China’s new squeeze-India strategy

India’s faint attempt at playing Chinese checkers

A bully goes only after the timid: the more feckless and fearful a policy, the more pressure it will invite


Brahma Chellaney

Mint, December 28, 2010


With the political clout of its military growing, China has displayed increasing assertiveness with its neighbors. But no neighbor is feeling the heat more than India. China’s more muscular policy has injected greater turbulence in the already-fraught bilateral ties.


In recent years, the New Delhi visit of any major Chinese leader has been ominously preceded by a new instrument of leverage being unsheathed against India. On the eve of President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit, China resurrected its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh, nearly three times larger than Taiwan.  Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit was preceded by China fashioning a sharp-edged Kashmir card against India.


Having raked up the Arunachal issue, Beijing has embarked on a three-pronged strategy to build pressure on India over Kashmir. First, it has sought to challenge Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir both by excluding the western sector from the length of the border it claims to share with India and by stapling a separate paper visa for any J&K resident applying to travel to China. Second, shrinking the length of the Sino-Indian frontier paves the way for Beijing to limit the territorial dispute to what it claims (Arunachal), while what it occupies (the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin) would be taken up only after an Indo-Pakistan Kashmir settlement — the very formulation China applies to the dispute over Pakistan’s 1963 ceding of a trans-Karakoram tract to it. And three, China’s deployment of military troops in Pakistan-held Kashmir, ostensibly to build strategic projects, means that India now faces Chinese troops on both flanks of J&K.


During his visit, Wen cynically sought to harness China’s new squeeze-India strategy as a source of leverage. He proactively suggested that Chinese and Indian officials begin “in-depth discussions” to sort out one aspect of this strategy — the stapled-visa matter. While the proposal, on the face of it, may seem reasonable, it actually demands that India negotiate with the stick wielder. Since negotiations cannot be one-sided, it also means the Chinese intend to discard this new stick only on the basis of give-and-take. Wen’s stress on the adjective “in-depth” indeed signals that the Chinese will drive a hard bargain.


Yet New Delhi, unable to grasp the full implications of China’s Machiavellian new strategy, has risen to the Chinese bait. Having publicly said that “the ball is now in China’s court” — meaning Beijing must, on its own, “unstaple” an issue it created — New Delhi in private agreed to the opposite. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, “There was an understanding that officials will meet and this would be appropriately resolved.”

This is just the latest example of how Chinese diplomacy is able to run rings round India, successfully deflecting attention from the core issues to the new issues it creates. It is also an example of Indian diplomacy compounding its own challenges. Instead of simply repaying China in the same coin by issuing visas on a separate leaf to the Han migrants that now dominate the Tibetan plateau, Indian officials have begged China to give up its visa policy. Beijing knew the Indians would come running. And that it would then be able to extract some concession on an unconnected matter. Will India also enter into give-and-take to escape the other sticks China now brandishes, from purging the western sector to stepping up cross-border military incursions in this very sector?


Wen came to New Delhi empty-handed, yet he left for his country’s all-weather ally Pakistan with $23 billion worth of Indian economic contracts. Such was his nimble diplomacy that Wen first agreed to a joint communiqué incorporating a “firm commitment” to resolve the border issue “at an early date.” He then delivered a public speech effectively asking that the issue be left to future generations because sorting it out “will take a fairly long period of time.”  


While India did well not to reiterate its usual ritualistic commitment to a one-China policy, it has pegged that move not to China’s refusal to accept the territorial status quo but to the lowest possible threshold — the stapled-visa issue. The implication is that if China abandons that small stick even while continuing to wave bigger sticks, India will happily go back to openly declaring that Tibet and Taiwan are part of China. In fact, despite the absence of a direct reference to “one China,” the latest joint communiqué affirms a commitment to “abide by the basic principles” enshrined in the 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008 joint statements — all of which contain India’s pledge to a “one China” without a reciprocal Chinese commitment to a “one India.”


China’s hardening approach has unfolded at a time when sinologists are in charge of Indian policy. The national security adviser and foreign secretary have both served as ambassador to China. In truth, sinologists since before the1962 war have been the weak link in India’s China policy — too absorbed in narrow, arcane issues and unable to dispassionately assess China, or India’s options, in a larger strategic context.


Make no mistake: A bully goes only after the timid. The more feckless and fearful a policy, the more pressures it will invite on the country. Over caution and pusillanimity actually can make the bully more brazen. China’s new squeeze strategy is a reminder India must avoid that trap.


Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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