartographic aggression, inaccuracies and fantasies. But holding, and being able to hold territory, is what really matters.

    Using Taiwan as a mere ‘card’ to be traded away is a bad idea. It would be one thing if we were talking about some tiny South Pacific island that only exports internet domain names. Taiwan is a very different country—both in terms of where it is on the map and what role it plays in the global economy. If India ever achieves a ‘victory’ which requires trading off Taiwan, that victory would only be a pyrrhic one.

  6. Nitin,

    This thread is about diplomacy not war.

    In case of all out war i might agree with that quote of yours.

  7. Apollo,

    It works for diplomacy as well. Pakistan, for example, has been the beneficiary of incorrect cargography for years. Every map sold outside India shows Kashmir either partitioned or marked as disputed territory. That’s been the case for years. Yet, what good has that done for Pakistan?

    Chinese maps have similarly played hokey with Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, while Indian maps show Aksai Chin (and PoK, for that matter) as ‘ours’. What difference has that made to the situation on the ground.

    Occupation, is everything. At least 90% legitimacy, as some others put it.

  8. Indian maps should show Tibet as independent.Then only India will get a bargaining chip on the negotiating table.

    Indian diplomacy made a serious mistake by recognising Tibet as part of China. Now we are in this soup.The Chinese strategy is to occupy a piece of territory and then when nobody protests they use the ethnicity, links, historical claims of the people of that territory to claim even more.

  9. I didn’t know you worked for GOI, Nitin 🙂 The spin of “testing waters” is nice as though GOI planned on it. If anything, I am sure that Arunachal Pradesh’s IAS officer would have been pulled from the team if MEA had any inclination that Chinese babus would be offended.

    I agree with Apollo(pressure points were the exact words I was thinking off too, Madhu) that we need issues that they care about and we could use as bargaining issues at the tables.

    Tibet should put be back on the table now that they are going back on the deal with Vajpayee. Taiwan engagement should be substantial with the caveate that we’ll let Taiwan’s decide their own destiny. While we may never defend Taiwan militarily when Chinese attack, we should support Taiwan entry into UN, WTO, or at least WHO (follow the east and west German model – two separate countries until they want to unite or stay independent). While we get beaten up, diplomatically speaking, by the Chinese everywhere, we keep taking it – want Arunachal Pradesh, let’s have our armies practice together. Why the softness when it comes to China (also Maverick)? – it’s fine to say we can beat them this time, but now most issues are settled across table and we need issues that Chinese consider important to bargain with and those issues need to be created proactively. The Chinese on other hand have several (and continue to create new ones) they can use – hence the tough talk about Arunachal (apparently in exchange for Aksai Chin).

    With regards to taking land and keeping it, first one has to have a claim to it. With a claim, the world will allow the new occupiers keep it – Tibet and POK comes to mind. If Chinese do occupy parts of Arunachal, they will use their current (and historic) claims to legitimize land grab – the world, like most things about China, will gladly fall in place.

  10. After the liberation of Bangladesh, the Indian army delivered into Indira’s hand Pak territory and Pak PoWs. She lost that on the table without any tangible benefits to us.
    So isn’t what the subedar-major said right?

  11. Chandra,

    Well, I won’t exactly call it spin. I just took the less cynical explanation 🙂

  12. To the Sri Lankan from Malaysia who goes by the name of ‘Gemunu’, ‘Lion’ etc,

    There is no excuse for not being polite, even to strangers who you may disagree with. If you have a different point of view, you are welcome to share it; but this is not a forum for throwing insults and abuse. As the caveat says, such comments will be deleted.

    You may have a lot of time to spare, to hold a conversation with yourself using various aliases, and by impersonating me. But you are wasting it here. There’s an automatic spring cleaning agent installed on this blog that’ll delete comments which use foul language. And if people tell you that you can remain anonymous on the internet, don’t believe them.

    Just so that you can relax a bit, you are right to say that I advocate different approaches with different countries, that I argue for muscular power projection in the subcontinent, while a more cautious policy with respect to China. You can call it hypocrisy, double-standards, discrimination or any other word. I will agree with you. That’s life.

    Have a nice weekend.

  13. RS, after the war is done, POWs are usually exchanged – per rules of engagement. That’s the issue with Pak – they kept at least 54 of Indian POW after the war. Recent movie by the Sagar family “1971” is pretty amazing movie (I like most war movies :)) on the issue of Indian POWs that Pak is still holding in its jails.

    Trading away northern J&K (and access to North Afghanistan and beyound into Central Asia) is an issue that should be just below emergency (on par with series of economic disasters) in the negative column of Indira’s rule.

  14. Chandra,

    The spin of “testing waters” is nice as though GOI planned on it. If anything, I am sure that Arunachal Pradesh’s IAS officer would have been pulled from the team if MEA had any inclination that Chinese babus would be offended.

    Considering that China had done exactly the same thing in the past, it would be a terrible record-keeping bureaucracy that didn’t know that it might be done again. Since Indian bureaucracy is pretty good with red-tape and files, I would tend to assume that the trip was planned knowing fully well in advance that it may have to be called off. Isn’t that what “testing waters” is?

  15. BOK,

    I think the probability of your scenario is very small. For starters, beyound past instances of MEA being overly deferential to parties when they feel offended, especially non-friendly countries, any testing of such waters would most likely be done quietly away from public glare.

    This episode shows what India is up against, if we open our eyes. At the moment they still seem shut.

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