Substantial inheritance

India and China begin a new template of dialogue over maritime security and border dispute, showing signs of a growing mutual confidence.

The Fifth meeting of the working mechanism of border affairs and the 17th round of talks between the special representatives of India and China draw the line on a crucial foreign-policy template of the UPA government. As regards India-China relations, what is it that the UPA government bequeaths to the successor government that will assume power after the April poll?

In a nutshell, it is a substantial inheritance that the new government can expect, although how it expends it will depend on the political climate in India and, arguably, our ability to ward off the evil eye of wasteful friends abroad.

However, the UPA government did not do anything really dramatic, but instead it picked up the threads where the previous National Democratic Alliance government left and worked on them. It was as if Brajesh Mishra handed over the baton to Shivshankar Menon. Therefore, India-China ties are not going to be subjected to upheaval if a BJP government led by Narendra Modi were to assume power in India. A ‘consensus’ has emerged in India with regard to ties with China.

Having said that, Menon also put his stamp on the India-China relationship. He brought to bear on his work great erudition and professional experience on China and he navigated the polices with sensitivity, far-sightedness and patience, the tangential pulls and pressures by dogmatic pundits and the ill-informed media notwithstanding.

To say that India-China relations are in much better shape today than any time in the last half a century will be stating the obvious. The facts speak for themselves – increasing trade and investment, sustained high-level exchanges, commencement of strategic dialogue and ‘mil-to-mil’ interactions, and, of course, the plain truth that not a drop of blood has been spilt on the disputed border despite all the verbal contestation and posturing.

The last point needs some elaboration, as it may seem to overlook the Depsang incident last year. It does appear as if Chinese ‘incursions’ have increased, but what is actually overlooked is that India’s patrolling has also become more intense and systematised. Interestingly, India can even anticipate the Chinese ‘incursions’ – the pattern of their patrolling. The infrastructure development on the Indian side is work in progress but it already enables our troops to carry out their mission with greater efficiency and purposiveness. 

In retrospect, Depsang incident showed that bilateral mechanisms at the official level are dependable in handling emergent situations. Why the incident took place is yet to be openly discussed in the public domain but it is regarded as an aberration. Most importantly, both sides seem to agree that such incidents should not happen, as they constitute a setback to the relations.

Dispute settlement

Meanwhile, the protracted 3-phase border talks have reached the home stretch of the second phase and it is now up to the two political leaderships to take the big decisions needed to carry things forward leading to the eventual settlement of the border problem. This is where the success of the UPA government comes into play.

The border talks between the two Special Representatives have matured into a full-fledged dialogue on a range of issues affecting the relationship. This has been a good thing to happen and such an approach is conducive to building up mutual trust and confidence, which is essential for the settlement of the border dispute. Three decades of Sino-Soviet border talks finally led to the settlement in the mid-1990s only when the climate of the overall relationship transformed after the end of the cold war era.

Although the initiatives came time and again only from the Chinese side, the fact remains that the two countries today engage each other on a range of issues such as Afghanistan or terrorism, which impact critically on regional security. Curiously, India and China are on the same page with regard to the democratic transition in Bangladesh or Maldives.

Contrary to earlier prognosis, China has not stepped on the Indian toes in Nepal or Bhutan. Nor is the China-Indian relationship held hostage any longer by the rhetoric of the ‘all-weather friendship’ between Beijing and Islamabad.
Equally, China has not gone ballistic that India is pulling all stops to create content in its sub-optimal relationship with Japan. At Beijing’s initiative, India and China are beginning a new template of dialogue over maritime security.

These are signs of a growing mutual confidence. Suffice to say, the thesis of China developing a ‘string of pearls’ in South Asia to strangle the Indian neck has turned out to be a macabre joke spread by motivated western analysts.

Of course, the concerted US attempt to drag India to its containment strategy against China will continue. A recent Cato Institute paper claimed that India has already become a ‘component’ of the US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia.

On the other hand, there is every indication that China coolly assesses the deliberation with which India prioritises its strategic partnership with the US but nonetheless sequesters it from the Sino-Indian bilateral processes. On balance, it stands to reason that against the backdrop of the tensions in the Asia-Pacific, China would appreciate that it is also in its interest to keep the relations with India on an even keel.

Looking ahead, what is needed is a ‘leap of faith.’ To take the Russian example, that country has a far more complicated history of relations with China. The Czarist Russia even annexed vast territories of China. But Russia today is keenly seeking Chinese investments for the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East, which largely comprise uninhabited expanses. In sum, it is through deepening economic engagement that mutual trust can be fostered. In some ways, Gujarat has shown the way.

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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