“We will stick to the road of peaceful development but will never give up our legitimate rights nor sacrifice our core national interests. China will adhere to an open cooperative and win-win development model. But no country should presume that we would engage in trade involving our core interests or that we would swallow the bitter fruit of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests”
– Xi Jinping, Chinese Communist Party Secretary General, addressing the CCP Politburo on 28 January
The UPA government told a Parliamentary Committee last week that Chinese troops have pitched tents 19 km deep inside Indian territory in the Depsang area of the western sector in Ladakh since 15 April. Curiously, the incursion and potential settlement in Daulat Beg Oldi is taking place on the eve of a planned visit of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Word has been put out that he is keen to make India his first official stop to signal the importance and priority that China attaches to its relationship with India. Chinese President and CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping had told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Durban just about two weeks before the Daulat Beg Oldi incursion that the border issue was complex, left behind by history, and that peace and tranquility should be maintained.
This echoes what former premier Wen Jiabao had said during his visit to India in 2010. Earlier, during his visit to India in 2006, then president Hu Jintao had stated that China, desiring to build a strong and cooperative relationship based on shared and common interests, had taken a “long-term and strategic view” of the ties with India and characterised the present phase in the ties as marking a “new historic beginning” signalling to the international community that India and China were willing to work hand in hand for long-term friendship and common development.
The task of clarification and confirmation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was envisaged as an interim step for purposes of border management pending an agreement on the border. This exercise got nowhere given the Chinese unwillingness to share maps setting out its perception of the LAC, without which there could be no basis for a mutually agreed LAC.
We are thus faced with a situation where the status quo could be altered by either side by establishing a ground presence, which accords with its own perception and dare the other side to challenge it. The pattern, to date, of infringements of the LAC has been that Chinese patrols have turned back when told they were on the Indian side of the LAC. The exception was the incursion into Sumdorong Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh and that was a quarter of a century ago.
Is the Daulat Beg Oldi incursion an attempt by China to create new ground realities by matching ground positions with its map positions? As has become clear in recent years, the term ‘core interest’ is open to periodic revision. The traditional formulation included Taiwan and Tibet. It was expanded four years ago to include the South China Seas; on 26 April, the Senkaku islands were described as ‘core interest’ (Senkaku are a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan, whose sovereignty is disputed by China).
In this backdrop, is it inconceivable that the India-China border area gets added on at some future date? The absence of goodwill and self-restraint in this regard creates uncertainty and unpredictability, encourages pre-emption; in consequence, it is destabilising for peace and tranquility along the border. This, in turn, is not conducive to bridging the ‘trust deficit’, which the leadership on both sides has said is necessary to consolidate and strengthen bilateral relationship.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken, often enough, about there being “enough space” for both India and China to grow and that he believed the world was large enough for India and China to “cooperate and compete”. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the then external affairs minister SM Krishna had said on 1 November 2010 that India and China should “not only cooperate but be seen to be cooperating”.
China is the second largest economy in the world. Estimates abound that China will overtake the US in the coming decade or more. As China’s economic power grows and with the ongoing modernisation of its military power, its power will be augmented. Indeed, China sees a growing military as a symbol of its peaceful rise and as a strategic requirement of a big power called upon to defend its interests to the best of its ability.
Today, China’s military budget is three times larger than India’s; it exceeds that of India and Japan combined. Chinese Defence Minister Gen Liang Guanglie had agreed at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in 2011 that his country’s military power has enhanced with increased modernisation. But there is, he said, “still a big gap between the military hardware of China and that of developed or relatively developed countries”. Chinese equipment was mainly of second generation and third generation; the armed forces of developed countries have third-or even fourth-generation equipment.
This may well be true when China compares itself with the US and European countries. But compared with its immediate neighbours, the picture looks very different. China is growing stronger; the neighbours are not in a position to keep pace. China’s differences are all with neighbouring countries and there is no assurance that these will be resolved solely through peaceful means.
So, where does all this leave India? Insofar as the Daulat Beg Oldi incursion is concerned, diplomacy is being given a chance — as it should be. It is, nevertheless, odd that the government is seemingly dismissive about this qualitatively different incident by saying that we don’t “want to accentuate the situation”, and terming it “localised” and as an acne that can be removed by “applying balm”. The Indian side speaks of the differing perceptions of the LAC in this sector: the Chinese side does no such thing and denies that they have transgressed. If we are convinced that the status quo has been altered by the Chinese, surely, that is what needs to be highlighted.
The contrast with the way China reacted to the change in status quo on Senkaku islands six months ago is instructive: China’s belligerence in words and deeds came through loud and clear. High-level visits were put on hold; the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan was postponed. China demanded that Japan stop all acts that harm China’s sovereignty; unmanned aerial vehicles were used for maritime surveillance of the islands; Coast Guard ships were sent into the waters around the islands.
One can but hope that diplomacy will succeed in obtaining restoration of status quo ante. The soft-speak should not, however, convey the message that India is willing to settle for less. After all, if the Chinese protestations of goodwill and qualitatively higher level of ties are intended to wean India away from the US’ “return” to Asia or Asian “pivot” policy, it can hardly be unaware that its actions are serving the exact opposite purpose by projecting China’s intentions as hostile and inimical to India’s interests.
China needs — as does India — a climate of peace and stability for continued economic growth. The Chinese growth rates, though still good, are slower than in the past; so are India’s. Both have similar problems to address and resolve. There is much to learn from each others’ experience. The hopes for cooperation and mutual understanding are, today, hostage to China’s desire to assert its territorial and other claims.
The author is a former diplomat; the views expressed here are his own