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Sino-Indian Relations

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 27, 2010

    The Wen visit has perhaps served a useful purpose of quickly dissipating the euphoria over the November visit of President Obama. Obama may have called India as an ‘emerged’ instead of emerging power, but Wen has clearly indicated that China does not agree with this.

    Some reports continue to talk of the visit to India by the heads of state/government of the five permanent members of the UNSC as an endorsement of India’s rising profile, but is it really so? The Indian economy is certainly doing well and the country is now seen flush with funds. Western developed countries are, therefore, making a beeline to get as many contracts as possible. Indians should quickly disabuse themselves of any pretensions of having arrived on the scene.

    India’s pleadings and entreaties to these powerful countries to admit it in the Big-5 Club have also not gone unnoticed. Except for Wen Jiabao, the other four have blithely endorsed India’s desire knowing full well that there is little investment needed on that account. China is unlikely to play ball. Why should it allow a regional rival a voice at the high table? In any case, is it really necessary for India to make these pathetic pleas?

    Most reports are agreed that the visit of the Chinese Premier was disappointing but most China watchers and the foreign office mandarins would have known what to expect of such interactions. Wen was unlikely to substantively address any of the major irritants, viz. PLA incursions across the LAC, dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), construction activity in PoK and issue of stapled visas to Indian residents of J&K, hence there is no need to be disappointed.

    Expectedly, Wen sounded unhappy with the Indian media. He wanted it to promote friendship rather than dwell only on the negatives but given China’s attitude this is not a fair expectation. He also reportedly asked the Indian side to ‘increase the safety zone’ along the India-China boundary. When the Indian side pointed out that there were existing mechanisms, his suggestion was that there was no harm in having another layer of safeguards and creating a new mechanism.1 It may be recalled that in 1962 as well the PRC leadership had suggested a 20 km withdrawal by the two sides to cool the temperatures.

    This is a new development and could well mean that the Chinese side is not so sure if the existing mechanisms and arrangements would actually prevent an unintended border skirmish. The setting up of a ‘hot line’ between the two Premiers is also noteworthy. Hot Lines are after all needed and/or used only in an emergency and so far the two countries have managed without such a communication channel. So what has changed? Does it mean that the LAC is not as tranquil as claimed or is China showing its unhappiness over India’s plans to develop infrastructure and reinforce its defences?

    The big surprise, if it can really be called that, was the ‘sudden’ discovery by the Indians that China was once again playing games with cartography. In a report on the ‘Mystery of the Missing 1000 miles along the Border’,2 it was said that China has shrunk its border with India from the 3600 to 2000 km, clearly indicating that it does not accept India’s sovereignty over the Indian State of J&K as a given. The stratagem of the ‘stapled visa’ thus becomes evident.

    In his talks in Pakistan Wen also repeated China’s assured help to safeguard the latter’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity thus once again removing any doubts about China’s role in South Asian affairs. As pointed in these columns before, China wants to become a player in the resolution of the Kashmir issue.

    The presence of an 8-to-10,000 strong PLA contingent in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), ostensibly for the protection of construction workers, means that in the unlikely(?) event of India ever contesting Pakistani occupation of this Indian territory it would have to contend with Chinese military presence on a semi-permanent basis. The March 1963 Sino-Pakistan Treaty, which ceded 5000 square km of PoK in Shaksgam Valley to China, expressly states that the said treaty would depend on the final outcome of the India-Pakistan dispute and would be renegotiated. That assurance seems to have been abandoned. As pointed out before,3 with its increasing investment in Afghanistan and its ever expanding footprint in South Asia, China has indeed changed geography!

    There are once again reports of China now officially declaring its plans to build aircraft carriers further confirming that the comprehensive modernisation of its army, navy and the air force and space capabilities are destined to alter the power balance in the region.

    China has all along been testing the limits of India’s tolerance and restraint and has once again given the Indian foreign ministry much home work for the next few months. India must accordingly reassess its expectations of China.

    One thing that China could not have missed is the long-term impact of this assertive agenda. China seems to have taken India’s dislike for alliances as a given. Such obvious and flagrant pressure tactics by China may well push India even closer into the US embrace. In the event of India becoming a quasi-ally of the US in the future, however implausible it may seem now, it is likely that many countries of the Asia Pacific would reconsider their options. Recent Japanese pronouncements on its security policy should also not be taken lightly as these clearly show a perception of a heightened Chinese security threat.