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Troubled equations

Print edition : Jan 13, 2012 T+T-
Admiral Nirmal Verma, India's Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of Naval Staff, with General Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of General Staff of China's PLA, during the fourth India-China Annual Defence Dialogue in New Delhi on December 9.-V.K.SINGH/AFP

Admiral Nirmal Verma, India's Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of Naval Staff, with General Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of General Staff of China's PLA, during the fourth India-China Annual Defence Dialogue in New Delhi on December 9.-V.K.SINGH/AFP

The postponement of the latest round of India-China border talks does not mean that all is not well with the bilateral relations.

THE eleventh-hour decision by Beijing to postpone the India-China border talks, which were scheduled for November 28, seems to have caught New Delhi off guard. Dai Bingguo, the senior-most official of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, was to head the Chinese delegation to New Delhi that was to hold talks with India's National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon. Both of them are the designated Special Representatives of their respective governments tasked with finding a solution to the long-running border row.

India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that China had objected to the holding of the Global Buddhist Congregation 2011 in which the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, was to give the concluding speech. New Delhi had insisted that the Buddhist meet was a purely spiritual event and had no political connotations. The MEA's Public Diplomacy Division was the co-sponsor of the conference.

Scholars and religious leaders from 31 countries attended the conference held from November 27 to 30. The star of the show was the Dalai Lama. It was the first time that leaders representing the three main branches of Buddhism came together for such a high-profile international event.

Although the Indian government formally continues to treat the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, the Chinese side views him purely as the leader of the Tibetan exile movement out to divide the country. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, speaking after the postponement of the border talks, reiterated that Beijing considered the Dalai Lama as one who has been engaged in separatist activities for a long time under the pretext of religion. An article put out by the Chinese news agency Xinhua blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting the suicides by 11 Tibetan monks in the past few weeks. The monks had, in separate incidents, carried out self-immolation protests in the western Chinese province of Sichuan.

The Dalai Lama's statement last year that Arunachal Pradesh and the town of Tawang there are integral parts of India had also angered Beijing. The Tawang monastery is among the most sacred places of worship for Tibetan Buddhists. New Delhi has so far been careful not to allow the Tibetan leader to question directly Chinese sovereignty over the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Chinese government has also been signalling its unhappiness to the Indian government at the deferential treatment being accorded to the Dalai Lama. Beijing has objected to the meeting of the Tibetan spiritual leader with the Indian Prime Minister and other senior officials.

The indefinite postponement of the border talks has indicated that the Chinese side is toughening its diplomatic posture towards New Delhi. Beijing's decision came only a week after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali, Indonesia. The last round of border talks was held a year ago on the sidelines of the last ASEAN summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. At that time, the two Prime Ministers had asked their Special Representatives to press ahead with the framework negotiations. The two sides had agreed on the political parameters and guiding principles that would provide the framework for the talks during Premier Wen's visit to India in 2005. Already, 14 meetings have taken place between the Special Representatives of the two countries on the border issue. China's top expert on India, Ma Jiali, has said that the border dispute was the most important issue between the two countries, surpassing issues such as maritime and economic competition.

In March this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao announced the resumption of high-level defence interaction and the starting of a high-level economic dialogue. India suspended defence exchanges in 2010 after the Chinese government issued a stapled visa to a senior Indian Army officer serving in Kashmir. For some years now, China has been issuing stapled visas to citizens hailing from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. China views both the Indian States as disputed territories.

The two governments were busy preparing a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs, when the border talks got postponed. However, the high-level defence and security dialogue between the two countries continues to be on track. The Deputy Chief of the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), Ma Xiaotian, led the Chinese military delegation for talks on December 9.

Indian officials admit that resolving the border issue is going to be a long-drawn-out affair. Large sectors of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) remain undelineated. According to officials in New Delhi, differences in perception will persist on large areas of disputed territory until the LAC is delineated and it is unrealistic to expect a breakthrough at this juncture.

Until recently, MEA officials were insisting that bilateral relations were on a good footing. This was contrary to the overblown reportage in sections of the Indian media about worsening ties. The officials played down stories of border incursions and noted that military patrols from both sides inadvertently crossed the unmarked borders. Not a single bullet has been fired in the past 30 years along the LAC by either side, noted an Indian official. Reports appearing in the Indian media about regular border incursions were not based on facts on the ground, said highly placed Indian officials. They added that effective mechanisms are in place to prevent untoward incidents happening on the LAC. The officials also denied that the two countries were competing for influence in the region and insisted that India was not interested in raising tensions at the behest of outside powers. They pointed out that bilateral trade had grown significantly this year. China is already India's biggest trading partner. Officials admit that Chinese companies are very competitive and are deservedly active in many key sectors of the Indian economy.

Though there are differing strategic perceptions on neighbouring countries especially regarding Pakistan India and China have been cooperating on key issues in various international forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the United Nations. The two countries are part of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, which is emerging as a counterweight to the West in international affairs. There are ongoing consultations on issues affecting the West Asian region. Both countries depend on oil from the region to keep their economies running. Indian officials blame the West for hyping up the so-called rivalry between the two countries. As an illustration, they cite the Western media reportage on an incident in the South China Sea involving an Indian naval ship and the Chinese naval authorities. A leading U.S. newspaper had reported that there was a confrontation after the Indian ship was told to leave the disputed waters. No such confrontation took place, aver Indian officials.

There was also a controversy of sorts regarding the contract signed by the Indian oil company ONGC-Videsh and Vietnam to explore jointly two blocks off the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The area is claimed by both Vietnam and China. China had objected to the deal. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman had stressed on the indisputable sovereignty of his country over the South China Sea and expressed the hope that foreign countries would not get involved in the dispute. For countries outside the region, we hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve this dispute through bilateral channels, the spokesman had said. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, in an editorial, accused India and Vietnam of reckless attempts in confronting China. Indian officials deny that China had presented a diplomatic demarche that oil exploration in the South China Sea be stopped. At the Bali ASEAN summit, Manmohan Singh had said that it was India's commercial right to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

China is warily watching the recent Indian and American moves along its borders. India is being increasingly viewed as a de facto ally of the West after the signing of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The U.S., India and Japan are to hold a trilateral summit in Washington soon. China feels threatened by the heightened level of activity in the South China Sea and around its borders. The Western media are talking about a new great game unfolding in the region. The Barack Obama administration in the U.S. is encouraging India to follow a more aggressive Look East policy. Beijing feels that there is some amount of coordination between Washington and New Delhi on East Asia.

The People's Daily recently warned India about the price to be paid for taking what America offers. The recent statement of Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd backing a trilateral military pact between his country, the U.S. and India is indicative of the new contours of alliances that are emerging in the region. Australia also announced that it had removed the ban on exporting uranium to India. Australia until now had insisted on India signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) before it could sell uranium for the latter's nuclear reactors. China is helping Pakistan build new nuclear reactors.

The message sent by Malabar 2007, the joint military exercise involving the navies of the U.S., India, Australia, Singapore and Japan in the Bay of Bengal, has not been lost on China. At the 2011 ASEAN summit, the U.S. led the chorus against the emerging China threat. Interestingly, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had earlier described both India and China as potential rivals who challenged American interests in the region. Before he reached Bali for the summit, President Obama had loudly declared in Canberra (Australia) that the U.S. was a Pacific power and was here to stay. His administration also announced plans to station 2,500 U.S. marines in Australia to assist U.S. allies and their interests in the region.

Around the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to the region, was busy assuring allies such as the Philippines that her country supported their territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The U.S. has huge military bases in Japan and Korea. China may be viewing India's foray into the South China Sea as part of the Western stratagem to needle it. Its fears have a basis. The U.S. Defence Department's report to the Congress in August notes that China would face great difficulty if threats arose to the U.S.' shipping through the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. Chinese commentators have been saying that the U.S. should not treat the South China Sea as an American lake.

China feels further threatened by the fast pace of the events unfolding in Myanmar. The sudden thaw in the relations between the military-dominated government and Washington has made Beijing's antennae go up. China is Myanmar's biggest trading partner, but there are signs that the relationship is fraying a bit. Recently, the Myanmar government suspended the $3.6-billion China-funded Myitsone dam project. China does not want another unfriendly country along its long borders.