The worm turns: India’s China diplomacy gets muscular

Behind India's robust defence of its interest against China in recent times lies the realisation that kowtowing isn't good diplomacy, only an invitation for ritual humiliation.

Vembu September 19, 2011 13:19:07 IST
The worm turns: India’s China diplomacy gets muscular

If India and China had a Facebook page, a recent WikiLeaks cable from the US Embassy in New Delhi observed wryly, "their relationship status would be 'complicated'."

For long, Indian diplomacy towards China has had only one aim: to avoid saying or doing anything that would provoke a repeat of the 1962 war. Former National Security Adviser MK Narayanan said as much in his interactions with US diplomats, noting that India had concerns about China’s high military spending.

Towards that end, if it meant walking on eggshells to avoid offending Chinese sensibilities, India was more than happy to do that, even offering apologies where none were required.

But now the worm has turned. India has learnt in recent times to put up a more robust defence of its security interests when confronted by Chinese muscle-flexing – be it in in their disputed border areas, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or farther afield in the South China Sea.

Thus, for instance, after China effectively told India to butt out of the South China Sea – after a high-seas incident in which an Indian Navy vessel, which was in international waters off the Vietnam coast, was told it was on Chinese waters – India has asserted its right to navigation in international sea lanes.

And, in fact, uncharacteristically showing a bit of spine, Indian diplomats let it be known that if anything, it was China that needed to stay out of India's neighbourhood, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where Chinese troops have taken over a large swathe of land.

What accounts for this change in approach? In India's case, it may finally be the realisation that the "treading softly" approach of the past only conveys extraordinary weakness to China, which it then takes advantage of by pushing further.

For instance, kowtowing to China, as India has repeatedly done, hasn't stopped Chinese border incursions, as was made evident most recently when Chinese troops reportedly breeched the Sino-Indian border in Leh. Nor has it secured for India a reprieve from the ‘stapled visa’ mind games that China plays with people from Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir.

It isn't any wonder that Indian diplomacy is finally getting over its "turn the other cheek" mentality vis-à-vis China, since timidity has for too long been taken for weakness.

More trade =  more peace?

The worm turns Indias China diplomacy gets muscular

India has learnt in recent times to put up a more robust defence of its security interests when confronted by Chinese muscle-flexing – be it in in their disputed border areas, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or farther afield in the South China Sea. AFP

What renders the Sino-Indian relationship particularly "complicated" is the fact that for all the political and strategic jostling, the trade relationship between the two countries continues to exceed the wildest expectations.

Liberal international relations theorists claim that commerce brings about peace because countries that trade together have more incentives to cooperate and avoid conflict. But, as Belgian security analyst and research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies Jonathan Holslag told me, China and India may be exceptions to that rule.

That’s because the positive expectations of China-India relations are underwritten by three expectations. First, that their economic aspirations will lead to a mutually beneficial economic cooperation based on a Ricardian division of labour: China as a manufacturing power, India as a services economy. Second, it’s assumed that growing bilateral trade will alter perceptions of each other. And third, it’s believed that interdependence mitigates the traditional security atmosphere.

All three assumptions, says Holslag, are flawed. First, the Ricardian formula is infirm. If India is to find jobs for its millions, it will have to hasten its industrialisation directed at exports, which will pit it against China’s manufacturing strengths. Simultaneously, China is making strides in areas where India is strong, like IT and commercial services.

Second, despite both countries' efforts to get closer, there's been no positive evolution in terms of public perceptions of each other; in fact, they've gotten worse. Although bilateral trade has grown, it's distorted: India exports only raw materials, whereas China exports manufactured goods. That imbalance is unsustainable. And Indian companies want barriers against Chinese 'dumping'.

Third, there's been no progress on the border issue or in the military posturing. Efforts to demilitarise the border zone have in recent years given way to a remilitarisation.

In short, reasons Holslag, despite the levels of interaction, there's been no fundamental improvement in the China-India relationship. These are two rapidly developing countries with domestic expectations often outpacing the governments' ability to fulfill them. And this, he adds, will create uncertainty and frictions.

These uncertainties and frictions certainly need to be managed so to keep them from getting out of hand. But that enterprise isn't advanced by merely having one side paying ritual obeisance in the hope that the other will be suitably placated. To the extent that the Indian foreign policy establishment has now stood its ground, and spoken in the language of power that the Chinese can perhaps understand better, the two sides actually stand a better chance of working things out between them.

Perhaps they can  never aspire to be "Facebook friends" but at least they can work towards rendering their relationship somewhat less complicated.

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