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Can India Say No?

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • June 23, 2008

    Where are India-China relations heading, given repeated Chinese claims in recent years to Indian territory and a noticeable hardening of its position beginning with Sun Yuxi’s statements on Arunachal Pradesh in 2006? The latest Chinese claim is on Sikkim’s finger tip region, which came up a few weeks before Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s four-day visit to China between 4 and 7 June 2008. It may be recalled that Prime Minister Vajpayee’s 2003 visit resulted in China’s recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India in return for India’s recognition of Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China. It is not clear from media reports what really transpired during Mr. Mukherjee’s discussions with his Chinese interlocutors. One report said that the Minister preferred to remain silent on the Chinese claim, while another noted that Mr. Mukherjee categorically told his interlocutors that Sikkim would not be discussed since it is a settled issue.

    Neither did Mr. Mukherjee’s speech at Peking University on June 6 spell out any new thinking in India’s China policy, where he spoke on the need to resolve differences and urged patience and realism. It is not clear what the Minister meant by realism when the Chinese are making one fresh territorial claim after another and when there have been forty border incursions by Chinese troops in the first few months of 2008 alone. Further, the current emphasis on placing the contentious border issue aside and instead focusing on building deeper economic ties is also questionable. India’s booming trade with China stood at $ 37 billion in 2007, and the target has been set at $60 billion by 2010. But 52 per cent of India’s exports to China comprise raw materials, while the Indian market is being flooded with cheap Chinese goods. In the long run such a skewed trade relationship could well introduce another contentious issue in the bilateral relationship.

    While India advocates a shared vision with the Chinese for the 21st century, it prefers to keep the core irritants unaddressed. It does not spell out categorically that Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are non-negotiable. By keeping silent on these vexing issues, it is in reality postponing the moment of reckoning. Moreover, though China has been repeatedly raking up its claims on Arunachal, India seems to have forgotten its own land under Chinese occupation – the Aksai Chin area and a part of Kashmir that Pakistan bartered away to China in 1963.

    There seems to be no meaningful advance in the India-China bilateral relationship. India talks of a strategic partnership with China, without fleshing out the nuances of what such a strategic partnership actually means to it. Further, India seldom figures in China’s strategic thinking. What little attention it has received from China was only after conducting its 1998 nuclear test and in the wake of America’s growing interest in engaging India.

    India’s approach towards China is, in fact, intriguing. Being a democracy, its dealings with China should have been transparent. But there is total opaqueness on the progress made in the several rounds of boundary talks, resulting in a great deal of speculation about India’s China policy.

    Another problem that afflicts India’s China policy is its reactive nature, and examples in this regard are aplenty. India started to strengthen its infrastructure all along its border only after China’s massive build up of road and rail infrastructure on its side of the border. India hosted the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2008, apparently taking inspiration from a similar summit hosted by China in 2006. India realised the power of its Diaspora in boosting national development only after seeing China use its diaspora for this purpose. It would not be surprising if India were to host a World Buddhist Conference in the near future, as China had done in 2006. Cumulatively, all this throws poor light on India’s foreign policy and lays bare its curious lack of innovativeness, adroitness and perception.

    It is time India rethought its China policy. It cannot anymore content itself thinking that the border dispute can be resolved under more favourable circumstances in future. China has solved most of its border disputes from a position of strength and it is likely to adopt a similar approach towards India as well. Further, the problem of Tibet, which is central to the India-China border dispute, looms large in Chinese strategic thinking. India ought to remember that China will never accept the McMahon line, not so much because it is an imperialistic relic but because it accords Tibet a sovereign independent status with treaty-making treaties. Given this, should India continue to consider Tibet an internal Chinese issue and sit back and watch China’s growing adventurism along the border?

    The border issue is the core irritant in Sino-Indian relations. Unless it is resolved, there cannot be peaceful India-China relations. India should therefore not base its China policy on hopes and assurances but on a clear understanding of Chinese strategy and foreign policy motivations. While building up its economic and military capabilities, India needs to have a pragmatic and robust China policy that is based on saying ‘no’.