Chinese soup: More sour than sweet

The Lucknow cleric, Maulana Khalid Rasheed Farangi Mahali, struck a popular chord when he advised people in his Eid-ul-Azha message to boycott Chinese goods. Even if an actual boycott is not feasible, there are sound economic, political and military arguments for a stronger expression of Indian disapproval than we have seen so far of the Chinese tactic of blowing hot and cold at the same time to keep neighbours – especially India — on tenterhooks.

 Three weeks after President Xi Jinping’s visit, no one is sure why he came and what China intends. The goodwill that such a visit is supposed to generate evaporated amidst reports of Chinese military incursions in Ladakh’s Chumar area and an armed confrontation along the Line of Actual Control. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha may be right to blame such frequent face-offs between Indian and Chinese troops on differences of perception between the two countries over the actual position on the ground. But surely China’s all-powerful head of government, who also heads his country’s military commission, could have ensured that renewed military tensions on the border did not vitiate his stated purpose of building greater trust with India.

 It is difficult to believe the provocation was accidental and not carefully planned. Even if the episode did not quite arouse the anxieties of 1962, it was a grim reminder of 1979 when the Chinese invaded Vietnam while Atal Behari Vajpayee was still in their country, albeit the official tour was over.

 As Air Marshal Raha put it ahead of the Indian Air Force’s 82nd anniversary celebrations last Wednesday, the incursion into Ladakh and the way the episode coincided with President Xi’s visit was a “mystery.” But he recognised the Chinese were sending a message. “You all know that in diplomacy a lot of signalling is done, especially so with our northern neighbor,” he added. “It could be part of some signalling to my mind.” Although the IAF chief refused “to guess what it really means,” it seems obvious to everyone that nothing can be taken for granted where China is concerned.

 President Xi came with the declared aim of concentrating on how China and India could cooperate in economic areas. However, the amount of promised investment fell considerably short of the figure that had been rumoured earlier by, among others, the Chinese consul-general in Mumbai. Disavowing any aggressive intention, Xi’s speeches emphasised the peaceful and mutually rewarding civilisational contacts between the two countries over the centuries. However, the border incident intruded, and Narendra Modi rightly brought it up quite forcefully with his guest. Instead of evading the subject for the sake of politeness, he stated at the joint press conference that he had voiced India’s “serious concern over repeated incidents along the border” and that “peace and tranquillity in the border region constitute an essential foundation … for realising the full potential of our relationship.” The Prime Minister added that “this (was) an important understanding which should be strictly observed.”  Clearly, there was no lack of plain-speaking though we don’t know how Xi responded.

 The Chinese often stress that various border-related agreements and confidence-building measures are working well, which could be a tactic to avoid getting down to brass tacks and actually settling the dispute. Modi rightly observed that this was not enough and that the stalled process of clarifying the LAC should be resumed. This meant stepping back from the mechanism of the Special Representatives who are supposed to resolve the boundary issue on the basis of the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles, which does not include clarifying the LAC. The 17 rounds of SR talks have not produced a settlement or even a time-table for one. Modi’s reference to LAC resolution might help to avoid the kind of misunderstanding Air Marshal Raha had in mind.

 The Prime Minister also demanded that the two sides “should also seek an early settlement of the boundary question”, which might mean he sees the two exercises as separate, and accords priority to LAC clarification. This might explain why the joint statement appreciated the significance of the SR mechanism, but did not direct them to continue their work, as in previous such statements. It’s possible that Modi’s call in Xi’s presence to clarify the LAC indicated the matter had been discussed and some agreement reached. Or it could have been a bit of kite-flying to announce India’s priority. But it’s unlikely the Chinese will agree to resume the LAC clarification process after having walked out of it in 2002 without saying why. All that has changed since then is that China has become much stronger economically and militarily and can afford to be much more assertive on all issues.

 It is taking advantage of the SR mechanism which India proposed to speed up a border solution on a political and strategic basis, rather than history and legality to claim not just Tawang, but all of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese possibly fear that if the LAC clarification route leads to a line being delineated on the ground, they would no longer be able to claim more territory that China doesn’t already control. An undelineated LAC encourages Chinese adventurism. Even the 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 agreements for better border management have not persuaded Beijing to behave responsibly.

 By saying that such incidents are inevitable along an undemarcated border, Xi played down the Depsang incursion last year and the more recent one at Chumar. Such episodes may be relatively peripheral for China, whose real strategic challenges are from more powerful countries in the Pacific. But India faces a formidable challenge from an increasingly militarised Tibet, a hostile Pakistan and the convergence of Chinese and Pakistani pretensions in Jammu and Kashmir. No one knows whether Xi’s exhortation to the PLA to be loyal to the Communist Party and follow its political directives, even while asking it to be prepared to win regional wars, after returning to Beijing was a byproduct of his India visit. His instructions for less reckless conduct on the border are certainly designed to ensure that further setbacks in Sino-Indian negotiations to not have the effect of strengthening India’s partnership with the United States.

 The agreement by both sides to withdraw to the positions they held on September 1 was welcome, but Air Marshal Raha’s confirmation that a fighter aircraft base is coming up at Nyoma in Ladakh is even more so. Although the project will not be completed for about five years, it means, as the IAF chief put it, that India was “not giving ground to anyone.” That signal could be as important as the signals China sent during President Xi Jinping’s supposedly goodwill visit. Meanwhile, a boycott of Chinese goods might help our small and cottage industries, reduce the trade imbalance and – most important – send another message regarding public impatience with Chinese prevarication.

 Sunanda K Datta-Ray

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