The art of no war

India and China are vulnerable to periodic bouts of mistrust. Lurking in the background is the ever-present US role in the Asia-Pacific.

The Uttarakhand tragedy shifted the nation’s attention away from international affairs in the last fortnight. The exact reverse had happened after the Daulat Beg Oldi, Leh intrusion by Chinese troops in April, when the focus was riveted on Sino-Indian relations.

The 16th round of talks between the special representatives of India and China took place on June 28-29 in Beijing without much fanfare, despite this being the first discussion after the change of leadership in China and following the Daulat Beg Oldi controversy. During the India visit of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in mid-May, it was left to the special representatives to determine what additional mechanism could be devised to ensure that there was no recurrence of such episodes.
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon in Beijing gave some sense of the discussions. He said the two sides decided to take a “strategic and long-term view” and added that there was also a desire for “strategic and cooperative partnership”. Normally diplomats talking generalities implies that no path-breaking development occurred. The two sides were attempting to restore normalcy to a relationship in which a trust deficit is obvious after the surprise Chinese intrusion. The talks are to be quickly followed by the visit of defence minister A.K. Antony to China this week (July 4-7). This is in response to a visit to India earlier by his then Chinese counterpart, Gen. L. Guanglie, in September 2012. That visit came after a gap of eight years. Thus
Mr Menon’s visit would have also prepared for Mr Antony’s. If any military confidence-building measures are to emerge, the forthcoming visit is the appropriate time.
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid, shooting from the lip at the Asean foreign ministers’ conference in Bali, declared that India was in no hurry to sign the Chinese-proposed Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). Mr Menon during his China visit said both sides exchanged views on the BDCA, and added, “There was a broad measure of agreement but we still have to do a little work on the text itself.” He concluded that it would be discussed further during Mr Antony’s visit. This was quite different from the Khurshid glib one-liner.
The vagaries of the Sino-Indian relations are to be seen in the context of global power shift and power diffusion occurring at an accelerated pace. India and China, as neighbours with border and other disputes, are vulnerable to periodic bouts of mistrust. Lurking in the background is the ever-present role of the US in the Asia-Pacific region. It is thus not surprising that the 2005 agreement on the principles for the settlement of the border dispute came in the shadow of the negotiation of the India-US civil nuclear deal. Whether China was trying to wean India away from a closer engagement with the US is a question that naturally arises, as no sooner than the deal was firmed up, China began stiffening its stand in the special representatives talks. Mr Menon, however, would have us believe that the process is on track as 2005 was the first step. The next step is now underway which involves the agreement on a framework, followed by a settlement in the final stage.
Meanwhile, the regional situation is evolving fast with the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of the US and International Security Assistance Force troops from Afghanistan. The killing of two Chinese climbers by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on June 23 at a base camp of Nanga Parbat in Gilgit Baltistan was a reminder that the Chinese may not be immune to the effects of Islamic radicalisation even in Pakistan. That raises the question of their strategy in Afghanistan. Can they rely simply on their Pakistani friends, as they did all through the rise of the Taliban in the ’90s, or do their economic interests and threat from radical Islam make their interests converge with India, Russia and Iran? This would have been part of Mr Menon’s second-day parleys in Beijing.
Another positive development is a possible rebalancing of China’s Tibet policy. Under former President Hu Jintao, who had been the administrator for the Tibet Autonomous Region before his ascension, a hard-line approach persisted despite over 100 self-immolations. The announcement last month that pictures of the Dalai Lama can now be displayed at the Gaden Monastery, Lhasa, after a gap of 17 years, seemed like the start of a different approach. Whether this will be followed by relaxation of Chinese control over Tibet or even resumption of dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives remains to be seen. Chinese interests may also be converging with India’s in Nepal as China opposes autonomy to regions, fearful of its impact on Tibet.
Thus, the two Asian giants are again at an inflexion point. If leaderships in both countries resolve, the areas of convergence are actually slowly increasing, and though huge parts are still subject to mistrust, genuine engagement can commence. While both are unlikely to abandon alliances and relationships built over decades, they must learn to effectively manage a relationship that shall simultaneously have cooperation, competition and even friction. The recent announcement that China is willing to talk to the Asean nations on principles of navigation in the South China Sea is again a positive move as earlier China was willing to negotiate only bilaterally. China has also applied much greater pressure on North Korea to restrict its nuclear adventurism. If it will similarly de-escalate vis-a-vis Japan over the Senkaku Islands, provided the Japanese provide a face-saver, is as yet moot. Whether these are tactical moves, China realising that its aggressiveness all along its periphery has been counter-productive, or a new maturity in Beijing, will determine the future course of Sino-India relations.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry.

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