A key challenge for Indian foreign policy is to manage an increasingly intricate relationship with an ascendant China determined to emerge as Asia’s uncontested power. For different reasons, New Delhi and Beijing wish to play down the competitive dynamics of their relationship and put the accent on cooperation. This was on full display during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s New Delhi visit, which yielded a rhetoric-laden joint statement with nice jingles, such as “all-round mutually beneficial cooperation”.
It makes sense for India to stress cooperation while working to narrow the power disparity with China. Cooperation holds special appeal to India, given that territorially it is a status quo State that has traditionally balked at anchoring its foreign policy in a distinct strategic doctrine founded on a ‘balance of power’, or ‘balance of threat’, or ‘balance of interest’.
By contrast, an accent on cooperation suits China because it provides it cover to step up a strategic squeeze of India from diverse flanks. It also chimes with its larger strategy to advertise its ‘peaceful rise’. China’s choir book indeed has been built around a nifty theme: its emergence as a great power is unstoppable, and it is incumbent on other nations to adjust to that rise.
In keeping with India’s growing geopolitical pragmatism, the wooden-faced Hu received a friendly but formal welcome in New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not shy away from giving vent to India’s disquiet over the slow progress of the 25-year-old border negotiations by calling for efforts to settle the “outstanding issues in a focused, sincere and problem-solving manner”. And by urging that the progress in ties be made “irreversible”, the PM implicitly pointed to the danger that blunt assertion of territorial claims or other belligerent actions could undo the gains.
Still, the visit was a reminder that Indian foreign policy has yet to make the full transition to realism. Consider the following two paragraphs in the joint statement: “The Indian side recalls that India was among the first countries to recognise that there is one China and its one-China policy has remained unaltered. The Indian side states that it would continue to abide by its one-China policy. The Chinese side expresses its appreciation for the Indian position.
“The Indian side reiterates that it has recognised the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China, and that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Chinese side expresses its appreciation for the Indian position.”
Gratuitously and without any reciprocal Chinese commitment to a one-India policy, New Delhi again pledged to ‘abide by’ a one-China policy despite the recent bellicose Chinese territorial claims. Needlessly and unilaterally, it reiterated its recognition of the central Tibetan plateau (what Beijing calls the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’, or TAR) as part of China.
How can bilateral diplomacy become so one-sided that India propitiates and China merely records its ‘appreciation’? What about getting China to recognise Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim as part of the Republic of India? China has merely suspended its cartographic aggression on Sikkim without issuing a single statement thus far unequivocally recognising it as part of India.
It is true that mistakes made in the past weigh down Indian policy. But should India continue or correct those slip-ups? Why should the present PM stick with his predecessor’s 2003 folly in recognising TAR as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China”? In any event, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s blunder did not come with an obligation for New Delhi to one-sidedly reaffirm that recognition at the end of every meeting between an Indian and Chinese leader.
A second clue of the Indian predilection to bend backwards was the manner in which New Delhi willingly shielded Hu from the media by permitting no questions at what was officially labelled an ‘interaction’ with the press. Knowing that Indian and foreign journalists would ask searching questions, among others, on China’s expansionist territorial demands, the Chinese side persuaded the hosts to limit the ‘interaction’ to a reading out of statements by Hu and the PM.
It is paradoxical that to welcome the world’s leading autocrat, the largest democracy cracked down on Tibetan demonstrators and allowed Hu to appear at a news conference in the scripted style he sets at home. Not that this won India any gratitude: the scattered Tibetan protests were enough to rankle Beijing to demand that New Delhi live up to its word not to let Tibetans wage political activity.
What makes Hu’s shielding by India more surprising is that the official talks brought out his hardline stance on the territorial disputes. Yet, the next day at Vigyan Bhawan, Hu disingenuously called for an “early settlement of the boundary issues”. The reason the two countries are locked in what is already the longest and most-barren negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history is that China — not content with the one-fifth of the original state of J&K it occupies — seeks to further redraw its frontiers with India, coveting above all Tawang, a strategic doorway to the Assam Valley.
Seeking to territorially extend the gains from its 1950 annexation of Tibet, Beijing has followed a bald principle in the border talks: ‘what is ours is ours to keep, but what is yours must be shared with us’. India, having thrust aside potential leverage due to an unfathomable reluctance to play its strategic cards, has retreated to an unviable position to ward off demands flowing from China’s insistence that what it covets is ‘disputed’ and thus on the negotiating table.
It is past time India started building needed room for diplomatic manoeuvre through counter-leverage, even as it keeps cooperation the leitmotif of its relations with Beijing. Without strategic leeway, India will remain on the defensive, locked in unproductive negotiations and exposed to the Chinese use of direct and surrogate levers to nip at its heels. It is not that India has only two options: either persist with a feckless policy or brace for confrontation. That is a false choice intended to snuff out any legitimate debate on the several options India has between the two extremes.
Military and economic asymmetry in inter-State relations does not mean that the weaker side should bend to the diktats of the stronger or pay obeisance to it. If that were so, only the most powerful would enjoy true decision-making autonomy. Diplomacy is the art of offsetting or neutralising the effects of a power imbalance with another State by building countervailing influence.
A realpolitik approach offers India multiple cards to exert a counteracting power. The PM’s scheduled visit to Japan next month is an opportunity to discuss adding strategic content to a fast-growing relationship with a natural ally. Through close strategic collaboration, Taiwan can be to India what Pakistan is to China. Prosperous, democratic Taiwan indeed offers better economic lessons than China.
New Delhi can begin modestly. Let it refine its Tibet stance to add some elasticity and nuance on an issue that defines the India-China chasm and forms the basis of Chinese claims on India. Without retracting its present Tibet position, can’t India propose to China that its path to greatness will be assisted if it initiated a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet and reached a deal that ended the Dalai Lama’s exile? Seeking such a settlement is not a tactical ploy but a strategic necessity, because the Tibet issue will stay at the core of the India-China divide until it is resolved.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He is the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan