CHINA DIPLOMACY Frost in a promising Indian summer
By M K Bhadrakumar
The tension in the Ladakh sector of India's disputed border with China ebbed after some three weeks of suspense and high drama as silently as it first appeared in mid-April. The only difference between the beginning and the end is that while the Indians were taken by surprise by the Chinese troop "intrusion", the withdrawal has been a "negotiated" affair.
This difference underscores three things. One, China's intention was not belligerent and Indian self-restraint helped keep things that way. Two, the negotiations for the easing of the tension took
place through the existing mechanism for the border issues. Three, negotiations resulted in some understanding, which in turn helped defuse the situation.
Indian analysts are in two minds as to whether the tensions were precipitated at a local level or were part of a deliberate move calibrated from Beijing with a political or diplomatic objective. When it comes to the "inscrutable" Chinese, there is scope for seamless speculations.
It stands to reason that given the high sensitivity of the border dispute with India and the volatility of the situation in Tibet and their centrality for the Chinese foreign policy as a whole, the local units of the People's Liberation Army deployed to Tibet and the China-India border region could not have acted thoughtlessly.
Besides, taking into account the way the Chinese political system works, a new leadership in Beijing was just about to set out on a 10-year journey and a cavalier misstep by the caravan was highly improbable.
What might have been the Chinese objective? The Chinese have said very, very little - nothing, in fact - in comparison with their high-decibel rhetoric apropos their scuffles with the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan. Evidently, they were chary of "escalation".
The Indian establishment - that is, the political and foreign policy establishment - also kept "news blackout" on the negotiations. Many questions hang suspended in the air. What really caused the tension? Was its timing significant or was it an act of motiveless malignity? Was the tension eased as a result of a mutual understanding? If so, what was the deal? But matters have been left to conjecture - by both sides.
Putting together the bits and pieces, this was, perhaps, most aptly described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a "localized affair". In essence, Delhi cauterized the wound and has gone about the business of life - an Indian military delegation visited Beijing as originally scheduled; External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid paid an official visit to China; and, a cordial and ceremonial welcome was given to the visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
In a nutshell, it would appear that the Chinese side got Delhi's intervention to remove certain Indian deployments to the remote but hotly contested eastern Ladakh sector of the border, which they found objectionable and apparently rendered insecure their sensitive communication links in the region, after having failed to resolve the issue at the local level.
In the bargain, the border dispute itself has come to the front burner, something which the Chinese side had been wanting and the Indians were unprepared for. The Special Representatives of the two countries entrusted with the responsibility to negotiate a settlement of the border dispute are to meet in Beijing next month.
However, if it seems a happy denouement, nothing could be further from the truth. The question that begs answer is why the Chinese resorted to pressure tactics at a time when ties with India seemed on an upward curve as signified by the extraordinary gesture by Li to make India his first visit abroad after assuming office.
Curiously, these are times when Beijing has its plate full with acrimonies, friction and tensions with several neighbors already, and it could have done well without picking up yet another row with yet another neighbor.
All in all, the Chinese may have made a point to the Indian leadership that war is far too serious a matter to be left to soldiers. Put differently, they may have drawn attention to the danger that any "forward policy" on India's part with a view to secure tactical or strategic advantages along the disputed Line of Actual Control [LoAC] that separates the two countries' armed forces will be contested and could lead to ugly situations, fraught with high risk of confrontation.
The "mission creep" - by both sides - through the past four to five years in those wretched Himalayan heights bears an eerie similarity with the action-reaction syndrome ensuing from India's "forward policy" in the run-up to the 1962 conflict.
From the Chinese perspective, it is advantageous to "freeze" the situation as of now since they enjoy tactical advantages on the ground in terms of geography, logistics and communication links. But then, the Indians are equally conscious of being at a disadvantage and would like to do something about it on a priority basis to bring about some parity.
Clearly, there is real risk of flashpoints arising in the future unless there is a conscious political attempt on both sides to ensure that peace and tranquility prevails on the LoAC no matter what it takes.
The 1962 conflict with China still rankles in the Indian consciousness, and security analysts acknowledge it openly. Of course, it is plainly jingoistic to speak of avenging the 1962 defeat. Neither world politics and the co-relation of forces internationally, nor the dismal state of India's political economy, allow Delhi the latitude to contemplate settling scores with China through coercive methods.
But what is most certainly going to happen is that the Indians will hunker down - and they are good at that. To be sure, they have since gone through Li's visit with impeccable dignity and correctness. They weren't flustered that after all that had happened, the Chinese dignitary simply reached out to the Indian public opinion showering petals of goodwill. They even talked trade issues with Li.
But deep down there is a profound sense of disquiet. An impression is sinking in that there has been a breach of trust on the ABC of maintaining peace and tranquility on the LoAC. The detractors of the government's policy of constructive engagement of China smell blood. They flag the Chinese incursion as proof of what they had been cautioning all along, namely, Beijing's malfeasance toward an emerging India.
How this plays out on the geopolitical plane will also bear watching. India seeks to retain its strategic autonomy, but, equally, a case can be made today that given the uncertainties in the ties with China, India needs to be part of an alliance system involving other like-minded countries that are wary of Chinese intentions.
The current visit of Manmohan to Japan assumes added significance from this perspective. The Indian defense minister, A K Antony, is also due to visit Australia. The US-India Strategic Dialogue is scheduled to take place in Delhi in June, which will be the occasion for Secretary of State John Kerry's first official visit and interaction with the Indian leadership.
The "pro-US" pundits have resuscitated the thesis (which hasn't found acceptance so far at the policy level) that India should tap into the US' rebalancing strategy and build up the sinews of its strategic capability. Indeed, tensions with China could become a powerful argument for India to develop close military ties with the US, Japan and Australia.
Having said that, the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region complicates India's policy options. The Obama administration is manifestly wooing China's new leadership; Asian countries are reluctant to get entangled in any containment strategy toward China; the Southeast Asian economies are tapping into China's growth strategy. Even with Japan, the caveat must be added that Manmohan is visiting Shinzo Abe's Japan. Again, the US capacity to sustain a "pivot to Asia" is in doubt, given the imponderables in the recovery of its economy and the decline in its global influence.
All in all, paradoxically, Beijing may have weakened the very power centers in Delhi that were working to usher in a brave new world of India-China partnership against some very heavy odds - internally and externally - whereby the two countries would work together regionally and globally on their convergences and shared interests even as they keep looking for a solution to their border dispute.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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