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Dragooned by the dragon

Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh's China visit comes when Beijing has hardened its stance on territorial disputes, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2008 20:36 IST

At a time when Beijing is pursuing a more muscular policy — from provocatively seeking to assert its jurisdiction over islets claimed by Vietnam to whipping up spats with Germany, Canada and the US over the Dalai Lama — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is embarking on a New Year visit to China as part of an agreement reached during President Hu Jintao’s November 2006 trip “to hold regular summit-level meetings”. But while Hu clubbed his India trip with a visit to ‘all-weather ally’ Pakistan — just as his Premier Wen Jiabao did in 2005 — Singh will pay his respect by going only to China, instead of travelling also to, say, Japan or Vietnam.

Singh’s visit is to follow more than a year of assertive Chinese moves that have run counter to efforts to build a stable Sino-Indian relationship based on equilibrium and forward thinking. Two things have happened. One, China has hardened its stance on territorial disputes with India — a reality the very small, largely symbolic joint anti-terrorist army exercise in Yunnan cannot obscure. And two, as the Dalai Lama pointed out in a recent address in Rome, Beijing is taking an increasingly harsh position on Tibet, pretending there is no Tibetan issue to resolve.

The Tibet issue is at the core of the India-China divide, and without Beijing beginning a process of reconciliation in Tibet, there is little prospect of Sino-Indian differences being bridged. Beijing itself highlights the centrality of the Tibet issue by laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesia or tutelary links to them, not any professed Han connection. But with the Dalai Lama having publicly repudiated such claims, a discomfited Beijing has sought to persuade his representatives in the ongoing dialogue process that the Tibetan government-in-exile support China’s position that Arunachal Pradesh is part of traditional Tibet. The fact is that with China’s own claim to Tibet being historically dubious, its claims to Indian territories are doubly suspect, underlining its attempts at incremental annexation.

The tough, uncompromising Chinese approach contrasts sharply with the forbearing positions of the Indian government and the Dalai Lama. New Delhi, for instance, has bent over backwards to play down aggressive Chinese military moves along the still ill-defined Line of Control. The Dalai Lama, for his part, is beginning to face muted criticism from restive Tibetans for having secured nothing from Beijing two decades after changing the struggle for liberation from Chinese imperial conquest to a struggle for autonomy within the framework of the People’s Republic. As the Dalai Lama himself admitted in Rome, “Our right hand has always reached out to the Chinese government. That hand has remained empty…”

Examples of China’s increasing hardline stance on India range from its ambassador’s Beijing-supported bellicose public statement on Arunachal on the eve of Hu’s visit to its Foreign Minister’s May 2007 message to his Indian counterpart that China no longer felt bound by the 2005 agreement that any border-related settlement should not disturb settled populations. Add to that the October admission by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police chief that there had been 141 Chinese military incursions in the preceding 12 months alone.

Beijing’s strategy is to interminably drag out its separate negotiating processes with India and the Dalai Lama’s envoys in order to wheedle out more and more concessions. In line with that, China’s negotiators have been in full foot-dragging mode, seeking to keep the discussions merely at the level of enunciating principles, positions and frameworks — something they have done splendidly in negotiations with India since 1981 and with the Dalai Lama’s envoys since 2002.

As several Chinese scholars have acknowledged, Beijing is not as keen as New Delhi to resolve the territorial disputes. Having got what it wanted either by military aggression or furtive encroachment, Beijing values its claims on additional Indian territories as vital leverage to keep India under pressure. Similarly, not content with the Dalai Lama’s abandonment of the demand for independence, Beijing continues to publicly vilify him and portray his envoys’ visits for negotiations as personal trips. It has further tightened its vise on Tibet by ordering that all lama reincarnations must get its approval, renewing political repression and encouraging the ‘Go West’ Han-migration campaign.

Gratuitously, New Delhi has downplayed instances of belligerent activity by the People’s Liberation Army, denying at times even the undeniable — like the PLA’s destruction of unmanned Indian forward posts at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction last month. Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor has called PLA cross-border forays into Bhutan “a matter between” Bhutan and China, as if India is not responsible for Bhutanese defence.

It is not accidental that China’s hardline approach has followed its infrastructure advances on the Tibetan plateau, including the opening of a new railway, airfields and highways. The railway, by arming Beijing with a rapid military-deployment capability, is transforming the trans-Himalayan military equations.

Beijing has also been emboldened by a couple of major Indian missteps. During Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s July 2003 visit, it wrung the concession it always wanted from India — a clear and unambiguous recognition of Tibet as part of China. Vajpayee not only inexcusably linked troubled Tibet with a non-issue, Sikkim, but also his kowtowing on Tibet stripped India of leverage on the larger territorial disputes with China. Little surprise, therefore, that Beijing now presents Arunachal as an outstanding issue that demands ‘give and take’, cleverly putting the onus on India to achieve progress. It aims to dragoon New Delhi into ceding at least Tawang, populated not by Tibetans, but by Monpas, a distinct tribe.

This line of attack has been further bolstered by the 2005 ‘guiding principles’, one of which calls for “meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments” to respective positions. India was craven enough to agree to this principle, although it is negotiating with an aggressor State that aims to keep it off balance and prevent a settlement by seeking to extend its territorial gains.

Having conceded the Tibet card, what ‘meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments’ can India demand from China? Such adjustments, as Beijing insists, have to be primarily on India’s part. The Chinese assertiveness on Arunachal since 2006 thus is not unplanned but the cumulative result of Indian missteps.

India can expect no respite from Chinese pressure, given Beijing’s growing propensity to flex its muscles, as underscored by its anti-satellite weapon test last January, its recent large-scale war game in the South and East China Seas, its public showcasing of new military hardware like the Jin-class, nuclear-capable submarine, its strategic moves around India and its last-minute cancellation of a long-planned Hong Kong visit by the US carrier, Kitty Hawk. If anything, China is likely to further up the ante against India.

New Delhi thus cannot stay caught in a double-bind. To blur the line between diplomacy and appeasement, and to emphasise show over substance, is only to play into Beijing’s gameplan. It is past time India injected greater policy realism by shedding deluding platitudes and placing premium on substance and leveraged diplomacy.