In Sino-Indian relations, it would appear that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or do they?
2012 was still young when another ‘visa issue’ cropped up between China and India. This time the Chinese refused a visa to an Indian Air Force officer from Arunachal Pradesh slated to leave for China as part of a 30-member Indian military delegation. Contrary to expectations, however, the visit actually carried on with the delegation being halved in size and the IAF officer in question one of the 15 who were dropped. One can wonder about the wisdom of deliberately including an Arunachali in any delegation to China when the person is sure to run into a (great) wall. But perhaps this was, as is normal in the practice of statecraft, simply a testing of the waters?
It must be noted here that in the case of civilians from Arunachal, the Chinese had moved last year from saying no visa was required to issuing stapled visas – in essence a step forward and a compromise made by the Chinese from considering Arunachal Pradesh as unequivocally Chinese territory to acknowledging that it is disputed territory. In this case though, they appear to have simply refused to give a visa. While obvious parallels have been drawn to the Chinese refusal to grant a visa to Lt. Gen. BS Jaswal from the Indian Army’s Northern Command in 2010, the more interesting aspect is that this is a third reaction from China on visas to Arunachalis and perhaps the more acceptable to India (and in general international practice) than issuing either no visas or stapled visas.
Therefore, one must wonder if this is, contrary to the talk of bad form on the part of the Chinese, evidence instead of more happening on the Sino-Indian boundary negotiations than meets the eye.
Consider, in this context, the alacrity with which the 15th Special Representatives talks on the boundary dispute, were rescheduled so soon after they were postponed in end November last year. What is more, the talks did not seem to be in any way affected by the contretemps over the visa refusal or indeed over the Buddhist conclave that had led to their postponement.
Also part of this elaborate minuet, were the speeches on Sino-Indian relations by the two Special Representatives, the Indian NSA and the Chinese State Councillor at each other’s embassies. Shivshankar Menon highlighted the success the two neighbours have had in “managing differences and building on commonalities” over some three decades while Dai Bingguo, his Chinese counterpart, seemed at pains to emphasize that India had nothing to fear from China’s development and rise. The warmth and camaraderie on show during the talks – which resulted in a new border mechanism specifically targeted at handling incursions across the LAC – was part of a send-off to Dai who is almost certainly on his last visit to India as Chinese Special Representative on the boundary talks. It also indicates that the Indian side too, is willing to be patient and not insist unnecessarily, like many in India are wont to do, on a quick resolution of the dispute as a mark of Chinese sincerity.
Indeed, the Sino-Indian relationship is today, bigger than the boundary dispute and the resolution of the dispute does not by itself guarantee smooth sailing for the future. Far from it. Just as there are several avenues that the two sides can cooperate on such as the global economic crisis or climate change, there are many potential tripwires as well. These include ever newer issues in their bilateral commercial relationship as well as those that arise from the flux at the domestic, regional and global levels.
A case in point of the first instance, actually opened Sino-Indian relations in the new year – an Indian diplomat was manhandled in a Chinese town over a commercial dispute between Indian and Chinese traders. Meanwhile, will instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, become a reason for New Delhi and Beijing to come together in an age of declining American willingness and capacity to shoulder the world’s burdens? Or will could these developments form the heart of a new security dilemma for the two Asian giants?
Which path India and China will choose will depend not only on the sagacity and vision of their leaders but also on their citizens engaging more responsibly and knowledgeably with each other.
Originally published: Jabin T. Jacob, “Make sure you have the new visa for China’s walls,” DNA (Mumbai), 25 January 2012.
Dear Dr. Bhutani,
many thanks for your detailed comments. I think i agree with you in large measure.
Certainly, we cannot expect a resolution to the boundary dispute any time soon and yes, given the nature of current developments, Sino-Indian relations are likely to see several difficulties in the future – short of all-out conflict – in a situation of what i have called a ‘cold peace’.
That said, i think, one must acknowledge the changes that Chinese foreign policy has undergone over the past few decades. Mao’s China was a China in revolutionary ferment – the domestic and the external were conjoined in a process of reinforcing the revolution. In the post-Mao era, however, while national interests remain paramount, the reasons for Chinese actions have changed, and these changes have depended on China’s perceptions of its relations with the world and with the superpowers in particular.
On the question of Chinese support in helping Pakistan and North Korea turn into nuclear states, no question about it – but this was during a time when China did not consider nuclear weapons a taboo and saw both economic and strategic interests in such help. Today, however, China has a different attitude towards both these countries – as evident, increasingly in its arms length relationship with Pakistan where it even occasionally criticizes Pakistan on terrorism and on the state of its relationship with its neighbours. China has also a self-image increasingly as a global player and wanting to fit into the global system as a legitimate and important player. Thus, in the nuclear field, i believe it is increasingly adopting international norms – except where it sees US exceptionalism in action, as in the Indo-US nuclear deal, and hence came up with its own civilian deal with Pakistan – and mind you, China was on record offering civilian nuclear cooperation to India soon after the announcement of the Indo-US nuclear deal.
There are, however, other areas where China is seeking to change international rules and norms according to its own vision and this is where Sino-Indian problems are likely to crop up in the future, I believe. We might be able to achieve cooperation in functional areas such as say, energy security and even climate change mitigation, but ideologically I don’t see, how a China that is a one-party state pushing ‘Asian values’ or Asian exceptionalism can long stand together with a democratic, plural and liberal Republic of India. This will require some major effort in terms of world views and policy options for the future in both capitals.
Mr Jabin T. Jacob
Early in the morning of 27 January 2012 I am delighted to read your paper on China-India relations. I beg to submit for your consideration a few facts and factors which I believe have a bearing on the subject.
Before that just a word about me. I retired in 2005 as Reader in Chinese Political Geography at the University of Delhi. Since then I have continued my work on Indian foreign policy: I have just sent to a publisher my book on the foreign policy of the NDA government. Naturally, China has a large presence in the study.
Being a person of a rather considerable vintage (b. 1940), I have graphic memories of late 1950s and 1962 and what followed. It has been my view that China proved in 1962 that it was not interested in being a responsible member of the world community. Especially, its conduct after that year in befriending not only Pakistan but all of India’s neighbours in South Asia demonstrated that China had not moved from the idiom of the international relations of the mid-20th century which revolved around concepts like containment and the politics of the power blocs.
I have seen nothing in China’s recent behaviour to encourage a hope that India-China relations may be on the mend.
Our NSA and China’s Councillor were entirely right in speaking eloquently about the prospects of India-China relations. That’s what diplomats are expected to do: they meet and talk and conclude that they have achieved better understanding of each other’s point of view and there matters rest, which is a euphemism for absence of progress. That has been the summing up at the end of every one of the 15 rounds.
The manner in which China participated in the graduation of North Korea and Pakistan to the status of nuclear weapon powers underlines the fact that China has been an unabashed practitioner of proliferation, making nonsense of every nonproliferation agreement since 1968. Let us remember the stridency with which China demanded, as did the US, immediately after Pokhran II that India should roll back its nuclear weapon programme and sign the NNPT and CTBT immediately and unconditionally as a non-nuclear weapon power. When it became clear that India was not going to sign those agreements, China stopped pushing India around any more. But there has been nothing in China’s behaviour to justify an expectation that China is prepared to move on from the privilege of building satellites at its northeastern and southwestern extremities. That leads me to conclude that China shall never be a Great Power, regardless of its economic performance and military power.
Of course, India should go on trying for better relations with China. There should be further rounds of talks on the boundary question. But let us not form even a hope that the boundary question shall be resolved any time soon. We should be content to put that question on the back burner for an indefinite future.
V. C. Bhutani