China’s Rising Assertiveness: Lessons for India

Dragon Fire

1962 war wounds kept open by China’s hardline claims

The Times of India, June 7, 2007

Brahma Chellaney

China is a rising power but also an increasingly truculent state on territorial or maritime disputes with its neighbours, unable to rise above narrow considerations. Having awakened India long ago from its Nehruvian dream that good intentions are sufficient to run foreign policy, Beijing is now helping New Delhi discover how Chinese diplomacy helps underpin assertive claims and ambitions. Even as India has become more accommodating and forbearing in its dealings with China, Beijing has hardened its position on territorial issues.

China’s assertiveness is mirrored in its refusal to grant visa to any official from Arunachal Pradesh and aggressive patrolling of the still-fuzzy Himalayan frontier. In recent days, a flustered New Delhi has had to cancel a China visit by 107 elite civil servants and also respond to charges by two opposition MPs from Arunachal that Chinese forces have been nibbling at Indian territory there. In seeking to deny that claim, New Delhi has made an unusual revelation — that China maintains more than one line of control and sends regular patrols right up to the outer claimed perimeter.

Through its forcefulness on Arunachal, China is signalling that the ongoing negotiations with India cannot centre merely on border demarcation, even if both sides still call them “border talks”. Recent events indeed highlight the lack of real progress in these epic, 26-year-old negotiations.

Sharing one of the world’s longest and most rugged frontiers, India and China are the only two countries whose entire border is in dispute, without a mutually defined line of control separating them. China continues to lay claim to more Indian territories, even as it holds on to Himalayan areas it seized furtively or by conquest in the 1950s and early 1960s. It occupies one-fifth of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir.

India and China are old civilizations but new neighbours. It was the 1951 Chinese annexation of the historical buffer, Tibet, that brought Chinese troops to what is now the Sino-Indian frontier. Just 11 years later, China invaded India. Today, both countries have built a stake in maintaining the peaceful diplomatic environment on which their economic modernization and security depend. Yet the wounds of the 1962 war have been kept open by China’s publicly assertive claims to Indian territories. As long as China is unwilling to accept the status quo, it will keep alive the memory of 1962.

That China is not a status quo power, at least territorially, is evident from the way it has placed Taiwan under a permanent threat of force and asserted land and maritime claims vis-à-vis other neighbours. Its claims on India, however, involve the largest chunks of territory. Arunachal alone is more than double the size of Taiwan.

For almost half of the period they have been neighbours, India and China have pursued negotiations to resolve their territorial disputes. Since 1981, the two countries have been engaged in regular border-related talks in what is the longest and most-barren negotiating process in modern world history. Of late, however, China has pugnaciously pressed its claims. A classic instance was last November when the Chinese ambassador — backed by his foreign ministry — publicly renewed China’s claim on Arunachal, stoking an unusual diplomatic spat on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s visit to India.

Sino-Indian negotiations, although rich in symbolism, have yielded little progress for three main reasons. First, China has sought to stretch the talks to keep India under strategic pressure. It has employed negotiations as a diplomatic tool to engage India, not to reach accord. This tactic dovetails with China’s broader strategy to present a friendly face while building up its capabilities to go on the offensive.

Second, China persuaded India in 2003 to shift from the practical task of clarifying the frontline to the abstract mission of developing “principles,” “concepts” and “framework” for an overall border settlement. This shift was intended to release Beijing from its 2001 commitment to exchange maps with India of first the western sector and then of the eastern sector — a pledge it had already breached by missing the mutually agreed deadlines.

The contours of a possible settlement have been known for long — a simple trade-off involving India foregoing its claims to territories it has lost to China, in return for Beijing’s abandonment of its claims to Indian-held areas. But given its hegemonic intent, China is loath to settle on the basis of the status quo.

Third, India has needlessly retreated to a more and more defensive position, bringing itself under greater Chinese pressure. Rather than gain leverage by adopting a nuanced position on the core issue of Tibet, India continues to be overcautious in its diplomacy, even when Beijing acts antagonistically. New Delhi’s acquiescence to China’s annexation of Tibet has come to haunt it, as Chinese claims on Indian territories are openly predicated on their alleged historical or ecclesiastical links with Tibet. Seeking to territorially extend the gains from its Tibet annexation, Beijing pushes a bald principle: What is ours is ours to keep, but what is yours must be shared with us.

India can no longer shy away from making hard diplomatic choices. With an overly ambitious and revisionist China on the offensive, India needs to discriminate between appeasement and diplomacy.

The writer is a security affairs analyst.

© Times of India, 2007

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