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China's Claims over Arunachal: Reflections on Chinese Foreign Policy and what India needs to do

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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  • November 21, 2006

    Refuting China's claim over Arunachal Pradesh, India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee firmly reiterated that "The whole of Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India." Coming as it did days before the Chinese President's four-day visit to India from November 20, 2006, the statement made by China's Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, that "In our position, the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that. That is our position," is unfortunate. Though the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, has downplayed the envoy's remarks, there is need to ponder over such statements. In fact, such statements from a high level government official raises the question as to why China chose to make such statements when President Hu Jintao is slated to visit India? Does it reflect hidden complexities in the Sino-Indian border negotiations? Does it reflect China's diplomatic tactics? What does it say about China's larger foreign policy goals? While India should firmly refute such statements and adopt a pragmatic and resolute stand on the border dispute, it should also hone up its negotiating skills to confront a rising China.

    The statement reflects larger calculations in the Chinese game plan on border negotiations. It is well known that the border talks have gone on for a long time without any solution in sight. The Joint Working Group (JWG) meetings on the border resolution have been a failure. The border talks were thereafter raised to the high level Special Representative Group (SRG) meetings. So far, seven rounds of SRG meetings have taken place. However, no reports on the nature of progress made on the border talks have come out from either side. What can however be deduced from the SRG meetings is that the border negotiations have entered a crucial stage. This much was indicated by National Security Advisor, M. K. Narayanan, the Special Representative from the Indian side. The statement from the Chinese ambassador should be seen in this context. First, it reflects a hardening of China's stand on the border issue. Second, it could also mean that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is playing a role in influencing Chinese negotiations on the border talks. Third, it indicates a Chinese strategy to understand Indian minds on the vexed border issue as well as to gauge India's diplomatic preparedness. Such a statement prior to Hu's visit, thus, indicates China's larger foreign policy strategy and negotiating skills in dealing with contentious foreign policy issues.

    A crucial component of China's foreign policy is border diplomacy. China calls this a "greater periphery strategy". It identifies the greater periphery as comprising Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia. According to one Chinese scholar, China regards the greater periphery as the main battlefield for safeguarding its national security and upholding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The greater periphery is also the zone that supports China's sustainable development and serves as a principal source of its energy resources. Finally, this four-region zone is crucially linked to China's ultimate growth as a major power. However, China views the role of the US with its alliance systems in Asia as a challenge to its greater periphery strategy. The other challenge is its existing territorial and maritime disputes with ASEAN, India and Japan. China's border dispute with India should be placed in this wider foreign policy of greater periphery strategy where the underlying aim is to acquire great power status through sustained economic growth and peaceful diplomacy. In this context, China aims at greater engagement with India under the co-operative security framework.

    While India should extend the scope of engagement with China and explore new areas of co-operation, it should also firm up its own foreign policy strategy. One way to assert our own foreign policy positions would be by issuing position papers or White Papers on contentious issues. Generally, White Papers help to define foreign policy interests and goals as well as defend and uphold the nation's sovereign rights on issues of a controversial nature. So far India has no such White Paper on any of the contentious issues. It should come out with White Papers on Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, indicating its position on the contentious border issue. China claims around 36,000 square miles of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh, while it has occupied some 15,200 square miles in Kashmir.

    Another significant way to firm up our foreign policy means would be by adopting aggressive economic diplomacy on the border that would boost our periphery strategy. The border economic diplomacy would include the creation of intensive infrastructural links and establishment of trans-border sub-regional mechanisms. India has lately woken up to China's aggressive road building along the Sino-Indian border. It finalised some 27 projects for construction of new roads along this border under the initiative of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in May 2006. Though India is a latecomer in infrastructural development, it has to regularly monitor and hasten infrastructural development. Among the sub-regional integration efforts, while China's Mekong Basin Project efforts have gone apace, India's Mekong-Ganga Co-operation has stalled. New Delhi should, therefore, take serious steps to augment its regional integration projects as they are not only important means to build strong economic linkages but also contribute to the country's power projection.

    Besides strengthening our own foreign policy strategy, India needs to understand the Chinese mind-set. This would enable us to sharpen our negotiating skills. An important means to understand the Chinese mind is through the creation of greater channels of interaction between the two countries. The Meeting of the China-India Eminent Persons' Group that was first initiated in 2001 serves as an important advisory agency for the two governments and help in boosting mutual trust between them. Such meetings should be held regularly to hasten the process of bilateral understanding. Regular exchanges between the think tanks of the two countries would also help to firm up foreign policy directions. It may be noted that before every high level visit from China, there is a flurry of activity among Chinese research think tanks, either visiting India or organising meetings with their Indian counterparts in China. Unlike in India, in China most think tanks are either directly under a ministry or the State Council and play an important role in providing policy inputs to the government.

    While these are a few steps to strengthen Indian diplomacy and negotiating strategy, at a more specific level like border negotiations, India should avoid making any unilateral concessions to China. It may be recalled that the Indian Prime Minister's 2003 visit to China resulted in India's explicit recognition of Tibet as a part of Chinese territory without any reciprocal commitment from the Chinese side on Sikkim. This showed India in a poor diplomatic light and exposed its weak negotiating skills. India should, therefore, develop its negotiating skills so as not to get caught unawares while dealing with China.

    In the context of Hu Jintao's visit, India needs to be clear about its own foreign policy gaols as well as understand China's foreign policy strategy. This would help India to avoid ad-hocism in policymaking and enable the formulation of a long-term China policy. While reminding China that Yuxi's statement is detrimental to long-term Sino-Indian relations, India should resolutely point out that peaceful relations between them is imperative for their goals of emerging as major powers.