China has consistently followed a policy towards India of engagement with containment.
Diplomacy is about strategy and perception. The first requires careful and deliberative planning as well as anticipation, both in the short term and the long term. The second is about working to ensure how other countries perceive us. If, in spite of all the strategic planning, the impression that a country projects is that it is weak-kneed and will bow down to threat and intimidation, then much of its strategy is also devalued.
These ruminations are relevant in the context of recent developments in our relations with China. It is an important neighbour, and an emerging superpower with which we have significant bilateral relations that we should seek to strengthen further. This being said, the manner in which it has reacted to the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, requires us to reconsider our own response to China within the larger matrix of Indo-Chinese relations.
Reacting to the proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh earlier this month, the Chinese foreign office issued an official statement saying that this step will cause “serious damage to bilateral ties”, adding ominously that New Delhi must make a “choice” about whether it still intends to proceed with the visit. Such threatening statements continued throughout the visit. After it was over, the Chinese government assigned Chinese names to six areas in Arunachal Pradesh and reiterated its claim that the state was south Tibet and part of China. An authorised Chinese media outlet said, “India will pay dearly if it continues the petty game of playing the Dalai Lama card.”
The Dalai Lama was provided refuge in India in 1959, 58 years ago. We have consistently told China that we see him as a religious leader, and that India does not question China’s claim over Tibet. But, what has China’s approach been? From our point of view, China is in illegal possession of Aksai Chin, which it occupied after the 1962 war. Since 1993, it has been the clear understanding between both countries that neither side will interfere in the management of territories on either side of the roughly 4, 000 kms disputed line of actual control (LAC). Although we should have, we have not protested on Chinese movements in Aksai Chin. However, China publicly and emphatically continues to lay claim to Arunachal Pradesh that is an integral part of India. In fact, it has even advised us to exercise “caution” and “restraint” in our efforts to link Arunachal Pradesh to our national rail network!
Moreover, China has invested heavily in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which we claim as part of our territory, and is an area internationally accepted as a disputed area. In recent times it is building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through PoK, with investments running into billions of US dollars. But, our response to such direct provocations has been at best muted. In contrast, we appear deferential and accommodating when China protests our oil exploration in the South China Sea, which has not been declared internationally as a disputed area.
China has consistently followed a policy towards India of engagement with containment. We have welcomed it, but have never had a firm or consistent response to the policies of containment. For instance, when China announced that Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh will get stapled visas, we seemed to have been taken by surprise. Our response then could have been to announce stapled visas for Tibetans of Chinese origin. But once again, we lacked the guts to provide an appropriate riposte to an openly provocative action.
There are other issues too, vital to our national interest, on which China has been decisively unhelpful. It is the one country that has placed a roadblock to our membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It has also put a veto on the UN ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist Masood Azhar. China’s defence funding of Pakistan, including clandestinely supplying it with nuclear technology, is also well-documented. It is also no secret that China encourages when it wishes the rebel groups in the North-east against India.
I think, therefore, the time has come for India to decide what the idiom of our response should be to Chinese behaviour. Should we, as we just demonstrated in Arunachal Pradesh, proceed with our resolve on what we believe to be in our national interest, irrespective of China’s crude threats? I think we should. This does not mean that we needlessly escalate differences to a crisis point. But it does mean that we are also prepared to stand up with dignity in the face of Chinese provocations, reiterate without prevarication what is in our national interest, and eschew our normal pattern of deferential responses.
Such a change in our response would also require us to urgently give attention to our state of defence preparedness along the disputed boundary with China. China spends more than twice of what India does on its defence requirements. Yet, its defence expenditure, as a percentage of its GDP, is lower than that of India. The Chinese economy has grown at a faster pace, and its defence budget, although larger is more efficiently used. Arms imports have come down drastically. Russia and Ukraine are the only major outside suppliers of China’s weaponry, most of which is now produced at lesser cost at home. In contrast, the state of our indigenous arms production is abysmal, and funds for vitally needed projects along the Indo-China border are perennially in short supply.
In diplomacy, perceptions matter. The time has come for us to ensure that in China’s perception we are not a nation that can easily be threatened or intimidated, or a country that will perpetually provide a muted response to China’s openly hostile actions against our interests. Once this is adequately projected, there is no reason why we should not work, in our own national interest, to strengthen bilateral relations with a country, which is not only a neighbour we must live with, but also a major power with whom we have a wide and vital spectrum of interactions.