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China should look back, make amends

delhi Updated: Dec 15, 2010 10:08 IST
Brahma Chellaney

Premier Wen Jiabao is coming when new strains have emerged in Sino-Indian relations. By combining his New Delhi visit with a trip to Pakistan, Wen is reinforcing India's concerns about the growing Sino-Pakistani strategic nexus. How would Beijing react if the Indian PM combined a China visit with one to Japan or Vietnam?

Reciprocity is the first principle of diplomacy. Yet no top Chinese leader has visited India in more than four years, even as the Indian PM and the ruling party chief have been to China two times and the President once in this troubled period during which Beijing unveiled a more muscular policy. Wen's visit, although overdue, is unlikely to yield any breakthrough or substantive progress on the issues that divide the two giants. But Wen is sure to leave with a lofty, cloying joint statement.

India and China have been engaged in border negotiations since 1981 - the longest such process between any two countries in modern history. Yet there is little progress, even as water has become linked to land disputes.

Bilateral trade, by contrast, is booming. However, the trade relationship is not flattering for India, which is largely exporting primary commodities and importing finished products and machinery. Indeed, India faces a ballooning trade deficit with China and the dumping of Chinese goods that is systematically killing local manufacturing. Yet Wen comes with a huge trade delegation to fortify this asymmetrical relationship.

Successive Indian governments have tried to cast aside irritants and make nice with China. But that clearly hasn't worked. In fact, the feckless approach has only encouraged Beijing to up the ante by finding new ways to needle India. Take the latest Chinese provocation: The attempt to show Indian Jammu and Kashmir as distinct by issuing visas on a separate leaf to residents there. India actually invited this aggravation by repeating its commitment to a 'one-China policy' ad nauseam even as Beijing's territorial assertiveness has grown.

Worse has been India's response. Instead of paying China back in the same coin by implementing a similar visa policy for all Tibet residents, it has over and over again implored Beijing to reconsider its approach. China has shown no sign of relenting, yet Indian officials have sought to raise false hopes and actually proffer ingenious explanations on Beijing's behalf, including that China regards its J&K visa policy as an 'administrative' not 'political' matter. Was it also for 'administrative' reasons that Beijing blocked the top Indian army general in J&K from visiting China?

The various Chinese moves, including the effort to depict Indian J&K as separate, are part of a carefully planned strategy whose implementation Beijing continues to improve with changing circumstances. The aim is to keep India boxed in to prevent the rise of a peer rival. As part of the same strategy, China has moved troops in sizable numbers to Pakistani-occupied Kashmir to set up strategic projects.

To frustrate this strategy, India need not take a confrontational line. Between meekness and confrontation lie a hundred different options. But to be prudent and farsighted, India must not unwisely give up any option. The cards it has surrendered need to be retrieved in a gradual, non-provocative manner. For example, India can begin by declaring that it seeks the peaceful resolution of all issues, including the core issue linked to China's territorial claims. Without naming Tibet, that declaratory policy will help spotlight Tibet, the source of China's claims to Arunachal Pradesh and other areas.

There is a big difference between being prudent and being meek. The former helps avert problems; the latter symbolises weakness and invites more pressure. An easy way for Indian diplomacy to make the transition from timidity to prudence is to start spotlighting plain facts. Half of India's problems with China arise from New Delhi's coyness to highlight facts. For instance, India has allowed the international focus to stay on China's claim to Arunachal Pradesh, not on the source of that claim - Tibet. Similarly, India has played into China's agenda to portray J&K as an India-Pakistan issue by refusing to draw attention to the Chinese occupation of one-fifth of J&K.

India, in fact, has shown a proclivity to even suppress facts. Remember the national furore after official disclosures of a sharply rising pattern of Chinese cross-border incursions? Today that story has vanished from the media, not because such military forays have ceased, but because the government has cut off all sources of information. The uncanny official silence that has descended betrays that incursions remain a serious problem. Had there been a significant decline in incursions, the government would not have remained mum. Yet the consequence of such silence is to make China a double winner: It continues to mount military pressure through incursions while presenting the Himalayan border as tranquil.

China has yet to apologise for invading India in 1962, even as it seeks repeated apology from Japan for its pre-World War II record. By assertively laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh, China has reopened the wounds of its 1962 aggression. If the Sino-Indian relationship is not to be weighed down by history indefinitely, China must face up to its past by making amends and accepting the territorial status quo.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.