Need for India to Reclaim Leverage Against China

Mixed Signals

Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, February 6, 2008 

The periodic summit meetings between India and China are deceptively all sweetness
and light. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit, there was no
forward meeting on any contentious issue, but the accent was on the positive.
That should surprise no one. Although
the underlying wariness and suspicions remain, the two giants, for
different reasons, feel the need to publicly
play down the competitive dynamics of their
relationship and emphasize cooperation.

           Yet, the
conciliatory words that come out from the bilateral summitry are a poor
substitute to the glaring lack of progress on the issues that divide IndiaChina, like the territorial
disputes. If anything, the rhetoric at times is a painful reminder of the empty
slogans of the 1950s that helped blind India
to China’s furtive
territorial encroachments and subsequent surprise invasion in 1962, which Jawaharlal
Nehru characterized as Beijing’s
return of “evil for good”.

   The wounds of that 32-day war have
been kept open by Beijing’s assertive claims to Indian
areas, even as it holds on to the territorial gains
of that conflict. China’s
unwillingness to settle the border
dispute on the basis of the status quo has drawn further strength from then Prime
Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 recognition of Tibet
as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China”.
Emboldened by that recognition, which stripped India
of diplomatic leverage, Beijing has become
publicly assertive on its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, a state more than twice
the size of Taiwan.
Now it insists that India
cede at least the Tawang valley
— a critical corridor between Lhasa and Assam of immense military import because it
overlooks the chicken-neck that connects India with its northeast.

            In that
light, Dr. Singh has done well to visit Arunachal, becoming the first PM in 12 years to tour that isolated but strategically located state. But he would
have strengthened his hands had he visited Arunachal, “the land of the rising
sun”, before going to Beijing,
rather than upon his return. Also, instead of having omitted Tawang from his
tour of Arunachal, the PM ought to have made a stop there to send out a needed
signal to Beijing. 

the doctrine of incremental territorial annexation, Beijing
has laid claim to Tawang on the basis of that area’s putative historical ties
to Tibet.
By 1951, China had fully
occupied the Tibetan plateau, yet no Chinese
set foot in Tawang until the invading Chinese
army in 1962 poured through the NamkhaValley,
close to the tri-junction of Tibet,
India and Bhutan. In pouring forces into Tawang, China
scoffed at India’s
contention that, in conformity with
the McMahon Line, the border in that region ran along the high Thagla Ridge.
Still, after halting its aggression, Beijing
withdrew from Tawang, as it did from the rest of Arunachal (then NEFA), while
keeping its territorial gains in Ladakh. That was in line with the punitive aim
of its aggression, which Premier
Zhou Enlai had admitted was “to teach India a lesson”.

Significantly, Dr. Singh is the
first Indian PM to return from Beijing without
making any unwarranted reference to Tibet to please his hosts. The ‘T’
word is conspicuously missing from the joint communiqué — a key point the media
failed to catch. Contrast that with the last joint communiqué issued when
President Hu Jintao visited New Delhi: “The Indian side
reiterates that it has recognized the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the
territory of the People’s Republic of China, and that it does not
allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in
The Chinese side expresses its
appreciation for the Indian position”.

The only way India can build counter-leverage against Beijing
is to gently shine a spotlight on the Tibet
issue and China’s
failure to grant promised autonomy to the Tibetans. This can be done by India in a way that is neither provocative nor
confrontational. New Delhi ought to make the point
that China’s security will be
enhanced if it reached out to Tibetans and concluded a deal that helped bring back the Dalai Lama from his long exile in India.

          A first step for India to help reclaim leverage and stop being
overtly defensive is to cease gratuitously referring to Tibet as part of China. In doing just that, Dr.
Singh has shown good judgement. He even sent the foreign secretary to
Dharamsala last Sunday to brief the Dalai Lama on his Beijing discussions. That the Dalai Lama
remains an invaluable asset for India
can be seen from his public repudiation of China’s
claim that Arunachal, including Tawang, were traditionally part of Tibet. 

The writer is a strategic affairs expert.

© DNA, 2008

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