The script for Indias political engagement with China’s new leadership was to start at Durban,where the Prime Minister met President Xi Jinping,and conclude at Delhi with Premier Li Keqiangs visit. And then came a deviation that added another D Depsang shaving off three crucial weeks in the run-up to Lis visit. While there may be some merit in the line that India should not let this impact the larger bilateral discourse,the fact is it looms large,and no amount of diplomatic dexterity can cloak it.
Yes,Depsang was not the first such incursion we saw a longer stand-off in Sikkims Finger Area in 2008. But that does not make it acceptable even if Indias response mechanisms have vastly improved. At some point,it has to be clearly conveyed to China that such periodic adventurism on what is,otherwise,the worlds most peaceful unresolved boundary is politically unacceptable. And what better opportunity to cement this ground rule than Lis visit. The government must look to take a predominantly political view,as opposed to the standard bureaucratic approach,to the visit one that acknowledges the growing trust deficit within the public space and aspires to address it.
Lets not forget China fought through the 1990s to get New Delhi to endorse its one-China policy,recognise Tibet as an intergral part of the mainland,not treat Taiwan as independent entity,and such like issues simply because they represented Chinas political red lines. Isnt it time,in the spirit of nurturing a mature relationship,for India to state some its red lines? At least there is a need to make it clear that China must desist from military escalation in the disputed areas; provide advance information on its dam-building projects on trans-border rivers; seek to address Indian security concerns arising from its all weather relationship with Pakistan; and establish some reciprocity in trade matters.
These issues have been there,but they receive less regard because they stand delinked from Chinas core political issues. Should it always be assumed that there will be a reaffirmation of Chinas red lines in each joint statement or declaration? Or that any incident on the boundary be kept off political debate?
This is a question New Delhi needs to ponder over,especially the political class which has largely ceded the China folder to South Block mandarins. In many ways,this has become necessary for the stability of the relationship itself. A misjudgment of political limits by either side could cause grave mishaps. While New Delhi is more than conscious of Chinas limits,Beijing is not.
Its time India spoke its mind,for there will not always be an impending visit by a Chinese premier visit for leverage.
Pranab is Editor,Express News Service,based in Delhi