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Can India ever Trust China?

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 27, 2008

    The two recent glorious achievements - the Olympics and spacewalk mission – seem to have transcended China to a new global height with wide implications for the world’s strategic balance. From all accounts, analysts suggest that China will not only survive but has also gained from the recent global financial meltdown.

    The shift in the global balance of power is visibly getting starker. Only in July this year, President Bush was seen lecturing China against its human rights abuses and even carried the US House of Representatives’ “message of freedom” to Beijing when he attended the Olympics ceremony. But, in a golden rule of irony, President Bush had to call up President Hu Jintao two months later to help rescue US from the raging financial crisis. The Chinese viewed the event as a momentous turn in their history. However, unlike the Russians, Iranians or even Venezuelans, the Chinese seem loath to take pleasure in the American financial crisis.

    Most Chinese experts seem quick to explain the fundamentals of the country’s financial system having a Chinese characteristic and even suggesting a new and durable financial regime to arrest the global crunch. Firstly, to take advantage of the meltdown, China would seek opportunities to creep into strategically critical foreign firms earlier unavailable due to political and financial reasons. Secondly, with high saving rates and domestic strengths, China would be able to make Shanghai Asia’s biggest financial hub much earlier than the targeted 2012.

    On the geopolitical front, a contrast was seen when China successfully showcased a magnificent display of its soft power through the Beijing Olympics on the very day when its giant northern neighbour Russia moved its militarily to seize the separatist enclave of South Ossetia from Georgia. Russia’s actions jolted the West calling it a ‘brazen invasion’ while also raising a host of chilling questions about Moscow’s inclination to return to Cold War tactics. In contrast, China proved itself as a benign, rising and responsible world power and gained wide international admiration. World geopolitics may be complex but Beijing knows how to play it. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meet held in Dushanbe on August 29, the adroit Chinese subtly conveyed its disapproval of the Kremlin’s actions – a position not only heartening for the Western powers but also a solace for the former Soviet republics feeling jittery about Russia’s renewed assertion. The sub-text message was that while Putin was impatient to see the end of the Washington-led uni-polar world, Hu Jintao was willing to cooperate with the US and make China a responsible stakeholder in the world affairs.

    The financial crisis and the Georgian conflict portend substantial rethinking in China, especially the need to cooperate with the US, so as to gain from the American loss of economic pre-eminence in the world. In the recently held India-China dialogue led by IDSA in Beijing, there was no doubting the prospect of a strategic convergence between China and the US. At least Beijing seemed to have prepositioned itself well to deal with the next American President. Only a symbolic protest was made by Beijing over the US sale of $6.43 billion weapons package to Taiwan.

    How do these strategic realignments impact India–China equations is an important issue. A clear sign from this unfolding change is that China would be successful in manipulating the much touted US containment of China policy through India. But most importantly, the Chinese seemed confident that despite the occasional China bashing from certain quarters, a significant number of Indians will continue to opt for an independent foreign policy pursuit.

    The dialogue, held against the backdrop of introducing a red herring at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meeting in Vienna, gave vent to China’s inveterate resistance to a waiver for India, for they strongly believed the special waiver for India could pose a danger to the NPT regime, especially the possible risk of others following the Indian path. Unmistakably, a Chinese case for a similar deal for Pakistan, necessitated by its energy demands, appeared simply to be a cover for tried and tested forms of China’s India containment strategy. But having failed to foil it and perhaps stung by India’s near hysterical media reaction, the impression one carried home from China was that it did not play a spoiler role; instead, it supported India’s case, but look how are these Indians are still ungrateful towards China!

    In the changing equations, the Chinese love for their “time-tested and all-weather friend” Pakistan would not be lost, no matter who controls Islamabad, not even if Baitullah Masood takes over the reins. Islamabad’s frequent reliance on the jihadis finds legitimacy among the Chinese since such a phenomenon, from a Chinese perspective, forms a vital component of Pakistan’s survival policy. In their belief, Pakistan, abandoned by America again and again and squeezed by other forces from all sides, needs to be rescued at all cost. An obvious call to India, therefore, was to stop cornering Islamabad at this hour. However, quite unable to comprehend the tribal dynamics in FATA and NWFP, the Chinese would not oppose an international action against bad elements in those regions without tampering with South Asia’s political geography. China’s new approach is that Pakistan must be dealt multilaterally rather than bilaterally. A clear acknowledgement is that an increasing number of Uighur elements are finding sanctuaries there while also creating drug routes across Xinjiang to Central Asia threatening Chinese interests.

    On the key issues of India-China relations, the overwhelming thought was to learn from the decades-long China’s strategic partnership or dialogue approach with the US. Washington has softened its attitude and stopped demonising China. The US no longer fears uncertainty and instead views China as a rising and not a collapsing power. A strategic adjustment, therefore, is in place and, as such, expelling the US from Asia is no longer an issue.

    What they meant was that India must not pursue a containment policy but learn to manage the competition as a key to move forward. The new emphasis, therefore, entails a point that the two sides should not get bogged down on the boundary issue, ignore recurring irritants like the NSG episode and others if a strategic partnership is to be carried forward. But the question is: can China be trusted again? What is China’s strategic goal in lingering over the boundary settlement? The status of the boundary talks – even to evolve a framework – is marked as a ritual performance or is often shrouded in secrecy. By doing so, China seems to treating the talks as a veneer for diluting the Indian demands further. China is all set to gain in strategic terms and is hence hoping for a final settlement in its favour.

    While there is no so eloquent acknowledgment for what India has done for ensuring a safe passage for the Olympics torch through New Delhi, for China a peaceful conduct of the Beijing Olympics seemed possible only after it had independently managed a full assurance from none other than the Dalai Lama himself. In fact, a fresh nuanced thinking, if not a realisation, among Chinese experts give an indication that the road to peace in Tibet could be only through the Dalai Lama, who they considered,until July, to be a “snake-head” or “a devil with human face”. But for now, how to decouple the Dalai Lama from his clique would remain a major policy challenge for China. If successful, China would like to have India-based Tibetan outfits like the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) to be placed in the category of terrorist groups like the ETIM or newly born Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).

    What appears most startling is not about the Chinese perception on Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh but their continuing open-ended position on Jammu & Kashmir. Possibly, a potential diplomatic sore point in future would hinge around China’s position on J&K’s accession with India. Restoring cross-border linkages between J&K, Xinjiang and Tibet is unacceptable, for they do not view J&K as a settled issue.

    The Chinese perception that bianjie zhengduan (unresolved border dispute) could lead to war with India is well known. India is often referred to as hegemony in most Chinese media op-eds, yet they tend to be surprised by anti-Chinese coverage in India. Indian media reported a higher number of Chinese transgressions - so far over 100 each in Ladakh and Sikkim sectors during this year. With such acrimonious apprehensions and misperceptions growing on both sides and no sign of mistrust disappearing any time soon, there is little to suggest that the relations with China can be more than cosmetic. And now that the Indo-US nuclear deal is through, China is expected to further curtail India’s advancement through its backstage diplomacy.

    China’s next target would be to thwart India’s chance to find a permanent seat in the UNSC. In fact, soon after the NSG episode, China attended a closed door meeting on September 26 of the ‘Coffee Club’ countries chaired by Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini that opposed the UNGA’s efforts to forge a consensus on UNSC expansion. As the UNGA sets February 29, 2009 as the deadline for the negotiations, China is expected to lobby openly against the G4’s (Germany, Brazil, India and Japan) formula for a consensus on the expansion model. This is yet again proof of China backtracking from its earlier stated position to support India’s aspirations to enter the UNSC.

    As we move ahead into 2009, there would be several such incidents cropping up which would strike at the core of mutrual trust that was supposed to have been built painstakingly over the years between India and China. While Beijing has given no indication of signing a nuclear deal with Pakistan similar to the one signed between India and the US, China’s role in an international bail-out programme for Islamabad would be a calibrated one that would demand closer scrutiny. While the economic ties between the two countries are growing at a fast pace, there is no sign yet of China changing its determination to box India within the confines of South Asia. Many gullible Indians seem to have accepted this fact instead of thinking about a correct response to it.