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Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Elephant and the Dragon

Posted by: danish Ahmed 5:42 PM

(This is a repost of my article published here in June 2007 )

Last week the Chinese Foreign Minister has reiterated his country's claim over Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian Prime Minister on his part said that China was India's greatest neighbor and vowed to do everything to cement the relationship of both countries. No, it is not "Lage Raho Munna Bhai" hang over and not because he didn't call the Chinese Foriegn Minister 'sick' but because it was not an unprecedented move. Way back in the 50's Jawaharlal Nehru after unsuccessfully backing Chang Kaishek reversed his policy by becoming one of the first to recognize People's Republic of China. Soon afterwards followed the Panchsheel accord and the "hindi-chini bhai bhai" slogans, and Nehru as opposed to Sardar Patel began to perceive China as a potential ally to form a formidable Asian axis. He was in for a rude shock when the Chinese attacked and captured an Indian outpost first and later captured a huge stretch of land. i do not intend to say that the Chinese attack was unprovoked but only that for some mysterious reasons Nehru just didn't believe that China would actually launch an invasion and as a consequence India had to suffer a humiliating defeat. Nehru's mishandling of the Chinese threat was the one of the greatest mistake he committed in his long political career.
Coming back to the present, i think i am not the only one who is reminded of Nehru's mistake when reading Manmohan Singh's statement, it has been widely discussed since. i do not intend to say that India should consider China as the biggest threat, what i want to say is that China doesn't have to be either India's greatest friend or its greatest foe, it is just not pragmatic. It is one of the things we are yet to learn from China itself, that a foreign policy should be based on pragmatism and not emotion. Even if the border dispute were solved overnight, i wouldn't expect the two countries to become the greatest friends because of some fundamental factors that go against it. For instance, India views China as a regional bully with imperialistic design to assume a position which rightfully belongs to India. China on the other hand has a very identical view on Indian policies. Besides, China's assistance to Pakistan and India's sympathy for Tibetans would always be an impediment in developing closer ties. Further, India just cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that China still occupies a vast stretch of Indian territory. Then again it would be difficult to forget that China has repeatedly objected to India's bid for a permanent seat in the UN. But the most interesting part is that India never had a comprehensive China policy, i am reminded of a statement made by an American diplomat, whose name i forget, but the statement ran like "if you want to empty a drawing room full of Indian diplomats, just raise the China issue."
That was my brief argument on why China cannot be India's greatest friend, but there is no reason why we should have a hostile attitude either. Both the countries face similar domestic problems like which would only worsen if both of them take a confrontationist attitude. But the most important factor is that both India and China are developing economies that need each others assistance to achieve their aims. This single factor overrides all negative factors that should hamper reconciliation. However, i am not very sure if Indian officials and their masters are taking a pragmatic approach. The latest controversy erupted after India sent a list of IAS officers it wanted to send to China as a delegation and China denied to issue visa to an IAS officer from Arunachal Pradesh arguing that he was already a citizen of China. Chinese claim on Arunachal is not new and it was not expected that it would have relinquished it. There were no such indications yet the MEA went ahead and sent the Arunachal officers visa request. Contrast this with China's response to the escape of the 17th Karmapa from Tibet to Sikkim in 2000. China did not lodge a protest against India since it did not recognize Sikkim as part of India then (however, it recognized Sikkim as part of India 3 years later.) i am not sure if sending the Arunachal officer's visa request was a "salami tactic" to ascertain China's position on Arunachal but whatever the motive may have been the result was embarrassing.
Speaking of motives, i remember reading in the newspaper that our experts were having problems trying to interpret the statement of the Chinese foreign minister and guessing his motive behind issuing such a statement at such a time when the two countries were about to sign a bilateral trade agreement. i wont be foolish to try interpreting the statement of a Chinese minister but i can hazard a few guesses. To start with, it may be that the visa request was seen by the Chinese as an attempt to get them recognize India's sovereignty over Arunachal. Another guess which is unlikely is that the statement may be a tactic to probe India's reaction. In games theory this kind of move is called "Salami tactics", where one actor tries to gain small concessions at first and if the other actor doesn't resist the first one is encouraged to take more concessions until it is too late for the second actor. China actually has used this strategy before the 62 war by constructing a highway in Ladakh.
But as i said before this motive is unlikely which makes me wonder if it was a subtle way of China saying, okay, we are going to do business together but don't expect us to change our policies. All border disputes and other issues may remain unresolved and we can still conduct business. This would actually be a more pragmatic and mature way of handling things as opposed to Indian policy maker's tendency to view China as the greatest friend or greatest foe.

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