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The China chill

Now that the dust has somewhat settled on the “China hype”,with the government going the full distance to scotch half-truths...

Written by PranabDhalSamanta |
September 24, 2009 3:11:36 am

Now that the dust has somewhat settled on the “China hype”,with the government going the full distance to scotch half-truths and rumours which created needless anxiety for about two weeks,it is important to also straighten the record on this new brand of Chinese aggressiveness which has been conspicuously downplayed in the government discourse that has followed.

First,it must be pointed out that for all the reports about Chinese incursions,the fact remains that there are confidence-building efforts underway,aimed at precisely avoiding any miscalculated event on the Line of Actual Control amid growing misperceptions. A hotline between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is in the process of being set up,and more recently the Eastern Army Commander,who is in charge of the Arunachal Pradesh segment of the LAC,went on a week-long trip to China along with senior commanders in the Central and Northern Commands who directly oversee military deployment across the entire LAC.

They visited Tibet and were even shown an airbase in the Chengdu region to which no foreign official had so far been provided access. By all accounts,Beijing is not keen on escalating tensions on the LAC beyond manageable limits. After all,this is not 1962 and the stakes for China are much higher than before as it aspires to consolidate its bid for superpowerhood after the global financial crisis. Yet,the LAC serves an important function in Chinese strategy towards India which is more complicated than is often made out to be.

Why else would pictures of a rock painted with Chinese script (“middle of the Yellow River”),some exaggerated reports of a scuffle between Indian and Chinese soldiers near Nathu La and an incorrect report about an alleged exchange of fire in Sikkim unsettle Sino-Indian diplomatic relations? China cried foul,its official media carried articles imputing motives and even suggesting this to be an orchestrated media offensive while Indian diplomacy searched for answers. This was not the first time China has shown extreme sensitivity to the Indian media. Recall the Tibetan protests last year.

While there is a strong case,as the prime minister himself pointed out,to improve the government information system on such issues,the question to be asked is,why has this become a diplomatic obligation? The government can surely correct the media or regulate protests,but can it be sure of an absolute outcome as Beijing demands? It is important to clearly convey the limitations of a democratic government so as to not raise expectations,else it could become obligatory and sow the seeds for the next crisis. This is what has happened with the Indian media’s coverage of China,which is now unfortunately a diplomatic issue dominating conversation at high levels and not a mere question of clarifying a wrong report here or there. China demands results and India feels obligated to deliver.

So for this reason it is also important to question that if incursions have been happening for the past two decades from both sides,then why the sudden public interest? How did it start and who provoked matters? A closer look would suggest that India need not be so defensive because China has to take some of the blame,if not most of it.

In many ways 2005 was a watershed year for Indian strategic and diplomatic aspirations. India and the US entered into a nuclear deal. Wen visited India and reached an agreement laying out the political parameters and guiding principles for a settlement to the India-China boundary question. Article VII said that in reaching a settlement,the two sides would duly “safeguard the interests of their settled populations”. This was interpreted by India as a step forward on China giving up claims to Arunachal Pradesh because this was one of the most contested elements of the agreement. A year later and a new Chinese foreign minister,Yang Jiechi,surprised his then Indian counterpart,Pranab Mukherjee,at a bilateral on the sidelines of a multilateral event in Hamburg by pointing out that the mention of settled populations did not mean China had given up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

This could still be argued as posturing over the fine print. But from then on,China inexplicably upped the ante. Visas were not issued to civil servants of the Arunachal Pradesh cadre,troop build-up was increased across the LAC and then,in a surprise move in January 2008,China staked claim to a 2.1 sq km tract of land on the tip of Sikkim called Finger Area. This brought back into dispute the middle sector of the LAC,which was considered settled in general perception. India lodged diplomatic protests but finally it had to beef up troop presence in the area.

Chinese aggressiveness on its only unsettled boundary represents a steady effort at changing facts on the ground and this has been more active since the 2005 agreement,indicating sharp differences in perception on both sides. Still,all of this makes little sense unless seen in the context of overall Chinese assertiveness when it comes to Indian aspirations.

First discreetly and then openly,China blocked India’s most important diplomatic initiative with the US — the nuclear deal — at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Chinese delegation unceremoniously left the meeting just as all other opposition withered away and delayed proceedings until the White House called the Chinese president. There is enough evidence with India of Chinese diplomats egging on the United for Consensus grouping at the UN to block expansion of the Security Council. Close coordination with Pakistan on all these issues is now a matter of record. Add to this,the latest row at the Asian Development Bank over granting assistance to projects in Arunachal Pradesh only confirms Beijing’s intentions to frame the state as a disputed area in international discourse.

Clearly,over the past four years,China has used every lever in its rapidly growing diplomatic arsenal to throw India off-balance,unsettle its priorities and openly rival Indian influence in South Asia. China has provoked India repeatedly of late and no amount of pressure from India has worked. India’s best answer so far has been to garner support from the US and its allies,like at the NSG. A rising China even reduces these possibilities,but the problem is even larger for the Indian polity which has to explain this to an equally resilient and aspiring India. Whatever the government comes up with,another fact is also clear — blanking out China from public discourse is no longer a solution.

pranab.samanta@expressindia.com

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