September 10, 2014

China's borderline belligerence

Brahma Chellaney

IN recent years, the People's Liberation Army has been taking advantage of its rising political clout to provoke localized skirmishes and standoffs with India by breaching the two countries' long and disputed Himalayan frontier. The PLA's recent intensification of such border violations holds important implications for President Xi Jinping's upcoming visit to India – and for the future of the bilateral relationship. In fact, such provocations have often preceded visits to India by Chinese leaders. Indeed, it was just before President Hu Jintao's 2006 visit that China resurrected its claim to India's large northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Likewise, prior to Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to India in 2010, China began issuing visas on loose sheets of paper stapled into the passports of Kashmir residents applying to enter China – an indirect challenge to India's sovereignty. Moreover, China abruptly shortened the length of its border with India by rescinding its recognition of the 1,597-kilometer (992-mile) line separating Indian Kashmir from Chinese-held Kashmir. And Premier Li Keqiang's visit last May followed a deep PLA incursion into India's Ladakh region, seemingly intended to convey China's anger over India's belated efforts to fortify its border defenses.

Now, China is at it again, including near the convergence point of China, India, and Pakistan – the same place last year's PLA encroachment triggered a three-week military standoff. This pattern suggests that the central objective of Chinese leaders' visits to India is not to advance cooperation on a shared agenda, but to reinforce China's own interests, beginning with its territorial claims. Even China's highly lucrative and fast-growing trade with India has not curbed its rising territorial assertiveness. By contrast, Indian prime ministers since Jawaharlal Nehru have traveled to China to express goodwill and deliver strategic gifts. Unsurprisingly, India has often ended up losing out in bilateral deals.

Particularly egregious was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 2003 surrender of India's Tibet card. Vajpayee went so far as to use, for the first time, the legal term "recognize" to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as "part of the territory of the People's Republic of China." That opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh (three times the size of Taiwan) as "South Tibet" and reinforced China's view of territorial issues: Whatever area it occupies is Chinese territory, and whatever territorial claims it makes must be settled on the basis of "mutual accommodation and understanding."

Vajpayee's blunder compounded Nehru's 1954 mistake in implicitly accepting, in the Panchsheel Treaty, China's annexation of Tibet, without securing (or even seeking) recognition of the then-existing Indo-Tibetan border. In fact, under the treaty, India forfeited all of the extraterritorial rights and privileges in Tibet that it had inherited from imperial Britain.

As agreed in the pact, India withdrew its "military escorts" from Tibet, and conceded to the Chinese government, at a "reasonable" price, the postal, telegraph, and public telephone services operated by the Indian government in the "Tibet region of China." For its part, China repeatedly violated the eight-year pact, ultimately mounting the trans-Himalayan invasion of 1962.

In short, China used the Panchsheel Treaty to outwit and humiliate India. Yet, just this summer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new government sent Vice President Hamid Ansari to Beijing to participate in the treaty's 60th anniversary celebrations.


Ansari was accompanied by Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who, during her stay, signed an agreement allowing China – without any quid pro quo – to establish industrial parks in India. This will exacerbate existing imbalances in the bilateral trade relationship – China currently exports to India three times more than it imports from the country, with most of these imports being raw materials –thereby exposing India to increased strategic pressure and serving China's interest in preventing India's rise as a peer competitor.

The fact that the spotlight is now on China's Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh, rather than on Tibet's status, underscores China's dominance in setting the bilateral agenda. Given India's dependence on cross-border water flows from Tibet, it could end up paying a heavy price.

Embarrassed by China's relentless border violations – according to Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, there were 334 in the first 216 days of this year – India has recently drawn a specious distinction between "transgressions" and "intrusions" that enables it to list all of the breaches simply as transgressions. But word play will get India nowhere.

A reminder of that came at July's BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, when, yet again, China emerged ahead of India. The BRICS' New Development Bank, it was announced, will be headquartered in Shanghai, not New Delhi; India's consolation prize was that an Indian will serve as the Bank's first president.

Under pressure from an unyielding and revanchist China, India urgently needs to craft a prudent and carefully calibrated counter-strategy. For starters, India could rescind its recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, while applying economic pressure through trade, as China has done to Japan and the Philippines when they have challenged its territorial claims. By hinging China's market access on progress in resolving political, territorial, and water disputes, India can prevent China from fortifying its leverage.

Moreover, India must be willing to respond to Chinese incursions by sending troops into strategic Chinese-held territory. This would raise the stakes for Chinese border violations, thereby boosting deterrence.

Finally, India must consider carefully the pretense of partnership with China that it is forming through trade and BRICS agreements – at least until a more balanced bilateral relationship emerges. After all, neither booming trade nor membership in the BRICS club offers protection from bullying.

The Writer is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)

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