Testing patience: Nefarious games at the LAC and Li visit

Amid Chinese Prime Minister’s decision to land on Indian soil on his first foreign trip on 20th May, 2013 and the warmth displayed by the new Chinese President Xi Jin Ping during his meeting with the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the Durban BRICS Summit, the 15th  April incident of  incursion by a platoon strength of Chinese PLA in the Depsang valley of the eastern Ladakh has poured cold water over the new euphoria being generated in the diplomatic circles over the future of Sino Indian relations taking a new turn.

The mid April incursion will definitely cast a shadow over the impending visit of the new Chinese PM Li Ke Qiang and its success depends on the resolution of the issue to the satisfaction of the Indian media, which has the power to cast a shadow on the Li visit. The Indian media has been blaring round the clock and molding public opinion by telling them the real intent behind the latest Chinese move.

The latest incident should also alert the Indian strategist of the real motive behind the move to embrace India by the new Chinese leadership. The timing of the incursion has put Indian foreign ministry in a spot, as they were getting ready to roll out red carpet for the new Chinese PM. However ignoring all concerns, the Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid proceeded to Beijing on 9th May to prepare the ground for the visit of the Chinese PM.

The BRICS Durban meeting between Chinese President Xi Jin Ping and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had produced unexpected warmth and the leaders decided to exchange summit level visits in 2013 itself.

As a first step the Chinese side decided to forgo protocol and dispatch its Prime Minister Li Ke Qiang in the second half of May to New Delhi. Well aware that he would be meeting the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Durban during the BRICS summit on 27th March, 13; the new Chinese President Xi Jin Ping unveiled his five point formula for furthering relations with India just a week ago.

China’s fear

The two leaders were meeting at a time when the US and its allies are increasing their focus on the Indo Pacific region with the Pivot to Asia or rebalancing of Asia policy. China is viewing this policy as a means to contain the rise of China and China sees India as the possible US partner in this evolving Pivot to Asia policy.  

China knows very well that if India decides to be an active partner in this policy, China will find it difficult to project itself as the sole leader of Asia.  Hence, the warmth displayed by the Chinese leader during his meeting with Singh, led to the clarification from him that India adheres to an independent foreign policy and will not be used as a tool to contain China, adding that India is willing to make concerted efforts with China to show the world that they are cooperative partners instead of rivals.

While China has seen transformation in its leadership, Indian leaders will also change by the middle of next year, but as far as relations with China is concerned no Indian leader can deviate from the consensus already achieved on India’s policy towards China.

Hence the Chinese strategists should note that any future government in India will have to tow the Manmohan line or may be even more assertive. Just a year after taking over the reigns of India in 2004, Manmohan Singh was able to craft a bilateral agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles to resolve the border issue, which was later contradicted by the Chinese.

But the Prime Minister successfully reminded the Chinese leader, “India will abide by political guidelines set by both sides and seek a solution to the bilateral border issue from a strategic height with a commitment to safeguard peace in their border areas.”

While promulgating his five point formula Xi had reiterated the old Chinese line that “Pending the final settlement of the boundary question the two sides should work together and maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas and prevent the border question from affecting the overall development of bilateral relations,” Xi during his meeting with Singh improved it with adjectives “ as soon as possible” Xi commented , “China, which regards its ties with India as one of the most important bilateral relationship, commits itself to pushing forward the two countries’ strategic cooperative partnership.”

These are all nice sounding words and will be meaningful only if China takes care not to offend Indian sensitivities on issues like Depsang incursion and staple visa for residents of Jammu and Kashmir. If India should be sensitive to Chinese concerns on Tibet, should China not show regard for India’s territorial integrity, asked one senior Indian diplomat.

If China continues to harp on the Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China, the two countries will not be able to promote bilateral relations in an atmosphere of trust.

The Xi-Manmohan Durban meeting was described as get to know each other and efforts to develop the kind of bondage Manmohan Singh had developed with his predecessor Hu Jin Tao and Wen Jia Bao, with whom Singh had met 27 times on various occasions including India visits.

In this background the five point proposal has now been rechristened by Indian commentators as new Panchsheel, which was first enunciated in 1954 by the then prime ministers Nehru and Chou En Lai. The first Panchsheel was more on basic principles like mutual respect for each others territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non aggression, mutual non interference in each others internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

The new five point proposal seems to be on more practical grounds, which if correctly followed will lead to intense dialogue on issues of concern to each other facilitating frank exchange of views and in the long term may lead to steps to alleviate those concerns.

The five point formula enunciated publicly by the new Chinese President proposed: First, China and India should maintain strategic communication and keep the bilateral relations on the “right track”.

Second, “we should harness each other’s comparative strengths and expand win-win cooperation in infrastructure, mutual investment and other areas,”

Third, India and China should strengthen cultural ties and constantly increase the mutually expanding friendship between the two countries.

Fourth, the two countries should expand coordination and collaboration in multi-lateral forums to jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries and tackle global challenges.

And the fifth proposal, “We should accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences existing between the two countries,”

Taking advantage of the formula already put forward by Xi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised the issue of China’s relationship with Pakistan and other India’s neighbors which should not create problems in promoting India-China relations.

Core issues

Another issue of core concern from India’s point of view is the unresolved Sino-Indian border and the construction of hydroelectric power stations on Tibet, which has the potentials of either flooding Indian areas or stopping the flow of water during the peak demand season.

If the two countries seriously discuss the issue of core concerns to each other, then the issue of South China Sea should definitely figure in the discourse. This will prove to be a major bone of contention as China has asserted its territorial sovereignty over the most of South China Sea and India has serious economic interests in the maritime area.

Besides Indian commitment to explore oil and gas in collaboration with the Vietnamese government more than half of Indian maritime trade is conducted via the South China Sea. If China’s claim to have sovereign authority over the entire sea is recognized Indian maritime trade will be seriously impacted.

This area is also a matter of concern for other major powers like US, Japan and South East Asian partners. Hence India needs to discuss the South China Sea with its other strategic partners and act collectively to prevent the establishment of Chinese suzerainty over the maritime area.

Thus the fifth proposal by Xi Jin Ping that we should accommodate each other’s core concerns, offers an opportunity to Indian interlocutors to clearly spell out India’s stand on the maritime area, which should be resolved in accordance with the United Nations Conference on Law of the Seas.  

To prevent China from actually carrying out this threat, India needs to be in constant dialogue with US, Japan, South Korea and with ASEAN members.

India’s military and diplomatic engagement with these countries should naturally be a matter of concern for the Chinese strategists as India is being seen as a lynchpin in the new US policy of Pivot to Asia.

Though India should certainly not give any such impression, Indian should also not be seen to be surrendering its interests in the South China Sea which is regarded as international waters, for the sake of maintaining good relations with China.

Indian diplomatic observers are of the view that India must speak from a position of strength, hence India’s engagement with East Asian  partners like Japan and South Korea along with US should  not diminish  under the influence of Chinese  lollypop of offers to broadening exchanges and cooperation between the armed forces and deepening of mutual military and security trust.

But the trust can only be enhanced when China stops supplying Pakistan missile and nuclear technology and supports India for the permanent membership of the UNSC and   four international regimes like the NSG, MTCR, Australia Group and the Wassenar Arrangement.

If China tries to equate India with Pakistan on these issues, the trust deficit will widen and China cannot hope to have a reciprocal policy from India.

The five point formula offers India an opportunity to initiate frank discussion on these issues and the new Chinese PM’s visit to India should provide an opportunity to Indian leaders to engage in serious talks on issues of mutual concern.

The new Panchsheel promulgated by the new Chinese president will only make a difference in India-China relations in the coming years if the Chinese leadership does not allow its army to indulge in nefarious games at the 4057 kms long LAC and move fast towards resolution of the boundary issue to prevent such incidents.