India-China Relations: A Reflection

China ArmyThe forthcoming visit of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has led to some exaggerated comment about its significance amidst changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large, besides within China. It is necessary not to get mesmerized by pie in the sky, if not downright fanciful, geo-political or geo-economic scenarios. The focus should be on tangibles – on mutually beneficial diversification and intensification of economic and cultural ties, tapping of all possible complementarities through imaginative arrangements and programmes. Not on political understandings/documentation, on which there should be a moratorium as there is a surfeit already.

The rationale for this admittedly unorthodox (but by no means infeasible) recommendation stems from a review of the political relationship. Painstaking diplomacy for ‘normalisation’ of relations over the years, beginning with exchange (resumption) of Ambassadors in 1976, has transformed ties beyond recognition, at least the atmospherics surrounding them. But two features stand out and deserve note as they remained unexamined largely in the national discourse on the subject: first, the relationship continues to be marked by volatility and secondly, misunderstandings seem to crop up all out of nowhere, as it were.

Continuing Volatility

Pre-1962, relations went from a euphoric ’bhai-bhai’ phase to a ‘bye-bye’ mood within a remarkably short span of less than a decade, despite starting off with the historic Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 as a model for inter-state relations in a world afflicted by cold war between clashing ideologies and political systems.

In the post-1976 period too, one of avowed ‘normalisation’ of relations beginning with the bold, ice-breaking, visit of former PM Vajpayee in February 1979 as Foreign Minister (the first after 1962), there was an early setback when he was forced to cut that ‘patch-up’ trip short because of no thought being spared by the hosts about the sensitivities of their guests in deciding to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam (as to India earlier) while he was still on Chinese soil.

The same lack of sensitivity was displayed in conduct of a nuclear test during President Venkataraman’s visit in 1992 (which was the first Head of State level visit between the two countries ever) after ‘normalisation’ had been put back on track, inter alia, by PM Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark 1988 visit (which is acknowledged by the Chinese to have resulted in relations finally being placed on a higher trajectory).

[Those inclined to dismiss these bloomers as coincidences of no consequence need to square that up with the Chinese proclivity to be sticklers for propriety when it comes to their sensitivities:  it was India that had to make the first move for resumption/advance of interaction at all three levels in the post-1962 period  (Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President),  in 1979 (Vajpayee), 1988 (Rajiv Gandhi) and 1992 (Venkataraman) respectively; returned by their counter-parts Huang Hua, Li Peng and Jiang Zemin unhurriedly in 1981, 1991 and 1996 respectively – to make up for the 3 visits initiated by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (pre-1962) in 1954, 1957 and 1960 (with the last remaining unreciprocated by Pt. Nehru). In addition to having to be the one to assign an Ambassador (late President K R Narayanan) first, in July 1976, as the side that had been the one to withdraw its envoy first, before Chinese Ambassador Chen Chao Yuan was despatched to New Delhi in October 1976.]

Nor are fluctuations a thing of the past, of the days gone by (prior to institutionalization of State functioning into a routinised, non-charismatic and unwhimsical mode in China, post-Deng Xiaoping) – in April 2008, the Chinese Foreign Office thought it fit to summon the Indian (lady) Ambassador in Beijing at 2 A.M. to register their concern over a security threat to their Embassy premises in New Delhi following an attack by Tibetan activists the previous day, even though no damage had been caused. This with the country which was, at that time, already a declared “strategic and cooperative partner” for three years!

Likewise, the remarks of the Chinese MOFA spokesperson registering a strong protest against PM Manmohan Singh‘s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in 2009 did not hesitate to gratuitously refer to him as “an Indian leader” (no more than a year and a half after his “successful” 2008 visit, during which a “Shared Vision for the 21st Century” document had been signed).

Clearly, there is something about Chinese diplomacy and psyche that impels the Chinese side to rock the boat every now and then, unmindful of the impact on the other side.

Abstract Formulations Inviting Misunderstandings

Chinese diplomatic design is disposed towards generalities and formulations long on abstractions (that invariably lend themselves to conflicting interpretations) and short on unambiguous specifics. Sadly, it is that pattern which has been allowed to prevail in the huge corpus of Agreements/ Declarations/ Communiques/Statements signed by the two countries in recent years. And an alternative Indian template, seeking to cast common understandings and shared agreements in tangible terms instead not even been imagined.

Chinese diplomacy would seem to have got the better of India as a result, trapping it in a web of words. By subscribing to cliched phrases and concepts which convey only a connotation, not any clear meaning, India has ended up stoking voluminous verbiage in a paradigm playing to Chinese music.

Two high points – the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement and the 2005 “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership” accompanying the “Agreement on Political Parameters & Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question” – can illustrate how  atmospherics projected by the official documents run way ahead of substantive content.

The former was the very first agreement between the two countries. It loftily propounded the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, later championed as a model for inter-state relations in a world afflicted by cold war between clashing ideologies and political systems, but became a laughing stock world-wide after its cardinal tenet – “non-aggression” – was trampled over by one proponent over the other. Its key weakness — of there being no way of ensuring observance of its unexceptionable provisions in practice or seeking remedy against transgressions – continues to mark the style of their politico-diplomatic interaction to this day.

The provisions of the 2005 “Agreement on Political Parameters & Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question” (that the boundary “should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and that both countries would “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas” while reaching a “boundary settlement”) were widely understood (in India — including by seasoned China experts, not just laymen) to be presaging Chinese readiness to eventually drop their claims in the Eastern sector (covering Arunachal Pradesh) as part of a package deal involving Indian concessions in the Western sector (Aksai Chin) and  a final settlement before long, concluded as it was in the sunshine of the newly established “strategic and cooperative partnership”.

But these expectations were soon belied by Chinese backtracking.  The very next year, the Chinese Ambassador was heard publicly asserting claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s visit – a far cry from hopes of a final settlement on the “boundary question” that set the clock back (since the claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh meant that it was, in the Chinese perception being projected, not a matter of alignment and/or marginal adjustment of the “boundary” but of negotiation of the entire “border” area).

Unsurprisingly, the ‘Special Political Representative’ negotiations, set up in 2003 after the much acclaimed (on both sides, not just India) visit of PM Vajpayee with considerable fanfare as a way of breaking out of the logjam the official level (Joint Working Group) border talks (carried out pursuant to the understanding reached during the 1988 visit of PM Rajiv Gandhi) were felt to have gotten into, themselves got bogged down over Tawang — a redline for India that the Chinese side was never unaware of – not long after.

The justification for according China the exalted standing of a “strategic partner”, never explicitised, likewise needs to be thought through afresh. Prima facie, there would seem to be no case for it when there has been no ‘delivery’ on either of India’s two vital concerns: a settlement on the border and defanging of the Sino-Pak nexus.

Former PM Manmohan Singh was remarkably upbeat on the Joint Statement consecrating the strategic partnership in his Suo Moto statement in the Lok Sabha:

…(it) “codifies the consensus between us that India-China relations transcend bilateral issues andhave now acquired a global and strategic character. The partnership also reflects our desire to proactively resolve outstanding differences, while not letting them come in the way of continued development of relations. This is not in the nature of a military pact or alliance but reflects a congruence of purpose apart from a common perception of world events.” (emphasis added)

That generous assessment has remained unscrutinised, despite its weighty import. It needs to be examined carefully now for its tenability in the light of the experience, of the decade or so since then above all. Whether, in retrospect at least, it would not appear to have gone overboard – and not just by a small margin. The description “constructive and cooperative partnership” (without capital letters, most importantly, i.e., without a label directed at others obviously), already agreed to just two years earlier during the visit of PM Vajpayee, might have served the nation better.

It is over 35 years since former PM Vajpayee’s ‘patch up’ visit to China of 1979. But those anniversaries were not utilized to focus attention on the (willful?) delay on the part of the Chinese to make good on any of their various promises (of ‘package’ deals) over the years.

At that time, Foreign Minster Vajpayee had reportedly countered the late Deng Xiaoping’s disingenuous bait on setting the border issue aside for future generations to resolve while proceeding ahead with ‘normalization’ of relations straightaway, by his ready wit, citing the Indian maxim ‘kal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab’ in reply.

But it is Deng’s line that was allowed to prevail ultimately – imperceptibly, i.e. without even a frontal  acknowledgement of its acceptance (to the Indian public), much less an in-depth examination of its implications/impact in a strategic perspective – in the waters that have washed the diplomatic parleys since the 1988 visit of late PM Rajiv Gandhi (which first conceded the point, implicitly but very clearly, by agreeing to the formulation “work hard to create a favorable climate and conditions for a fair and reasonable settlement of the boundary question, while seeking amutually acceptable solution to this question”, with its obvious riders). From there on to the present (more explicit) mantra of ‘differences not being allowed to come in the way of improvement of relations’ (which India, for some reason, feels obliged to repeat on every occasion without fail) is not a big leap. This in an indefinite time-frame; it not being considered necessary to secure some kind of a target date, if not deadline, in return for agreeing to this total reversal of the late Ambassador (later President) K R Narayanan’s starting point of normalization of relations in 1976.

“That context can provide a touchstone for evaluation of the soundness of the “strategic partner” depiction and for delineating its contours afresh (now that it is a fait accompli). So also that country’s “special relationship” with its “all weather ally”, Pakistan.” Though claimed by the Chinese to be an unexceptionable one, as between any two neighbouring states almost, that is absolutely not the case. Even those well disposed to China, be it for ideological reasons or because of their exaggerated reading of real politik, cannot reasonably turn a blind eye to the less than benign dimensions of Sino-Pak ties. Not to speak of the latter ill-behoving a country that claims to be a strategic partner of India. This is an aspect on which again Indian diplomacy would appear to have remained unduly defensive, reflected in its inability to factor in this utter incongruity before parenting the strategic partnership.

Conclusion: Focus on Tangibles

The entire approach to the “boundary talks” – proceeding ‘top-down’ from abstract principles and parameters to specifics of territorial adjustments – perhaps needs to be reversed (i.e. a ‘bottom-up’ one, beginning with specifics of the eventual boundary alignment) in the light of the nation’s endlessly ‘delayed gratification’ experience of four decades of normalisation.

The strategic partnership with China is an empty shell – how to infuse some solid content into it is a question that should engage the Indian strategic establishment much more intensely, internally, than hitherto. A determination needs to be made, moreover, whether the paradigm within which India-China relations have come to be conducted is not not lacking in balance, and therefore in need of a rejig, before proceeding further to conclude any political agreements anew, or reiterate previous understandings, during Xi Jinping’s visit. Vis-à-vis China, it might be desirable to await the (previous) talk being walked to allow the hyperbole bubble to dissolve itself and pave the way for down to earth, beneficial bilateralism to come to the fore.

Sardar Patel’s prescient letter of 1950 to Pt. Nehru commends itself at this juncture in the nation’s relationship with its redoubtable neighbor to the North, when the difficult diplomatic exercise of a dignified ‘normalising’ of relations with the country that gave the nation an unforgettable 1962 is yet a work-in-progress, as a model of realism and a safeguard against allowing symbolism to score over substance.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 
Courtesy IDSA

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