Dancing in the dragon’s jaws

Why India’s new border pact with China won’t work

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 22, 2013

Seeking to compensate for his low political stock at home, Manmohan Singh has undertaken more overseas trips as prime minister than any predecessor, visiting China multiple times. Yet, India punches far below its weight internationally, while its regional security has come under siege, with Singh’s tenure witnessing a sharp deterioration in ties with China.

The highlight of the latest China visit of India’s most-travelled prime minister will not be progress on any of the core issues dividing the two countries but a Chinese-ordained border accord designed to supplant existing frontier-peace and confidence-building agreements that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undermined through repeated cross-frontier raids and other incursions. No Indian official has explained the rationale for entering into a new agreement demanded by the party that has breached existing border-peace accords with impunity.

New Delhi’s willingness to let China dictate the so-called Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) mirrors its broader strategic timidity in permitting Beijing to lay down the terms of the bilateral relationship. China has fashioned an asymmetrical commercial relationship, reaping a swelling trade surplus, even as it stymies any progress on issues of core concern to India, including the territorial and water disputes, recurrent cross-border military raids, China’s continuing nuclear and missile collaboration with Pakistan, and the growing Chinese strategic footprint in Pakistani-held Kashmir.

China’s most-insidious warfare against India is in the economic realm, yet India has done little to stop Beijing from turning it into a raw-material supplier to the Chinese economy and from subverting Indian manufacturing through dumping of goods. Official statistics show that India’s trade deficit with China in the past decade has soared at about four times the pace of aggregate bilateral commerce. The widening trade imbalance with China, in fact, has become a major contributor to India’s worsening current account deficit.

Perpetuating such a lopsided economic relationship gives Beijing little incentive to bridge the political divide. If anything, it aids China’s strategy to prevent India’s rise as a peer competitor.

Even as Beijing disturbs the territorial and water-flow status quo, New Delhi won’t leverage China’s growing India-market access to influence Chinese conduct. China, however, does not shy away from mixing politics and business. It has a record of quietly using trade to punish countries it quarrels with. For example, Japanese exports to China, which sank 13.2% in the first seven months of this year, began falling after Beijing unsheathed its trade sword in September 2012 over the Senkaku Islands dispute.

Singh’s visit will likely yield the usual platitudes about friendship and cooperation while leaving India’s concerns unaddressed. With an unresolved border arming China with leverage to keep India under military pressure, Beijing has been reluctant to even clarify what the two sides farcically call “the line of actual control” (LAC). And even as it turns Tibet into the new hub of its dam-building spree, China has brazenly sought to turn the tables on India, accusing it through a state mouthpiece last week of “attempting to reinforce its actual control and occupation of” Arunachal Pradesh through water projects there.

Singh, acquiescing to China’s sidelining of the core issues, told reporters before leaving that, “The two governments are addressing them with sincerity and maturity without letting them affect the overall atmosphere of friendship and cooperation”. Even by his pusillanimous standards, making a Chinese-dictated accord the highlight of his official visit marks a new low in Indian diplomacy.

Consider the humiliating circumstances that spawned this agreement: the PLA intruded deep into Ladakh’s Depsang Plateau by stealth before Beijing embarked on coercive diplomacy, forcing India’s hand on BDCA, whose draft it had sent earlier. In return for China withdrawing its encamped troops from Indian land, India demolished a line of defensive fortifications in Chumar—much to the south of Depsang—and ended forward patrols in the area, besides agreeing to wrap up negotiations on BDCA, which until then it had baulked at.

The Depsang encroachment inflicted permanent damage to the existing border-peace accords, including the 2005 mutual commitment to “strictly respect and observe” the LAC. Yet, paradoxically, China demanded a new agreement to take precedence over the more equitable 1993, 1996 and 2005 border-peace accords.

Indeed, such was the bloodless victory China scored by deploying a single platoon of no more than 50 soldiers in Depsang that India, in the manner of a vanquished nation, merely offered its comments and suggestions on the Chinese-imposed draft and sent its national security adviser and defence minister in rapid succession to Beijing to commit itself to BDCA’s “early conclusion.”

Now, by personally paying obeisance in Beijing, Singh culminates this mortifying process, lending his imprimatur to an agreement that can only embolden China to up the ante. In fact, since India’s virtual capitulation to Chinese demands more than five months ago, China’s military provocations have included multiple daring raids and other forays across the Himalayan frontier, the world’s longest disputed border.

Via the planeload of journalists he takes, Singh trumpets almost every overseas visit as a diplomatic success. His spinmeisters are also marketing BDCA as positive for India, highlighting features that in reality are dubious.

Why would a new military hotline with China make a difference when a similar hotline with Pakistan hasn’t worked? Given that India timorously deploys border police (such as the Home Ministry-administered Assam Rifles and Indo-Tibetan Border Police) to fend off incursions by the aggressive PLA, the clause on “no tailing” of each other’s patrols is really applicable to China. But any accord for China is just a political tool to advance its interests, including by lulling the other party into complacency and creating exploitable opportunities.

Any Chinese leader combines an India visit with a visit to his country’s “all-weather ally,” Pakistan, but Singh declined to club his China visit with a pending trip to Japan. Singh, in fact, will be in Beijing at the same time as the Russian and Mongolian prime ministers, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev beginning his Beijing trip while Singh was still in Moscow on an official visit.

Singh’s China policy, by leaving India more vulnerable to Chinese belligerence, represents a case study in how meekness attracts bullying. BDCA is a symbol of that.

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

(c) Mint, 2013.