India’s Feckless China Policy

Stop Being Bullied


Present slipshod approach belittles India, eggs on China


Brahma Chellaney

Times of India, April 4, 2008


Beijing’s provocations against India continue unabated. Arrogant authoritarianism blinds China to counterproductive actions. Surprisingly, India plays into Beijing’s hands and compounds the indignities. Recent instances underscore the manner India is being belittled from within.


            What is discreditable is not that Beijing summoned the Indian ambassador post-midnight, but that the envoy — a distinguished woman diplomat — docilely turned up at the Chinese foreign office at 2 am. No host government can compel a foreign diplomat to appear before it at an odd hour, that too in peacetime. The correct response to that imprudent, bureaucratic-level call would have been for the ambassador to say politely but firmly that she would visit the foreign office during regular business hours.


            Worse, it was not Beijing but New Delhi that revealed the post-midnight summons and the ambassador’s South Block-cleared compliance. Had New Delhi retaliated or wanted to prepare public ground to retaliate, such disclosure was unavoidable. But to have revealed that without any intent to respond amounted to inflicting self-humiliation. It brought home the unmistakeable softening of the Indian state. When Beijing in the early 1960s summoned Indian chargé daffaires P.K. Banerjee at an unreasonable hour, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) called in the Chinese chargé daffaires at 3 am on two separate occasions, after which the Indian envoy faced no further harassment.


            In the present case, New Delhi did not take umbrage that in handing to its ambassador a list of places where Tibetan exiles purportedly planned to hold protests, Beijing was not only asking the world’s largest democracy to deny Tibetans the right to protest, but also revealing the existence of a Chinese intelligence network in India (and suggesting it was superior to India’s). Far from retaliating, a feckless New Delhi actually rewarded Beijing, by granting its ambassador an audience with the home minister to discuss the Olympic torch’s safety, even as China’s brutal crackdown in Tibet mocks the Olympic Charter’s “human dignity” principle.


When the Chinese made a protest over the Prime Minister’s Arunachal tour, it was again not Beijing but New Delhi that leaked the news. In doing so, New Delhi helped put the spotlight — to Beijing’s delight — on China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. A wiser New Delhi would not have given publicity to China’s low-key action in presenting, as External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee admitted recently, “not formally, but informally, a démarche to our Embassy”. But it just could not resist the urge to use the démarche to pat itself on the back for the PM’s Arunachal trip, although the tour conspicuously skipped Tawang and came after, rather than before, his China visit.


            Yet, when Chinese forces last November provocatively destroyed some Indian army bunkers at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, New Delhi did the opposite: It tried to sweep the grave episode under the rug, employing “sources” to discredit reports about the attack inside Sikkim. It took New Delhi four full months to acknowledge that attack, with Mukherjee admitting in the Rajya Sabha on March 19 that, although China accepts the Sikkim-Tibet border “as settled in the Anglo-Sikkim Convention of 1890”, “some bunkers have been destroyed and some activities have taken place”. This is the latest example of New Delhi first gratuitously downplaying a belligerent Chinese action, only to sheepishly admit the truth later.


Take another shocker: The Army chief had the gall to say recently that India is as culpable as China in committing cross-border intrusions. His statement not only made light of official assertions about growing Chinese incursions — about 300 in the past two years, or more than three per week — but also flew in the face of a glaring fact: China’s continuing refusal to clarify the frontline, in order to keep India under military pressure. Beijing’s breach of promise to exchange maps has brought the bilateral process to define the line of control to a grinding halt. Instead of stressing China’s intransigence, General Deepak Kapoor witlessly justified Chinese cross-border forays by saying the “Chinese have a different perception” of the frontline. The Chinese have a different perception because it suits them.


            Earlier, Gen. Kapoor betrayed his ignorance of India’s security commitment to Bhutan by saying that Chinese military intrusions into Bhutanese territory are “a matter between China and Bhutan”. When the Army chief does not seem to know (or care) that India is responsible for Bhutanese defence, which neighbour can bank on this country? Bhutan, in any event, is the only friend India is left with.


            The defence ministry has contributed its own bit to lowering India’s esteem, earning in the process a grudging compliment from China’s official Xinhua news agency, which in a March 25 Mandarin commentary states: “India’s defensive and cautious attitude toward China appears to have permeated its defence ministry”. The ministry has completely watered down the China section in its latest annual report, as if India’s concerns have just vanished.


The more power China accumulates, the more it will seek to humiliate India. It is past time India got its act together to deal with Chinese provocations deftly. Asymmetry in inter-state relations does not entail the propitiation of the stronger. Diplomacy is the art of offsetting or neutralizing power imbalances. Consistency and confidence help obviate flipping and whining. India’s present slapdash approach is not only an invitation to greater trouble, but nationally demeaning.


The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.


© The Times of India, 2008

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