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Pick up fights with care

India must not lose sleep over Chinese control of the Gwadar port and dams on Brahmaputra.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2013 22:23 IST

While many Indian eyes remain fixed on the security threat that arises from Pakistan and areas in the west, a strong case can be made to say China represents a far more difficult and dangerous problem for the country. This is not because it is a more powerful nation than Pakistan, but because its status as an enemy or friend of India remains ambiguous. There can be no doubt about the hostility of the Pakistan military towards India - this hostility is that organisation's raison d'etre. While China's leaders have no affection for India, they also have many priorities that take precedence over treating India as a geopolitical foe. And this is why Delhi must keep a level head when it faces potentially provocative behaviour by Beijing.

Two recent events have caused concern, but prove less worrying once seen in perspective. One is the Chinese takeover of the management of Pakistan's Gwadar port. This is no surprise: Islamabad signaled a year ago that it would be cancelling the contract of the Singapore firm that once ran it. While India should monitor any Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, it must distinguish between the building of ports, their management and, finally, their ownership. Building and management are commercial dealings that do not necessarily give China any special strategic advantage. Ownership does - but not even Pakistan has given Beijing the title deed, even for a port as inactive as Gwadar. The other event is China's announced plans to build three more dams across its part of the Brahmaputra river. So far, only one dam has been built along this river by China. But these are all run-of-the-river dams that slow but do not block the water flow and will not create a reservoir. In any case, with nearly 80% of the Brahmaputra's catchment being inside India, the ability of China to impede the river flow is minimal. The real issue is Beijing's continuing failure to consult or inform India about its plans ahead of time. This is required of upper riparian states under international law and it is this that India needs to upbraid China about.

New Delhi's policy goal regarding Islamabad is to persuade its military to accept that the cost of extracting a settlement from India by arms is too high for Pakistan. In the case of China, New Delhi's strategy is to persuade Beijing for a modus vivendi, one where the two countries can coexist in a manner where neither gets in each other's hair and a certain set of red lines are agreed upon. This requires India to pick its fights with care. Stapled visas for Kashmiris and claims on Arunachal Pradesh require strong responses. Dams that do not block and ghost ports do not.