Needless needling

Leaking Diplomacy

South Block has ‘leaked’ over the years due to turf wars or ego clashes or the shenanigans of some perverts. But the media ‘leak’ of the past week over the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh Ltd proposal to explore oil in the South China Sea has been qualitatively different. It was a calculated policy-leak that ‘embellished’ External Affairs Minister S.M.Krishna’s visit to Hanoi.

However, the ‘leak’ needlessly complicates India’s diplomacy at a complicated juncture in the geopolitics of the region. In principle, there is nothing wrong if the government robustly works on the country’s energy security – be it in the South China Sea or via an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. But in the present case, the intention was less about energy security and more about needling China. One can only hope that India is not climbing onto the bandwagon of the United States’ containment strategy toward China.

The government succeeded in livening up the Sino-Indian polemic, although Beijing chose to downplay the Indian taunt. Delhi seemed to flag that if China appears in the Indian Ocean region or in the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), Delhi may muddy the waters of the South China Sea. Is it a realistic linkage?

Through the Indian Ocean sea-lanes China transports 90 per cent of its oil imports and conducts its trade worth hundreds of billions of dollars with Europe, Middle East and Africa. China cannot possibly disengage from legitimate concerns over its communication links or subcontract them to India. China obviously prefers to work directly with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean (including India) to safeguard its vital interests.

Viewed from another angle, the ONGC Videsh Ltd project in South China Sea commits India to a seamless strategic partnership with Vietnam and it is going to be a long haul. The Washington Post wrote on Sunday: “Beijing views the disputed waters as not merely an arena for nationalist flag-waving but as indispensable to its future economic well-being… A big factor in this uncertainty is a meshing of Chinese commercial, strategic and military calculations.”

Obviously, this particular quarrel that India is picking up with China involves a mammoth long-term foreign-policy enterprise. Besides, Hanoi is a street-smart practitioner of diplomacy, as the chronicle of its normalisation with the United States within living memory of the Vietnam War, testifies.

Hanoi can be trusted to do its homework meticulously, whereas, it is no secret that our mandarins have a short attention span and are not particularly known for imagination, our diplomacy (even with the US) is episodic, and our current record is dismal. The prime minister’s aircraft hardly took off from Dhaka on his return journey to Delhi, when Bangladesh’s army chief headed for China on a 5-day visit.

Trading partner
India cannot match China’s status as Vietnam’s number one trading partner or its expanding profile as an investor in the Vietnamese economy. India is useful for Vietnam as a ‘hedge’ against China’s overbearing presence and Hanoi prioritises the relationship with China. Yet, the Indian establishment is willing to take sides in the dispute over South China Sea.

Again, Delhi overlooked that the Chinese position on the India-Pakistan disputes – Kashmir, terrorism, etc. – has shown a marked change toward a more balanced view. Ironically, this latest spat with China erupted even as the former POK prime minister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhuri quietly crossed the border and slipped into Srinagar on a 5-day visit. Chaudhuri Saheb becomes the first-ever official, serving or former, from POK to be allowed into J&K.

Letting in Chaudhuri Saheb is a political call of considerable significance. It implies that despite the pretensions of POK being ‘our territory’, we live in a real world and India should remain open to a settlement of the dispute with Pakistan with LOC as the international border. That being the case, it is time to take a good look at what China is doing in POK.

The time has come for India to rationalise any stabilisation of POK and the Northern Areas as something in its own long-term interests. Stability leads to security and offers the best guarantee against terrorism. If China on its own – for compulsions of national development strategy – or in league with the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (as seems increasingly likely) works toward creating the infrastructure for POK and the Northern Areas of Pakistan against the backdrop of the Afghan war and the long-term western military presence in the region, India need not get worked up.

The US-NATO-China moves to develop the infrastructure of POK and Northern Areas are in the interests of regional security. China’s activities in the POK and Northern Areas do not necessarily warrant a ‘tit-for-tat’ by India in the South China Sea.

Viewed from any angle, the best conclusion that can be drawn is that Delhi has acted out of some incomprehensible seasonal itch to irritate Beijing and deliberately raise the pitch of rhetoric. It jars with the recent Indian decision to seek membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the attendant claims by our mandarins that Beijing indeed views the Indian move favourably.

What is doubly intriguing is that this diplomatic bravado over South China Sea is manifesting at a time when the government’s political stock is abysmally low and the popular alienation is palpably rising. Weak leaderships are known to do strange things to rally opinion.
(The writer is a former diplomat)

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