Playing with dragon

There is enough space for both India and China to grow, and if they can do so together it will contribute to Asia’s prosperity.

Defence minister A K Antony led a four-day high-level delegation to China from July 4 to 7, his first since assuming the portfolio and two months after the stand-off in eastern Ladakh. This was the first visit by an Indian defence minister since 2006 when Pranab Mukherjee held the portfolio. Antony’s visit was also to reciprocate last year’s visit of Chinese defence minister General Liang Guanglie to New Delhi, which took place after a gap of eight years. Antony was accompanied by eastern army commander Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, and southern naval commander Vice Admiral D Soni.

What did the visit achieve? Apart from keeping the dialogue in a relationship marked by suspicion and mistrust open, nothing much could be expected as China is known for conceding nothing without extracting a high price and finds India a difficult customer. For China, it is relatively easy to bully its smaller neighbours such as Japan, South Korea and some countries in Southeast Asia. With India, it is a difficult ball game. Yet, China has the dubious reputation for warning India at odd times to score a point.
That is typical Chinese behaviour in conducting diplomacy and therefore not surprising. Here, two developments are worth-mentioning. One was Antony’s visit coincided with the visit of Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to China. While Sharif was given a red carpet welcome, Antony was snubbed when a Chinese general warned India against stirring up ‘new trouble’ in a long-standing border dispute, hours before Antony landed in China.

What did Major General Luo Yuan say? Known for his nationalist views, the general warned that “the Indian side should not provoke new problems and increase military deployment at the border areas and stir up new trouble.” Being the self-confessed ‘reasonable hardliner,’ the comments by the deputy director general of the world military research department at a People’s Liberation Army academy riled the Indian side which sought clarification from China on his hawkish remarks. The said general made waves in 2012 with comments questioning the legitimacy of Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands, a chain that includes Okinawa and hosts numerous US military bases.

Though Chinese officials dismissed Yuan’s provocative comments saying that the officer was superannuated and retired from political and military posts a while ago and therefore no importance may be give to his remarks, it was foolhardy for India to believe the Chinese assertion that a general of high rank would dare make such provocative comments without PLA’s authorisation. By allowing the general to express his malevolent views to an invited guest smacked of China’s ugly habit of harking back to the history of crudity of dynastic era. Of course a civilised Antony was not expected to take the bait, but he did make India’s stand known in no uncertain terms that the country will face aggression against it resolutely. Not many years ago when former external affairs minister Atal Behari Vajpayee landed in Beijing, China made incursion to Indian territory forcing Vajpayee to abruptly cancel further stay in China and immediately return to India.

Improving security   

While no agreements were expected to be signed during the visit, the two sides advanced negotiations on the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), a new mechanism suggested by China last year for improving security at the borders. The BDCA which has several facets was discussed extensively between the two sides, especially during the June 28-29 border talks when National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon visited China.

The two countries are strengthening the edifice of mechanisms that Besides BDCA, the two sides were expected to finalise the dates to resume the military exercises which would focus on anti-terrorism drills. They have already finalised the modalities for the exercises which would be held in Chengdu, close to Tibet. Armies of India and China held their first exercises in 2007 in Belguam in Karnataka with plans to hold such events annually. Similar exercises were held in 2008 at China's Kunming city. The drills were later disrupted over China’s new policy of granting visas on piece of paper to residents of Jammu and Kashmir and even denied visas to a top Northern Command general after which India called off military contacts.

So what is needed is mutual trust and mutual respect and here Antony scored a point in calling for closer military ties between the countries, which will help  maintain peace along the borders. That is what Antony told the political commissar of National Defence University General Liu Yazhou. Antony also had wide-ranging  discussions with Chinese premier Li Keqiang  and defence minister Gen Chang Wanquan on a host of issues including maintaining peace and tranquility at the borders. Antony had expressed interest to visit the top military academy to study the Chinese pattern as India has recently launched its National Defence University in New Delhi which was expected to be ready in the next few years. What is needed is strategic communication which will help build trust and understanding.

China should realise that it is because of its belligerence India is strengthening its strategic ties with the Southeast Asian countries as a part of its Look East policy. India will also sign a trilateral maritime cooperation agreement with Sri Lanka and Maldives in July 2013 in a move to counter China’s bid to spread its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region. As a rising power with global ambition, China must demonstrate the right behaviour of a global power and not try to dominate others by use of force or the threat of its use. There is enough space for both India and China to grow economically and politically and if they can do so with a spirit of accommodation and trust, it will contribute to Asia’s prosperity.

(The writer is a visiting faculty at the JNU, New Delhi)

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