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How to soothe the friction with China

India can look to the Cold War for examples of creative diplomacy

Written by Robert M. Hathaway |
May 28, 2013 12:51:14 am

India can look to the Cold War for examples of creative diplomacy

Li Keqiang,China’s shiny new premier,has come and gone,and the commentariat is already looking toward Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing later this year. Yet,troubling questions about China’s intrusion into Ladakh last month linger.

India was understandably aggrieved by China’s surprise incursion. The move embarrassed the Singh government and was an affront to India’s dignity. Indeed,given the almost non-existent strategic value of the territory temporarily occupied,some speculate this was its principal purpose.

Reopening issues of risk management and reduction ought to be high on New Delhi’s agenda for Manmohan Singh’s trip to China later this year.

New Delhi’s response — it could have done no less — was to dispatch troops of its own,resulting in a potentially dangerous standoff that,through poor communication,faulty decision-making,or plain bad luck,could have escalated into a genuinely dangerous confrontation. Fortunately,prudence and common sense prevailed and both sides withdrew their forces,reverting to the status quo ante and clearing the way first for External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s previously planned trip to Beijing,and last week,Li’s visit to India.

Singh’s detractors criticise the prime minister for a timid response to Beijing’s Ladakh intrusion. His supporters insist the resolution of the mini-crisis vindicates the low-key manner in which New Delhi handled the affair. Standing alongside Li,Singh noted that “existing mechanisms proved their worth” in connection with “the recent incident in the western sector.” Perhaps,perhaps not — but they certainly didn’t prevent the infiltration and its attendant risks in the first place.

What the Chinese were up to in Ladakh remains unclear. To what extent the infiltration was sanctioned at the highest levels in Beijing and whether it presages further moves of a similar nature is also unclear. Until New Delhi receives satisfactory answers to these questions — and don’t bet on that — Indian defence officials will remain on-edge.

The matter of porous,disputed or ill-defined borders represents an ongoing challenge not only for India,but for many of its neighbours as well. That China is at the centre of many of these disputes has helped awaken anxieties across the region. In several instances,impartial observers have been astounded by the sweeping audacity of Beijing’s claims,most notably in its South China Sea disputes with Vietnam,Malaysia,the Philippines and others.

Explanations for this Chinese assertiveness are varied. Some describe the disputes as routine geopolitical jockeying for regional pre-eminence. Others point to confirmed or anticipated oil and gas discoveries within the contested territories. Domestic politics and bureaucratic and budgetary competition within the opaque Chinese decision-making process are almost certainly part of the equation. Some analysts speak more darkly of an aggressive Chinese design to become the regional hegemon. The Chinese,of course,insist they are doing no more than reasserting traditional and legally valid claims over territories unjustly seized when China was too weak to defend its borders.

Hillary Clinton,then US secretary of state,directly challenged China on its territorial ambitions during a meeting of regional leaders in Hanoi several years ago in a manner that shocked Beijing. China has done little to moderate its behaviour in any appreciable manner since then,but a number of the smaller Southeast Asian disputants were fortified by Clinton’s strong words and encouraged to believe they had options other than simply backing down before Beijing’s bullying.

Are there steps that might be taken to lessen the likelihood of such border disputes and to minimise the risks when they do occur? Given the costs to all parties should a localised incident escalate into a wider conflagration,identifying and implementing such measures should be a priority in New Delhi,Beijing,and throughout the region.

Indeed,one has to look no further than the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union to find useful examples for both short-term crisis management and longer-term risk reduction strategies. Codes of conduct regulating permissible behaviour would be a good start. Rules of engagement stipulating,for instance,how close naval vessels or troop dispositions might come to those of the other side have worked in the past. Requirements of advance notification for troop or weapons movements could reduce the chances of an untoward response by an alarmed neighbour. Any step or agreement to avoid surprise and presenting the other side with a seeming fait accompli of the sort Chinese soldiers offered in Ladakh in mid-April would seem highly desirable.

Yet,agreements of this sort require a decision by all parties that the risks of unresolved or active disputes outweigh the possible benefits of pushing the envelope on these controversies. In China’s case,it is not at all certain that the current leadership in Beijing has come to that conclusion,notwithstanding its willingness to withdraw from Ladakh earlier this month. Beijing continues,for instance,to resist Indian proposals regarding an exchange of maps demarcating the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in either Ladakh or farther east.

But in the past,New Delhi has also rejected Chinese suggestions that might have led to each side giving the other advance notice of patrols along the LAC. It has been reported that India relented on this issue as part of the Ladakh withdrawal. If this is accurate,the Singh government is to be commended for its newfound flexibility — which,after all,reduces the risk of miscalculation. Reopening issues of risk management and reduction ought to be high on New Delhi’s agenda for Singh’s trip to China later this year.

Visiting Washington earlier this month,the new South Korean president,Park Geun-hye,spoke of the “Asian paradox”,her term for the coexistence of deepening economic interdependence alongside persistent,historically based geopolitical tensions. Said differently,global economics today have run ahead of global politics. Countries are tightly linked by trade and finance,but political and security issues,laden with nationalist fervour,ethnic and racial animosities,religious passions and historical grievances (real and imagined),still reflect a paradigm from the 20th century.

And perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in relations between New Delhi and Beijing. Bilateral trade and investment ties between the two have exploded over the past dozen years. But while the two countries have also dramatically increased their diplomatic dialogue,the political and especially security aspects of their bilateral relationship remain remarkably underdeveloped for two large powers sharing a common border. This is one reason why the exchange of prime ministerial visits this year is a welcome step forward.

Diplomatic summitry cannot resolve all tensions,and certainly won’t usher in a new era of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. But talking and exploring points of common interest and friction is preferable to more military face-offs along India’s frozen northern borders.

The writer is Asia Programme director at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington,DC

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