For a brief moment it seemed the Indian Government had sprouted a spine, shown strategic imagination, when it became known that the Ministry of External Affairs had cancelled the forthcoming border talks with China. One had hoped that this was because Premier Wen Jiabao had registered one slight too many at the East Asia Summit in Bali for even the insult-proof Manmohan Singh to stomach. But the truth emerged and it was familiar stuff. Far from telling the Chinese where to get off, the MEA, it turned out, was its usual self — all shaky hands, buckling knees, and apologetic, backpedalling furiously to keep the border talks and the Annual Defence Dialogue scheduled for December 8-9 on track, in the wake of the storm in the Chinese teacup created by the all-world Buddhist Meet in Delhi. This conclave was an inspired Intelligence project, surprisingly approved by MEA, to light a fire under the Tibet issue, mobilize the Buddhist peoples and nations of the world against China and its sustained attempts to extinguish Tibetan-Lamaist religious traditions and culture, and to publicize Chinese efforts at violently suppressing the Tibetan people.
The trouble is the Indian Government is easily spooked by China, enough any way to get it to do a preemptive kowtow, which is what happened. In the real world though, it is China that is facing a difficult situation, with most countries on its periphery pushing back, and relying on overlapping strategic partnerships and treaty alliances with regional powerhouses, like India if only it can muster the wit and the will to act the part, and outside great powers, such as the United States, to restrict Beijing’s ambition and expansive policies. Delhi is ambivalent — building up military muscle but also continuing with its traditional approach that is full of fear and so risk-averse, it has made an art form of faint-heartedness and back-flips. Earlier this year, Delhi negatived a strategic “trialogue” with the United States and Japan so as not to upset Beijing. The annual Malabar exercise with the US Navy with Australian naval ships also participating sent shivers of apprehension down Delhi’s back because it feared an adverse Chinese reaction. There is, it seems, not a thing India can do or has in mind to do in the military and foreign policy spheres that China cannot veto. This is willfully to dance to Beijing’s tune.
The question to ask is what is India getting out of the border talks? Nothing has transpired to date as a result of the interminable rounds of talks, earlier in the Joint Working Group and, in the past three years or so, between the National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and the Chinese representative Dai Bingguo. So it’s absence is no great loss. And why, pray, the hullaballoo regarding the Defence Dialogue? Can anything remotely substantive be expected from a “dialogue” involving the Indian Defence Secretary, Shashikant Sharma, a generalist civil servant, and a Chinese combat pilot and PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff, General Ma Xiaotian? What will they talk about? There’s always the weather. I mean, shouldn’t this be a conversation between like military officers, Ma going up against, say, the Head of Integrated Defence Staff, presently, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha? This would make more sense if the intention, for instance, is to discuss, in some technical depth, ways to maintain peace on the border and to alight on rules of engagement on the high seas and in the air.
Our over-eagerness to jaw-jaw is counterproductive. It is clear from its negotiating strategy that Beijing believes it is advantageous to keep the border issue stoked by hostile actions in the field and by enlarging its claims (Tawang as “southern Tibet”), and leverage Delhi’s desire for closure on the border issue to extract terms adverse to Indian interests. Indian impatience is Beijing’s asset. In the event, it would be advisable if Delhi turned the tables by adopting Chinese negotiating principles and strategy: Postpone talks and official interaction of any kind with Beijing at the slightest hint or even suspicion of provocation, behave as if any delays in resolving the border dispute will only benefit India, and, most importantly, re-frame India’s position on Tibet.
Delhi should point out that India’s acceptance of Chinese “sovereignty” has always been conditional on the Tibet Region enjoying genuine autonomy, and because that is manifestly not the case, there is no Indian obligation to accept China’s presence in Tibet as other than illegitimate, leave alone negotiate the India-Tibet border with it. This is not hair-splitting – though splitting hairs is the stuff of diplomacy, but a legally-maintainable position. For too long, Beijing has been given a free pass, courtesy an Indian Government wearing a defeatist attitude on its sleeve. In any major war, the Indian military believes that the three Services can more than adequately take care of business. But such confident military posturing cannot piggyback on a political policy reeking of appeasement. Whatever logic has so far animated Indian policy, it has not nudged China a centimeter toward conciliation. If anything, it has made Beijing more obstreperous and inclined to deliberately show India down.
India has been a punching bag for China. Should it remain one in the future as well? Delhi cannot allow Beijing to sustain various insurrectionary Movements in the North-East without responding in kind. Clandestine training, arming, and assisting highly motivated young Tibetans from the exile community to wage a “liberation war”, would be an apt riposte. It will, moreover, be in line with the setting up in India of the International Buddhist Confederation to pressure China in Asia and at the United Nations. A tit-for-tat policy will also require India to nuclear missile arm Vietnam, as a belated counter to Beijing’s equipping Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missiles. It will compel the Chinese leadership to rethink the not inconsiderable wages of belligerence and induce more respect for India. To be immobilized by one’s fears or, worse, by one’s supposed weaknesses, is a policy liability that cannot easily be overcome. Whence India’s “Tibet card”, “Vietnam card”, and all the other cards, remain un-played.
[Published as “A Tit for Tat with China” in the ‘New Indian Express’, Dec 2, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/A-tit-for-tat-with-china/339104.html ]