A bout of Sinositis

The four-day Global Budhist Congress which commenced on November 26, with 900 attendees from 32 countries, instead of radiating Indian soft power, turned into an unseemly Sino-Indian row due to China postponing the 15th round of the Special Representatives’ talks on the border dispute. The fracas surprised South Block watchers as the Prime Minister’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, also the Indian special representative, being a third-generation Sinologist, should have foreseen that an overlap of the two events would provide the Chinese an opportunity to retaliate when a series of recent events have made them lose face.
The year began well for China. As the eurozone crisis unfolded and US financial woes and US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan became imminent, besides US President Barack Obama’s electoral pre-occupation, the Chinese economy surpassed that of Japan to become the second biggest in the world. China loomed as a possible rescuer of the international financial system. At the Cannes G-20 Summit earlier this month, the focus was on China. Three weeks later the script reads differently.
Mr Obama countered on November 12-13 at the 19th Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership Summit at Hawaii by announcing a trans-Pacific partnership with over 10 Asian and Pacific countries, excluding China. He next descended on Australia, cementing a military alliance and announcing that 2,500 Marines would operate from Port Darwin. To minimise irritating China it was clarified that this was not a new American base. If further proof was required that the US was not turning isolationist, at the East Asia Summit that followed (which a US President attended for the first time, America having just been admitted to the forum), the focus remained on Chinese assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea on the specious grounds of a “nine-dotted line” theory. To the consternation of the Chinese, 16 of the 18 members raised the issue, the only exceptions being Burma and Cambodia. Two days ago the Chinese official media re-asserted that there “is no international water within the South (China) Sea”. Almost simultaneously, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, for the first time in public, alleged that China had in 1974, as the Vietnam War was ending, by force annexed the Paracel Islands, which were earlier jointly held.
This convergence of interests amongst countries on Chinese periphery, and their comfort with US presence via the Pacific is being dubbed by analysts as Mr Obama’s Asian Pivot. It has re-asserted the US role in the security and stability of a region that China was beginning to browbeat. China’s own aggressive behaviour since 2009, vis-a-vis most of its neighbours, provided US the opening. Recent articles are projecting possible economic trouble for China over the horizon due to a suspected property bubble, excessive and wasteful expenditure on infrastructure development and low local consumption. Two days ago HSBC’s Flash China Purchasing Manager’s Index for November dropped from 51.0 to 48.1, indicating a contraction for a second month running. In October there has also been inexplicable capital flight of $29 billion. It is generally accepted that China cannot have a growth rate of less than seven per cent to retain its socio-economic integrity. All this comes on the eve of transfer of power to the fifth generation of Chinese leadership in 2012. If this was not enough to rile the Chinese, in an election to the Asian seat at the prestigious UN Joint Inspection Unit, Indian candidate beat the Chinese (their ambassador in New Delhi) by a margin of 106 votes to 77.
John W. Garver and Fei-Ling Wang in an article titled “China’s Anti-encirclement Struggle” developed the thesis that historically China has dealt with barbarians on its border by playing one against the other and ensuring that they do not gang up. Post-Cold War this seems to hold true as well. While China normalised relations with Russia in December 1992 and kicked off in 1993 a detente with India with an “Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity” along the border, its relations with Taiwan and Japan were worsening as China became more assertive in the Taiwan Straits.
Similarly, while relations with Japan hit rock bottom on the ascension of Prime Minister J. Koizumi in April 2001 and his insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, relations with India were on the upswing with high-level visits to India (Li Peng in 2001, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in 2002, followed by the defence minister and Prime Minister again and then President Hu Jintao in 2006), dialogue (commencement of Security Dialogue in 2000) and concessions (recognition of Sikkim, acceptance of principles to solve the border issue in 2005 and conciliatory language on Indian aspiration to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council). However, following the India-US civil nuclear deal and the relationship broadening to a quasi-strategic engagement, the momentum in Sino-Indian relations first flagged and then regressed towards border incidents, stapled visas and talk of territory and not merely the border.
In the meanwhile the India story is getting clouded too, with depreciating rupee, tumbling stocks and controversial economic reform pronouncements. In uncertain times, into which we are now sailing, both friends and foes can be unpredictable. The Asian drama shall be around the periphery of China and India. Lord Salisbury on June 15, 1877, wrote to Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, to distrust all experts. Their advice, he said, needs to be diluted with “a large admixture of insipid common sense”. Letting China embarrass India over the Budhist Congress and border talks means that the Prime Minister needs to follow the advice given to a predecessor of his a century and a half ago.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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