A chill wintry wind blows across China-India relations

While advancing our core interests with China, we should be wary of triggering a disproportionate, even adventurist, response from a prickly China.

hidden November 30, 2011 09:47:20 IST
A chill wintry wind blows across China-India relations

By B Raman

Avoidable unpleasantness has recently crept into India-China relations over issues that should not have been over-dramatised by China, thereby injecting a certain distrust into the relations, which had been progressing well despite continuing differences over the border dispute between the two countries.

China’s unhappiness over the participation of an Indian government-owned oil company in offshore oil/gas exploration in three blocks in the South China Sea area belonging to Vietnam, over which China claims sovereignty, was the starting point of this unpleasantness.

Chinese official spokesmen were measured in their comments on the participation of the Indian company so that the issue did not have an uncontrollably adverse effect on bilateral relations. Similar care not to overdramatise Chinese unhappiness was evident in Chinese official comments after the recent meeting between prime minister Manmohan Singh and premier Wen Jiabao on the margins of the East Asia summit at Bali in Indonesia.

A chill wintry wind blows across ChinaIndia relations

If the Chinese really value their relations with India (as they claim to), it is important for them to pay as much attention to India’s interests and concerns as we have always paid to theirs. AFP

This salutary restraint was unfortunately not evident in two commentaries on Sino-Indian relations disseminated by the party-owned Global Times and the government-owned Xinhua news agency. In view of the party ownership of the Global Times and the state ownership of Xinhua, it is natural that their hard-hitting comments on India were viewed by many in India as the conscious adoption of a two-edged policy by the Chinese authorities on India’s relations with Vietnam and its perceived activism in the South China Sea. This two-edged policy was seen by many in India as marked by seeming official restraint and semi-official anti-Indian virulence.

The hiccups over India’s firm, but gentle assertion of its right to help Vietnam in oil/gas exploration without taking a stand on the merits of the dispute between China and Vietnam over the question of sovereignty over the South China Sea islands have been aggravated by another instance of overdramatisation by the Chinese of their objection to the proposed participation by the Dalai Lama in a global Buddhist conference being held by a non-governmental foundation in New Delhi from 27 to 30 November coinciding with the 2600th anniversary of the Enlightenment of the Buddha.

It is understood that the Chinese initially objected to the participation of the Dalai Lama in the conference and subsequently to the conference itself. It so happened that the dates of the conference coincided with the 15th round of the talks on the border issue between the Special Representatives of the Prime Ministers of the two countries, which was proposed to be held at New Delhi on 28 and 29 November. This round has now been postponed without any fresh dates being fixed because of the reported Chinese unhappiness over the Buddhist conference and the participation of the Dalai Lama in it.

While one could argue with some reason that Chinese sensitivities could have been kept in mind while fixing the dates for the two events so that they did not clash, one would have equal reason not to appreciate the avoidable drama created by the Chinese, which has not only come in the way of the 15th round of the border talks, but has also cast a shadow over the current state of Sino-Indian relations.

While continuing to be sensitive to Chinese interests and concerns wherever possible and necessary, India has in recent months started slowly asserting its own interestsand concerns without surrendering totally to those of China.

A chill wintry wind blows across ChinaIndia relations

Avoidable unpleasantness has recently crept into India-China relations over issues that should not have been over-dramatised by China. AFP

The increasing assertion of the Indian will to defend and promote its interests without impinging on those of China has been particularly evident in our relations with Vietnam and Myanmar and in our refusal to intervene in matters concerning the Dalai Lama provided those matters are purely of a religious nature without any political significance.

This assertion of the Indian will has had two aspects—in relation to our developing relations with Myanmar and Vietnam, and in developing our cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia in matters relating to maritime security and maritime counter-terrorism.

While the Chinese have not so far openly come out with any objection to our developing relations with Myanmar, their officially controlled media has been increasingly irritable with regard to our developing relations with Vietnam and the US. The Dalai Lama issue is showing signs of becoming an additional source of irritation.

If the Chinese really value their relations with India (as they claim to), it is important for them to pay as much attention to India’s interests and concerns as we have always paid to theirs. Mutual respect of each other’s core interests and concerns has to be a two-way traffic. The Chinese, who lose no opportunity to assert their core interests and concerns, cannot object to India doing likewise.

It is hoped that the current unpleasantness in the bilateral relations will be ephemeral and will dissipate in the days to come,  enabling the two countries to resume their forward movement in their search for a mutually satisfactory solution to the border problem.

However, India should be prepared for the possibility that it may not be ephemeral and it may have to live for some years with the shadow cast on the bilateral relations. We should continue to assert our core interests and concerns in a carefully calibrated manner without letting our assertion become disproportionate to our present capacity to counter any adventurist impulses of China directed at us — whether across the border or in the South China Sea.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (Retired) in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India; he is currently Director of the Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Republished with permission from the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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