When Li comes calling

India needs to develop a national understanding about what to expect,and aim for,in its relationship with China

Written by K.S. Bajpai | Published: May 17, 2013 3:27 am

India needs to develop a national understanding about what to expect,and aim for,in its relationship with China

Even without the focus of the summit,India-China relations demand a more serious consideration than the intemperate reactions provoked by the preceding contretemps. That virtual hysteria,reminiscent of our self-defeating pressures of 1962,should not be allowed to distract from genuine public anxiety. We need to develop a national understanding,if not a national consensus,about what to expect and aim for. Democracies need public education and some sureness about their capability. Depsang produced neither.

What exactly happened,what it signifies,who provoked whom or conceded what — theories abound,but resemble tea-leaf readings. Whatever it all means apropos China,it is painfully telling about the ways in which the Indian state handles its affairs. The state is not just government; Parliament,political parties,the media and the public opinion it greatly shapes,and of course the permanent apparatus of the administration,are all part of it. All have long been making it impossible to conduct even our most important affairs with seriousness,let alone dignity. Vainglorious declamations about war merely reflect immaturity. A former defence minister calls China our sole enemy and Pakistan no threat,as though Pakistan has not,inter alia,been China’s eager agent; for him to declare that “if there is to be a war,so let it be”

is frighteningly irresponsible. The Trinamool Congress joins the attack,despite single-handedly strengthening China’s position around us by harming our relations with Bangladesh,while Tamil Nadu ruins our relations with Sri Lanka. All parties prefer cheap jibes to constructive debate,while the media inflates and exceeds their effusions. Not one leader saw fit to suggest that,our security environment being an overriding national priority,all parties should get together to work out urgent improvements. Our descent to such pettiness is what makes us so unprepared for the challenges facing us.

A state’s greatest asset is the respect it commands. Others deal with you as they see you: one way if you look strong,efficient,knowing what you have to do and capable of doing it,and another if you betray indecisiveness,incompetence and other weaknesses. That does not mean there will not be profound differences over policies. All countries are in two minds about how the new superpower will act: a cooperative leader in the search for an equitable,stable world order,or an assertive hegemonist. Powerful states historically do both,so one should expect that. Others wait and see,but

we,with our problems,cannot afford that. We need at least a working hypothesis.

To arrive at one,what is cited in support of the two broad approaches,the apprehensive and the optimistic,should not be scoffed at. We should also stop letting feelings and predilections obstruct objective assessments. Let us recognise that,apart from particular happenings,there are inherent geopolitical realities. Free of our sentimentality,and with its tradition of strategic thinking,China sees two assets we could use to its detriment: we adjoin Tibet,and we jut far into the Indian Ocean,thus positioned to undermine it in the former and interfere with its vital sea links. We have never quite realised the intensity of Beijing’s sensitivities regarding Tibet. Howsoever earnestly we might reassure them,they go by capabilities,not protestations.

Similarly,we must note what China can do to our detriment,especially considering what it already has done — and they surely understand this. They made Pakistan,historically eager to get the better of us,a nuclear power,at one stroke offsetting our conventional superiority. With our other neighbours having their own differences with us,the circle of containment is easily consolidated,with no little help from our own failures to handle our neighbours well. The port facilities China is developing doubtless have other objectives,but protestations that they are not aimed against us are like ours of innocence regarding Tibet. We too must judge by capabilities.

Nor can we forget that we have major unsettled problems,including claims to our territory from two countries. Should,alas,those ever erupt in violent conflict,not one state will come to India’s assistance. We would stand alone. No state so placed can neglect potential dangers or the need to prepare for them. Here,we should consider how others view our possible rise. Who welcomes it and who does not? Most don’t bother,two surely do,a handful would positively want it as suiting their global interests. While nobody would help us in extremis,some would help us become strong enough to prevent extremis.

We should not slur over unwelcome facts in determining policies,nor assume we are inevitably adversaries. States have evolved a durable modus vivendi despite far more acute conflicts of interest. After Depsang,the loudest voices have warned of evils to come. Our official policy seems to be to widen areas of cooperation while attempting resolution of differences. Whether commonalities on global issues like the WTO or climate change,or even greater economic ties,can bind us in amity,or at least prevent the worst,remains debatable,but the attempt would certainly serve our interests,provided we also gear ourselves up. That is where our ability to function as a purposeful state is key; all parts must live up to their responsibilities. Dare we hope they will?

The writer is a former ambassador to Pakistan,China and the US,and secretary,MEA

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