Written by Abanti Bhattacharya
Since the beginning of India-China military standoff on the Line of Actual Control in May, there have been several diplomatic and military level talks between the two countries to defuse the crisis. The recent talks between External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar and Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi was also in this direction. However, the dialogue between the two countries is bound to fail primarily because China has no intention to resolve the border dispute bilaterally. Rather, under the façade of protracted talks, it is typical Chinese delaying tactics to unilaterally settle the border in its favour. The current Chinese adventurism on the LAC is, in fact, a culmination of Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy goal of resolving the territorial disputes by keeping China’s sovereign rights intact as underscored in the principle of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”.
This principle of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” was first adopted by Deng on May 11, 1979 to resolve the China-Japan dispute over the Senkakau Islands in the East China Sea. Later, in June 1986, this principle was further fleshed out in dealing with the Southeast Asian countries on the South China Seas dispute. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, the principle has the following four elements: First, the sovereignty of the territories concerned belongs to China. Second, when conditions are not ripe to bring about a thorough solution to a territorial dispute, discussion on the issue of sovereignty may be postponed so that the dispute is set aside. To set aside dispute does not mean giving up sovereignty. It is just to leave the dispute aside for the time being. Third, the territories under dispute may be developed in a joint way. And fourth, the purpose of joint development is to enhance mutual understanding through cooperation and create conditions for the eventual resolution of territorial ownership.
Quite strikingly, the first element itself has foreclosed any discussion on the sovereignty issue and also clearly underlined that the sovereignty of the territories concerned essentially belonged to China. This demonstrates that the Chinese foreign policy goals are not motivated to achieve peaceful bilateral resolutions of territorial disputes on the basis of mutual consultation and win-win solution, but to buy time in order to strengthen its position as well as to consolidate its claims on the disputed territory. Such a strategy is pursued when the country is militarily weak and when the time is not ripe for settling the dispute in its favour.
It may be recalled that the 1980s were critical formative years for China to come out of the political radicalism of the Mao era and to embrace economic reforms. The criticality of the development agenda can be gauged from Deng Pufang’s — Deng Xiaoping’s son – statement, “the crucial issue is to get China’s own problems right”. Therefore, economic development was critical for rebuilding party legitimacy in the aftermath of tumultuous and chaotic Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Hence, China urgently required a peaceful external environment to concentrate on its domestic programme of reform and modernisation. In this regard, setting aside dispute became the principal basis on which China reached out to India in the 1980s and Deng urged Rajiv Gandhi to put the contentious border issue at the back burner and focus on economic engagement.
China’s critical need for domestic development coupled with stable external environment gained further salience in the post-Tiananmen period when it suffered from economic sanctions imposed by the West. It was at this juncture that in 1989, Deng advocated a “twenty-four-character” strategy, characterised as Taoguang Yanghui, which basically endorsed a foreign policy strategy of “hiding capabilities and biding time”. This meant China would lie low and follow a path of self-restraint, and thereby, engage with the international system to continue pursuing its economic goals.
In this scheme of things, China kept the sovereignty issues aside and promoted multilateralism as a tool to uphold Confidence Building Measures on the disputed territorial issues. By the end of 2000s decade when China had economically risen, Hu Jintao while adhering to Deng’s lie-low strategy, also increasingly shifted focus on the last part of his twenty-four-character strategy, yousuo zuowei, that is “striving for achievements”. From then on, China embarked upon a strikingly proactive foreign policy as underscored in Hu’s peaceful rise concept. Tellingly, this concept was not about adopting a peaceful foreign policy path but under a façade of peace, China incrementally moved to proactively shape the international order conducive to its interests. Accordingly, China subordinated multilateralism to sovereignty goals as evidenced in its projection of sovereignty on the South China Sea as China’s core interests.
By the time Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he proclaimed the “China Dream” slogan that shed all pretensions of Deng’s lie-low strategy and upheld the Chinese historic mission to de-centre the US and re-centre itself as the global superpower. Consequently, while the Belt and Road Initiative was launched to attain global centrality, China simultaneously embarked upon settling all the contentious sovereignty disputes unilaterally be it South China Seas or the LAC. While China focused on the external disputes, it also internally tightened its grip on domestic restive issues of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. In fact, under Xi Jinping, China’s great power dream came to be conditioned by taking control of the restive domestic situation and by staking control on the disputed territorial borders, both at land and sea, that is consolidating China’s sovereignty rights both internally and externally. Hence, while there is a militarisation of Tibet, there is also an escalation of military pressure on the LAC.
In sum, growing Chinese adventurism on the LAC are inevitable consequences of Xi’s “China Dream”. It is a culmination of the essence of Deng’s principle of “setting aside dispute” that rests squarely on retaining China’s sovereign rights and resolving the territorial disputes from a position of power. Under Xi, when China has risen, it no longer needs the façade of joint development to uphold its sovereign rights. It is thus, seeking a unilateral solution to the vexed border issue. Therefore, diplomatic and military dialogues are unlikely to defuse the current India-China border standoff.
The writer is associate professor, Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University
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