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India in China: Going beyond chow mein
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's five-day China visit, starting on Sunday, has set off bitter controversy between a belligerent pro-American lobby fearful of Chinese designs and a peace lobby consisting of opposition secular and communist politicians and intellectuals pleading for the premier to take his opportunity to mend fences with China and accept an overall border settlement through a package deal offered by the Chinese leadership, apart from developing trade and other ties.

These sentiments are best represented by two headlines of opinion pieces giving divergent views in the largely circulated newspaper the Hindustan Times: "Beware the dragon's designs", says one, but the other advises "Climb over the wall". Both the camps, however, feel - one hopes and the other fears - that the visit may not go beyond the prime minister consuming more chow mein and Peking duck than his health permits, as he is fond of Chinese food, plus a joint declaration using high-sounding words showcasing the "historic" importance of the trip but in reality leading to little progress.

The feeling emanates from a perception that even though Vajpayee needs a breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations badly, having failed to achieve any success on any other front, with elections only months away, he is surrounded by people, both bureaucrats and politicians, who will not allow him to forge ahead. Observers have not forgotten the Agra summit with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf in July 2001, in which a breakthrough agreement is believed to have been reached between the two heads of government and their foreign ministers, but was later scuttled by Hindutva (the philosophy of Hindu predominance) elements, leading to recriminations that continue to this day. Vajpayee's latest peace initiative with Pakistan has also been in effect foiled by people around him. After five years of non-performance, his government is now perceived, in the words of columnist Prem Shankar Jha, as "rudderless".

This despondency is also caused by a near-unanimous view among analysts of all hues that India doesn't have a China policy as such - indeed, it doesn't have a foreign policy with well-defined aims and objects - and that governments merely react to events or short-term political needs. Both former prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao, for instance, visited China in 1988 and 1993 respectively and came back with so-called historic agreements, which in effect meant nothing. One observer in fact dismisses the coming visit in the Hindustan Times contemptuously: "The PM, being a smart and seasoned politician, perhaps realizes better than anyone else that next year may not see him in political power or physical fitness which he enjoys today. So why not have a family picnic at government cost and Chinese hospitality when the sun still shines brightly?"

China, on the other hand, is credited with a well-crafted India policy, as indeed a well-designed foreign policy with a clear view of its long-term strategic goals. Analyst Pravin Sawhney summarizes a widespread Indian view: "As an acknowledged regional power preparing for a global role, China's approach towards India is a mix of four elements. These are to ensure through a 'strategic partnership' with Pakistan that India remains a subregional power, to permit no political or diplomatic concessions, to keep the core border issue diffused, and to utilize the peace so obtained to build national power, including military power. In Sun Tzu's words: 'to defeat the enemy without a battle'. Beijing has been more than successful in accomplishing these objectives."

Admiration for Chinese mandarins also engenders fear. How the enigmatic Chinese will take advantage of the aimlessness of Indian politicians is a constant unknown. Hawkish Brahma Chellaney has many admirers in the ruling Hindutva camp. He claims to have penetrated the inscrutable Chinese mind: "The 1988 and 1993 accords supremely suited Beijing's strategy of seeking to change Indian perceptions about China without conceding any ground to New Delhi and yet continuing to quietly contain India. The result was that with the Indians lulled by the 'peace' overtures, the Chinese opened a new flank against India by setting up eavesdropping and naval facilities along the Burmese coastline. Today the Chinese are building a naval base at Gwadar, Pakistan, and working to swamp Indian interests in the Maldives. The Chinese navy is positioning itself along sea-lanes vital to Indian security and economy.

"For the old apparatchiks who constitute the new leadership in Beijing, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's impending visit to China is an opportunity to further Chinese interests. They believe that Vajpayee wants to show success at least on the China front because of the little headway he has made with his initiatives with Pakistan since Lahore and the slow progress on building an Indo-US strategic partnership, which was to be the centerpiece of his foreign policy. So the Chinese have intensified their now-familiar 'peace' spiel. That this lingo represents only cliched ad lines to sell something less innocuous is apparent from what they have conveyed to Indian officials for ensuring a major 'breakthrough' during Vajpayee's visit - India abandoning some of the cardinal principles on which its bipartisan policy towards China is built. Having watched Vajpayee's policy pendulum swing from one end to the other on Pakistan, Beijing believes it could use his yearning for a successful visit to alter the fundamentals of India's China policy. It is dead wrong in its calculations.

"If anything, the Chinese are providing valuable training to Indians on how to talk peace but aggressively pursue national interests. Clearly, the Chinese want peace with containment, a win-win posture that permits them to maintain direct strategic pressure and mount stepped-up surrogate threats."

Even though the Vajpayee visit has been on the anvil for some time, its timing has become the subject of speculation in both camps. Chellaney explains why: "His decision to visit at a time when foreigners are shunning China because of the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] epidemic may be read by his hosts as confirmation that he is desperate to score some foreign-policy success. More broadly, the visit is part of a pattern of diplomatic zealousness that has seen India making all the first moves and first visits since Mao [Zedong]'s death. As if India had to pay obeisance to the self-perceived Middle Kingdom, the first visits at the president, prime minister and foreign minister level were by Indians. In fact, Vajpayee has the dubious record of ignoring warnings of Chinese designs and making the first foreign minister-level visit in 1979, and then cutting short his tour after China attacked Vietnam for the same admitted reason it invaded India in 1962 - 'to teach a lesson'."

There are other analysts, however, who seem to think the present visit offers Vajpayee an opportunity and a challenge to prove his leadership. If he shows vision and guts, they think, he will "forge strong ties with China and return as a hero".

The main problem Vajpayee will face, however, if he decides to settle the boundary dispute, is one of his own making. He had pushed for parliament to resolve to recover every bit of territory "lost" to the Chinese in the 1962 war. The then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered a permanent status quo as a solution. But Vajpayee and other Hindu nationalists would not hear of it. They vowed to recover every bit of territory.

A former advisor to External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, when the latter was holding the finance portfolio, Mohan Guruswamy, comments, "That status quo is pretty much what exists on the ground today. It is not within our power to alter it, nor does it seem to be in China's power to alter it. For either side to be able to do so will require military and political resources well beyond what is available now. The ends are so meager that no cost justifies them. For India it is the Aksai Chin, a barren, desolate, cold and windswept desert high up amidst the mountains. Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said it was so useless that 'not a blade of grass grows'.

"That resolution [to recover lost territory] still hobbles us. But what is worrisome is that he [Vajpayee] seems to have had little change of mind. Quite clearly, the Chinese are not about to give back Aksai Chin and abutting territories, over which our claims are quite tenuous if not dubious. The time has come for him to backtrack. Good sense and common sense both dictate that sticking to unreasonable and unsustainable colonial positions doesn't make for better neighborliness. But given his history and the company he keeps, can he do it?"

It is a measure of the sea-change that has taken place in the Indian attitude toward the territory lost to China in 1962 that responsible people can express opinions that would have been considered subversive and anti-national not long ago. An entire generation has grown thinking that India's chief national goal was to recover territory from China. That people from this generation are willing to admit that the 1962 war was not entirely a case of Chinese aggression and that we, too, had made mistakes is indeed remarkable.

Analyst V V Paranjpe is even more daring in calling for peace on realistic terms and rejecting the Hindutva thesis of fearing the dragon. He writes a rejoinder: "Chellaney's main worry seems to be China having designs on India and that it will extort valuable concessions. One may well ask: What designs can China possibly have on India? Territorial, economic, military or political? China has a much larger territory than India's and if China had wanted to occupy Indian territory, it could have easily done so when the Chinese troops entered India in 1962 and occupied territories in the NEFA area [North East Frontier Area, now called Arunachal Pradesh]. But within a month, China withdrew all its troops to the north of the McMahon Line claimed by India but not recognized by China. Economically and militarily, China is far ahead of us and does not need to get any advantage from us. The only advantage that China might seek is political.

"If India and China come together, they will be a powerful global force to stem the tide of American unilateralism. Second, China today faces a threat from Islamic terrorists in its western back yard and may want to forge a common bond with India. Is there anything wrong about it? China has opposed Indian political moves in the past, but India should blame itself for it. For several decades, India had frozen relations with China and when the latter tried to seek understanding, the former rudely rebuffed her. It was only then that China started opposing India's political moves [such as membership of the United Nations Security Council] and forging a full-scale relationship with Pakistan.

"Our main grouse today is about a Sino-Pak collusion. We have vainly tried to rope in the US to contain Pakistan but without any result. Still we put all our eggs in the American basket and continue to woo the US despite the BJP's [ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's] realization of American 'double standards'. Would not improving our relations with China provide a better alternative to restrain an isolated Pakistan and win Chinese support to our many other political objectives?"

Paranjape displays even greater courage in tackling the border issue: "Chellaney has talked about 22 years of futile border talks with China. He is evidently unaware of the facts of our border case. The border issue arose because we were trying to force China to accept a borderline that was unilaterally decided by the British. Even the British were careful in not pressing it too hard, but we proved to be more stubborn advocates of the British legacy. Even then, the Chinese wanted to resolve the issue through negotiations. But India declared that the borders were not negotiable and China must accept our claims in toto. That gave rise to the border dispute. We refused to enter into any discussions with China. The border dispute is, thus, of our making.

"When this line failed, India adopted the diversionary tactic of determining the line of actual control - a totally meaningless exercise. India never once suggested any alternative solution to the border problem, while Chinese did twice. Once, when Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai came to Delhi and suggested a compromise solution. We had then rebuffed him. A second time in 1979, when Vajpayee went to Peking and met Deng Xiaoping. Vajpayee, under the clutches of MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] bureaucrats and without a mind of his own, refused to even listen to Deng's idea of the package deal. Today, if the Chinese are resurrecting the idea, we should accept it. In actuality, the border dispute has virtually ceased to exist. India and China have both got what they wanted. China has occupied Aksaichin, which was never under our control, while China has tacitly accepted our rule over NEFA and the border is peaceful. China is presumably asking us to legalize this reality through a package deal. Is anything wrong in that?"

Apart from these two groups of people who support or oppose the settlement of border disputes and normalization of relations with China, there is a third group of observers who think that instead of focusing exclusively on such thorny issues as long-festering border disputes, Indian and Chinese leadership should try to tackle first more basic day-to-day problems and encourage people-to-people relations to create an atmosphere conducive to the solution of more difficult problems. "The stark reality today," says C Raja Mohan of the Hindu newspaper, "is that more than five decades after becoming modern states, India and China don't have simple things that neighboring states should put in place - settled boundaries, good fences, border trade, tourism, and ... frequent high-level political contact. Covering up this pathetic situation on their borders by tilting at global windmills is a gigantic self-deception that New Delhi and Beijing have often engaged in.

"Messrs Vajpayee and [President] Hu [Jintao] should instead focus on problem-solving and expanding functional cooperation. If the two leaders are looking for one big idea that can encompass many small mutually beneficial steps towards cooperation it is building a bridge across the Himalayas. Mutual distrust and rivalry that have hobbled relations between India and China for the last so many decades are rooted in the Himalayan range. An unresolved boundary dispute, China's refusal to recognize Sikkim as part of India, and Beijing's fears about New Delhi playing the Tibet card have made the Himalayas an impenetrable barrier between the two nations.

"The leaders in Beijing now say that in the millennia of civilizational interaction India and China have fought each other only a brief 1 percent of the time in the latter part of the 20th century. But that short confrontation has choked off historic trading routes, religious pilgrimage and cultural interaction between the people across the mountain range developed over thousands of years. Dismantling these barriers put up in the last few decades could electrify the Himalayan region and provide a better context for bilateral relations. And that is within the grasp of Mr Vajpayee and his Chinese hosts.

"New Delhi and Beijing cannot create an Asian century on the shifting sands of mutual distrust and lack of even minimal cooperation on their frontiers. There will be many other issues such as trade and mutual investment, China's support to Pakistan, and the prospects for cooperation on global issues in play during Mr Vajpayee's visit to China. But nothing is more important at this stage in Sino-Indian relations than taking the first firm steps towards building a bridge across the Himalayas."

There is little doubt in anyone's mind that Vajpayee means business. He wishes to solve or at least make some progress in resolving tricky foreign-policy issues such as India's relations with China or for that matter with Pakistan, as well as domestic issues such as the unseemly and unnecessary dispute over the demolished Babri mosque. But he has set a sort of record of always caving in before his colleagues in the Hindutva camp and the bureaucrats who run India's permanent government. This has disappointed his admirers and given rise to a lot of cynicism. The Chinese leadership, therefore, will have to give him a lot of help if they have made a strategic decision to normalize relations with India.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.
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