July 2, 2007Foreign Affairs

Contained by China

The border dispute is an intentional thorn in India’s side

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Two years* ago, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India the two countries agreed on a set of principles that would be used to determine the final settlement of the decades old border dispute. When borders are redrawn, it was agreed, they would not disturb settled populations in either country. But China’s position has undergone a sea change since then. Yang Jiechi, China’s new foreign minister, recently stated that the mere presence of settled populations does not affect China’s territorial claims. Mr Yang’s statement confirmed what a series of events—including the Chinese ambassador’s remarks last December, its refusal to issue visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh (thereby implying that they are Chinese nationals) and the lack of progress in the latest round of high-level border talks—suggested: China’s negotiating position has hardened. Why and why now?

Well, because China sees the border dispute as an instrument in its policy to contain India. Inscrutable though it might sometimes appear, China’s strategy towards India involves a combination of co-operation and containment. It co-operates with India—both bilaterally and in multilateral fora—to the extent that such co-operation is not only mutually beneficial, but also relatively more advantageous to China. So while there is some India-China co-operation in the domain of trade and investment, China is more inclined to compete in the global quest for energy resources despite attempts by India to prevent bidding wars.

Co-operation however, is limited to the extent that it does not adversely affect China’s strategy of confining India to the subcontinent. Globalisation and India’s transformation into a major regional power are changing the dynamics of containment—while India’s larger regional role is taking it to the Eastern Pacific, Central Asia and Africa, China has made significant military and economic inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Containment was historically effected by three instruments—indirectly through the UN Security Council and strategic proxies and directly through the border dispute.

After India’s 1998 nuclear tests, the Kargil war and 9/11, China could no longer act through the ‘international community’

to use nuclear proliferation and the Kashmir issue to press India. But it has enhanced its use of strategic proxies— in addition to its long-time cultivation of Pakistan, it has added Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal to its list. However, India’s strategic partnership with the United States and an emerging quadrilateral ‘alliance of democracies’ involving Australia and Japan in addition to the two is well-placed to counter these moves.

Hence the need to keep the border dispute alive as a thorn in India’s side. That Beijing has managed to settle all its border disputes except the one with India suggests its utility to China more than it exposes ‘democratic India’s inability to compromise’. The timing of the hardening of China’s position on the border dispute, moreover, is consistent with ongoing regional power alignments. But it has been assisted by presence of a Communist party-supported ruling coalition in New Delhi. The Indian Left, being pro-China, will hardly allow the Indian government to take a stronger line against China. Meanwhile, public statements from the UPA government disavow balance-of-power geopolitics. It remains to be seen if these statements actually reflect its foreign policy thinking. It would be unfortunate if this were so, not least because it would be a repetition of Nehru’s mistakes in the late 1950s. Clearly then, there is an urgent need for India to review the way in which it engages China.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is caught in a reactive mode—building infrastructure in remote border regions in response to China. If done with due care to the environment this is a positive outcome of the rivalry between the two countries. Yet roads and railways do not always buy affection and China in any case can build them much faster than India can. A far more effective way for India to bring its most distant citizens into the national mainstream would be to empower them through tangible political equality. Reconstituting the Rajya Sabha along the lines of the American Senate—and giving states like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland the same number of seats as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the rest—will not only be far more effective than big but leaky development programmes but is also more democratic. It is also be a move that China cannot match.

This article was first published in Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, No 4 | July 2007.

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