INDIA CHINA RELATIONS – AN INTROSPECTION

Saurabh Kumar, IFS (retd.) (formerly Ambassador of India to the UN and other International Organisations in Vienna; Austria; Ireland & Vietnam)   September 2014

 
I. Introduction 
 
 The following reflection on India’s equation with China from a forward looking strategic standpoint, for charting the way ahead, might perhaps merit attention at this juncture, when a new Government in India is preparing to receive the Chinese President, who, much like his Indian interlocutor (though not formal counter-part), is as yet early in his (anticipated ten year) term of office albeit with a close to two year head start. 
 
The relationship has come a long way in recent years as a result of over three decades of painstaking diplomacy for ‘normalisation’ of relations, beginning with exchange (resumption) of Ambassadors in 1976 and the bold ice-breaking February 1979 visit of former PM Vajpayee as Foreign Minister (the first after 1962). Since 2005, the two countries are in a declared “strategic and cooperative partnership”, with regular Summit and other high level visits and wide-ranging engagement in a host of areas, including defence. Economic interaction has soared to make China India’s largest trading partner but is still nowhere near potential. 
 
While the immediate task naturally is to work for early realization of the potential through mutually beneficial diversification and intensification of ties, it is the political relationship that has naturally to be kept in focus as the driver, and determinant of the reach, of the former. Here a historical perspective may be in order. 
 
 II. Reflections on Relations 
 
 Two features stand out in a quick recap of political relations between the two countries: 
 
 A. Volatile Vibes
 
First, and foremost, there is the fact of extreme volatility of the relationship that no reasonable observer can fail to be struck by (and wonder why that should be so) – right from the start, and continuing to this day. The dramatic deterioration in relations, from a euphoric ‘bhai-bhai’ phase to a ‘bye-bye’ mood within a remarkably short span of less than a decade in the pre-1962 period provides a natural reference point in this regard. 
 
What of the post 1976 period, of avowed ‘normalisation’ of relations by both sides? Well, it didn’t exactly get off to a flying start either, with former PM Vajpayee forced to cut short his historic ‘patch-up’ visit because the hosts got busy in “teaching a lesson” to Vietnam (as was done India earlier in the sixties) while he was still on Chinese soil. Of course, the same argument, about exceptional circumstances (personalized decisions by charismatic leaders, really -- the late Deng Xiaoping, although no Chinese narrative has shown readiness to admit that, or in respect of Mao in case of India in 1962), could be claimed to again apply here, so this too will be sought to be set aside by those inclined to condone China’s transgressions. 
 
And, likewise, perhaps in case of the same lack of sensitivity displayed by the Chinese in conducting a nuclear test during President Venkataraman’s visit to China in 1992 (which happened to be the first Head of State level visit between the two countries ever) – a compliment that had to be returned subsequently.
 
[Those pre-disposed to dismiss these bloomers as coincidences of no consequence need to square that up with the Chinese proclivity to be sticklers for propriety when it comes to their sensitivities: it was India that had to make the first move for resumption/advance of interaction at all three levels in the post-1962 period (Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President) -- in 1979 (Vajpayee), 1988 (Rajiv Gandhi) and 1992 (Venkataraman) respectively; returned by their counter-parts Huang Hua, Li Peng and Jiang Zemin unhurriedly in 1981, 1991 and 1996 respectively – to make up for the 3 visits initiated by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (pre-1962) in 1954, 57 and 1960 (with the last remaining unreciprocated by Pt. Nehru). 
 
Nor is that a thing of the past, of the days gone by (before institutionalization of State functioning into a routinised, non-charismatic and un-whimsical mode in China, post-Deng Xiaoping) -- in April 2008, the Chinese Foreign Office thought it fit to wake up and summon the Indian (lady) Ambassador in Beijing at 2 A.M. to register their concern over a security threat to their Embassy premises in New Delhi following an attack by Tibetan activists the previous day, even though no damage had been caused.] 
 
Though PM Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark 1988 visit resulted in relations finally being placed on a higher trajectory, and things seemed to have taken a turn for the better over the next decade or so (during the Jiang Zemin and initial Hu Jintao years), they reverted to form, with an unanticipated downturn soon after a high point in 2005, as below. 
 
During this period, steady progress was made during each high level visit -- the well thought out 1993 Agreement on management of the border areas (PM Narasimha Rao) followed by the complementary 1996 Agreement on military CBMs (President Jiang Zemin); the 2003 Joint Declaration (PM Vajpayee) that, inter alia, set up the mechanism of Special Political Representatives (SPRs) to explore the “framework of a boundary settlement from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship” and, above all, the 2005 “Agreement on Political Parameters & Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question” (Premier Wen Jiabao), accompanying the announcement of a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership” during that visit. 
 
The latter two documents marked a zenith of sorts but they could not guarantee an end to the fluctuation characteristic. Article VII of the 2005 Agreement (which provided that the boundary “should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and that both countries would “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas” while reaching a “boundary settlement”) was widely understood (in India -- including by seasoned China experts, not just laymen) to be presaging Chinese readiness to eventually drop their claims in the Eastern sector (covering Arunachal Pradesh) as part of a package deal involving Indian concessions in the Western sector (Aksai Chin) and finally agree to a settlement before long, concluded as it was in the sunshine of the newly established “strategic and cooperative partnership”. 
 
However, these expectations were soon belied -- by Chinese backtracking. The very next year, the Chinese Ambassador was heard publicly asserting claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s visit – a far cry from hopes of a final settlement on the “boundary question” that set the clock back (since the claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh meant that it was, in the Chinese perception being projected, not a matter of alignment and/or marginal adjustment of the “boundary” but of negotiation of territory in the entire “border” area). 
 
Though, “damage containment‟ efforts were undertaken by both sides with alacrity, these were only partially successful. Those efforts were reflected in the “Ten Point Strategy” announced in the Joint Communique of the 2006 visit of President Hu Jintao and continued, less prominently, in the texts of documents agreed upon during subsequent visits (of PM/Premier Manmohan Singh, Wen Jiabao, Li Keqiang and Manmohan Singh in 2008, 2010, May and November 2013 respectively). Relations appeared to have reverted to even keel on paper, in the text of these high level official documents, but not in the public domain, where huge chasms of mistrust showed through – in stand offs on the border, in 2008/9 and again later, above all, but also otherwise .
 
Most notable of these were the remarks of the Chinese MOFA spokesperson registering a strong protest against PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in 2009 (in which he was gratuitously referred to as “an Indian leader”) no more than a year and a half after his “successful” 2008 visit, during which a “Shared Vision for the 21st Century” document had been signed. Moreover, the Special Political Representative negotiations, set up in 2003 after the much acclaimed visit (in China, not India, because of the huge gain it made on the status of Tibet be getting to yield further than hitherto) visit of PM Vajpayee with considerable fanfare as a way of breaking out of the logjam the official level (Joint Working Group) border talks (carried out pursuant to the understanding reached during the 1988 visit of PM Rajiv Gandhi) were felt to have gotten into, themselves got bogged down over Tawang -- a redline for India that the Chinese side was never unaware of. 
 
The point of noting these ups and downs, of course, is to ask why this bilateral has shown the kind of volatility it has over such a long period – all along actually -- and even before the advent of the TRP driven gladiatorial digital media ever thirsty for “man bites dog‟ like sound bytes? Analysts are prone to seeking explanations in domestic factors (to do with the Chinese or Indian politics) or external ones (to do with China’s relations with other countries or its reading of India’s relations with other countries) as factors causing instability. But those are merely the proximate causes and dwelling on them beyond a point only serves, in the opinion of this writer, to explain away the unusual conduct that has often bordered on the uncivil (or worse, ends up rationalising it) in the unexceptionable endeavour to ‘understand’ the other side. 
 
More important it is perhaps to worry about the trust deficit such volatility has resulted in – i.e. whether it has something to do with (the DNA of) Chinese diplomacy and psyche that is not grasped at the Indian end, and which impels the Chinese side to rock the boat every now and then, unmindful of the impact on the other side? It might be more productive to note the tendency and brace up for the best of times being followed by reversals unpredictably, than to expend energies on analyses identifying the immediate whys and wherefores of unpredictability. 

B. Tangled Web of Intangibles 
 
A second related aspect that is perplexing is about the nature of the nation’s politico-diplomatic interaction with China, as reflected in the documents of the bilateral relationship. The Chinese diplomatic design, disposed towards generalities and formulations long on lofty rhetoric and abstractions and short on unambiguous specifics, has been allowed to prevail in the corpus of Agreements/Communiques/Declarations/Statements issued over the years. Instead of an Indian one seeking to cast common understandings and shared agreements in tangible terms, an alternative that has not even been imagined perhaps. Even after the sobering experience with Chinese diplomacy -- pre-1962 and all the way since then – with umpteen instances of unpleasant surprises, gaps and misunderstandings. 
 
A close reading of the last seven “transformational” high level visits, to go back no farther, is instructive in this regard. Chinese diplomacy would seem to have got the better of India, trapping it in a web of words that add little value but a fair amount of strategic confusion. By subscribing to clichéd phrases and concepts which convey only a connotation, not any clear meaning, India has ended up tying itself in knots. 
All in all, a paradigm that serves to sign in the long haul by dampening expectations (of early delivery of tangibles of interest to India) and setting the bar low, that well serves the Chinese interest of keeping India-China relations locked in a low level equilibrium, as it were.
 
 A detailed account of these aspects, in specifics and in-depth, would naturally require considerable space and time. Two high points of the politico-diplomatic interaction of the two countries – the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement and the 2005 “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership”-- can however illustrate the imbroglio identified in the preceding paragraph (of atmospherics projected by the official documents being allowed to run way ahead of substantive content) and its implicit prayer for liberation from the tangled web of intangibles.
 
Panchsheel : A Failed Experiment
 
The “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”(which both countries propounded together in 1954at the very outset of their interaction as independent nations, and championed tirelessly, as a model for inter-state relations) became a laughing stock world-wide after the cardinal tenet – “non-aggression” – was trampled over by one proponent over the other.  This happened because the Agreement did not rest on any solid foundation. Its key weakness lay in there being no way of ensuring observance of its unexceptionable provisions in practice or seeking remedy against transgressions -- something that became clear in hindsight. Yet even now the Five Principles continue to be paid lip service together with China, as if the nation’s territorial integrity had never been violated. 
 
[The Government’s decision to mark its 60th anniversary jointly with China almost immediately after assuming office in May, with high level attendance from India, was maladroit. Hon’ble Vice-President’s tactful allusion to the “scar on the Indian psyche” on the sidelines of the occasion was statesmanly but a huge advantage, on the propaganda front above all, had already been handed over to Chinese diplomacy on a platter as a result of meek Indian acquiescence in the very design of the event without an attempt to negotiate a quid pro quo by way of some acknowledgement of Chinese culpability for transgression, be it an indirect one.] 
 
Strategic Partnership : Symbolism Sans Substance
 
Likewise the “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership” declared in April 2005, during the visit of the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao. The justification for according China that exalted standing is even less obvious than in case of Panchsheel.  When Japan had to make do, in that same month April 2005, with no more than a “strategic orientation” to its “Global Partnership” with India established much earlier, in 2000, and wait another year and a half, till Dec. 2006, before it could secure a full-fledged “Strategic and Global Partnership" with India. It is not clear what precisely that labelling was intended to mean in practice. Could the description “constructive and cooperative partnership” (without capital letters, most importantly, i.e. without a label directed at others obviously), already agreed to just two years earlier during the visit of PM Vajpayee, not have done just as well ? 
 
 Former PM Manmohan Singh was remarkably upbeat in his Suo Moto statement in the Lok Sabha on the Joint Statement consecrating the strategic partnership:
 
………It “codifies the consensus between us that India-China relations transcend bilateral issues and have now acquired a global and strategic character. The partnership also reflects our desire to proactively resolve outstanding differences, while not letting them come in the way of continued development of relations. This is not in the nature of a military pact or alliance but reflects a congruence of purpose apart from a common perception of world events.” (emphasis added) 
 
That generous assessment has remained un-scrutinised, despite its weighty import. It needs to be examined carefully now for its tenability -- in the light of the experience, of the decade or so since then above all. Whether, in retrospect at least, it would not appear to have gone overboard -- and not just by a small margin. For it has obvious implications for the Indian strategic posture, which cuts an ‘un-crisp‟ and unsure profile; perennially falling between the ‘democratic’ and ‘multi-polar’ stools, so to say. 
 
[Chinese strategists can, at any hand, safely be presumed to have been pleased, even delighted, at that development. Their ‘grand strategy’ goal, it could be surmised, of obfuscating natural fault lines on the international chessboard, inter alia, by locking India in a diplomatic embrace in the hope of warding off, or at least delaying, potentially uncomfortable convergences. The fact that China has been able to attempt such a (diplomatically) ambitious task on the strength of little more than professions of good intent and normative unexceptionables (i.e. without any cost to itself by way of any real substantive gives to India) is, or should be, all the more galling to the nation’s politico-strategic establishment (and to its diplomatic machine). ]
 
One way of squaring up that disjunction, commonsensically, is to posit a promise, i.e. assurance, of a good, i.e. satisfactory, border settlement on the part of the Chinese at that time (in the absence of information about what transpired during, and in the build up to, PM Wen Jiabao’s 2005 visit).  And an early one (settlement)at that, for no terms of settlement can be considered good, obviously, if the time-line for their fructification extends into the indefinite future. The ‘down payment’ by India, by way of according consent to a downright misleading, grandiose, epithet leaping way ahead of ground reality, which made little sense anyway actually in terms of existing or even potential strategic convergences between the two nations, is quite incomprehensible otherwise.
 
[On the question of an early resolution of the border issue, it is over 35 years since former PM Vajpayee’s historic ‘patch up’ visit to China as the Foreign Minister in February 1979, when he had reportedly countered the late Deng Xiaoping’s disingenuous bait on setting the border issue aside for future generations to resolve while proceeding ahead with ‘normalization’ of relations straightaway by his ready wit, citing the Indian maxim ‘kal kare so aajkar, aaj kare so ab’ in reply. 
 
But it is Deng’s line that was allowed to prevail ultimately – imperceptibly, i.e. without even a frontal acknowledgement of its acceptance (to the Indian public), much less an in-depth examination of its implications/impact in a strategic perspective -- in the waters that have washed the diplomatic parleys since the 1988 visit of late PM Rajiv Gandhi which first conceded the point, implicitly but very clearly, by agreeing to the formulation “work hard to create a favourable climate and conditions for a fair and reasonable settlement of the boundary question, while seeking a mutually acceptable solution to this question”, with its obvious riders. 

From there on to the present (more explicit) mantra of ‘differences not being allowed to come in the way of improvement of relations’ ( i.e. putting the issue on the back burner indefinitely)  is not a big leap.
 
Oddly, the Indian side has not considered it necessary to secure mention of some kind of a target date, if not deadline, from China in return  for agreeing to repeat that mantra (totally reversing its starting point of normalization of relations) on every occasion without fail.]
 
That context can thus provide a touchstone for evaluation of the soundness of the “strategic partner” depiction and for delineating its contours afresh (given that it is a fait accompli now). The new Government would surely be applying that test in its internal review of the state of play in India-China relations – now, in preparation for Xi Jinping’s visit (even if it missed the opportunity to do so in its opening days, before conveying readiness to receive the Chinese Foreign Minister immediately on assuming office). 
 
An immediate settlement on the boundary without any further delay is, however, not the only criterion pertinent in this connection. That country’s “special relationship” with its “all weather ally”, Pakistan, is another. Even those well disposed to China, be it for ideological reasons or because of their exaggerated reading of real politik, cannot reasonably turn a blind eye to the less than benign dimensions of Sino-Pak ties. Not to speak of the latter ill behoving a country that claims to be a strategic partner of India. This is an aspect on which again Indian diplomacy would appear to have remained unduly defensive. Its inability to factor in this utter incongruity (before parenting a strategic partnership) is quite inexplicable. 
 
It is therefore hoped that the Sino-Pak nexus would also be high on the agenda of the review exercise of the new Government, with a view to making a determination whether the paradigm within which India-China relations have come to be conducted is not unduly adverse to India. 
 
III. The Way Ahead : Focus on Tangibles
 
The obvious questions arising from both the above mentioned features of the political relationship stand out for being unexamined, largely, in the national discourse on relations with China. But they must be asked, for they have an immediate claim on the Government’s attention in the wake of the impending visit.
 
The strategic partnership with China is just an empty shell – how to infuse some solid content into it is a question that should engage the Indian strategic establishment much more intensely, internally, than hitherto.  A determination needs to be made, moreover, whether the paradigm within which India-China relations have come to be conducted is not lacking in balance, and therefore in need of a rejig. It would be desirable to await the (previous) talk being walked to allow the hyperbole bubble to dissolve itself and pave the way for down to earth, beneficial bilateralism to come to the fore.  
 
And the entire approach to the “boundary talks” – the ‘three-stage road map’ (proceeding ‘top-down’ from abstract principles and parameters to specifics of territorial adjustments) – perhaps needs to be reversed (i.e. a ‘bottom-up’ one, beginning with a prior understanding on the specifics of the eventual boundary alignment) in the light of the experience of four decades of normalization of (inordinately) ‘delayed gratification’.
 
Sardar Patel’s prescient letter of 1950 to Pt. Nehru commends itself at this juncture in the nation’s relationship with its redoubtable neighbour to the North, when the difficult diplomatic exercise of a dignified ‘normalising’ of relations with the country that gave the nation an unforgettable 1962 is yet a work-in-progress, as a model of realism and a safeguard against allowing symbolism to score over substance.
 
Given the little time left now before the visit, a fundamental relook may not be practical for evolving a ‘doable’ in terms of a text (draft) for a document to be signed during the visit. At the same time, the need for such a ‘radical review’ is paramount, as argued in the foregoing. And the opportunity to do it is now, when the new Government is yet to step into the flow; it will not be there later, once they have jumped into the fray with a document of their own. For, if the Government gets around to signing a document, no matter how much improved its text be, it will lose the possibility – the moral authority – to question the entire paradigm of disadvantage and seek to replace it with a new approach altogether based on specifics, breaking free of the bind the nation has gotten into over the years. 
 
A way out of this dilemma would be to openly declare to the Chinese side the desire of the new Government to take measure of the voluminous verbiage in the documentation of the relationship, admitting lack of time to do so as yet. And meanwhile to keep all understandings reached during the visit oral. I.e. to not sign any document anew, not comment on any previous understanding or reiterate any -- the “strategic partnership” above all) -- and leave it to each side to brief the media on the tenor and content of the discussions. The desire, and determination, to start afresh with greater clarity of purpose than hitherto would be manifest in such a course of action – and that should be enough of a gain for the present. And yet, it would not tie the Government’s hands for the future in any way, leaving all options open. 
 
This suggestion for reticence and restraint applies, naturally, to political documentation only; agreements on the economic, investment, trade, tourism, culture and education or other fronts – anything fitting a ‘tangibles only’ tag, as it were – need not be shunned.
 
 
"The views expressed are solely that of the author and do not in any way reflect the views, opinion or analysis of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy."
 
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