Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary and Chinese language speaker, the other day delivered in New Delhi a most insightful and enlightening public lecture on China. Equally, there has not been a more damning indictment of India’s China outlook, approach, and policy. It was not intended to be that way. Saran’s aim apparently was to explain the nuance and the complexities involved in dealing diplomatically with the Chinese whose written language, he observed, requires mastery over some 5,000 alphabetic ideograms before a half-way serious analysis in Mandarin can be attempted.
The difficult language empowers Chinese officials at the expense of befuddled foreigners who have to deal with tailored levels of ambiguity that is hard to pin down. What the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) takes to be a firm commitment is later discovered to be just a play of words. Thus, Saran recalls the meeting of the MEA director-general R K Nehru with Zhouenlai in 1962, a few months before the war, in which Zhou indicated that China never said it did not recognise India’s sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir, which was taken by MEA to mean China accepted India’s position, only to have Zhou later say, with similar composure, that China never said it accepted Indian sovereignty over that state. Saran blamed India’s “not being conversant with Chinese thought processes” for this misunderstanding. He retailed another such episode. In 2003, China conceded Sikkim as part of India and, two years later during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit, handed over maps of India with Sikkim, only for Chinese scholars to recently point out that because no official statement of the erstwhile kingdom’s status has ever been made, there’s the possibility of China putting Sikkim back on the negotiating table. “The Chinese will insistently demand and sometimes obtain formulations from friends and adversaries alike on issues of importance to their interests,” explained Saran, “but will rarely concede clarity and finality in formulations reflecting the other side’s interests.” If the MEA knows this, then why isn’t it inflexible as well?
However, such Chinese diplomatic success stories surely appear to be less the result of obfuscatory language or some inscrutable machinations on the part of the Chinese than the lack of matching effective diplomatic riposte of getting a lot in return for giving away little. The larger concern is this: the MEA may have been tricked this way one time, ok; shame on it when it was done in the second time, but if this sort of giveaways become a diplomatic habit, then there’s something definitely wrong.
For instance, at the time of the 1996 visit by President Jiang Zemin, the Congress government headed by P V Narasimha Rao signed the accord on peace and tranquillity on the border. It necessitated a virtual demilitarisation of a 40-km-(presumably, as the crow flies)wide belt on either side of the LAC. Except, the Chinese side is, for the most part, the flat Tibetan plateau while, on the Indian side, it is mountain ranges. In a contingency, mandating the rushing of troops to forward posts, guess which side is hugely disadvantaged? So, the question is, were the MEA negotiators unaware of the terrain in question, or didn’t they appreciate the difficulty of our army units having to climb up to the heights, even as Chinese soldiers are trucked to their jump-off line? It may be that the Indian government of the day thought it politic to have such a lopsided agreement for the sake of atmospherics than not having one at all. It shows certain recklessness on the part of the MEA in even allowing this proposal to be tabled highlighting, in the process, the disconnect between the military and the foreign office.
Saran dilated on the near-war incident in 1986 on the Somdurong Chu River, revealing the MEA’s casual attitude to Chinese cartographic creep in the Himalayas. Chinese troops crossed the Thagla Ridge and established a post on the Somdurong Chu in the disputed territory but instead of leaving some evidence of their presence and withdrawing as is normally done by both sides, they built a helipad. The Indian Army reacted fast and furiously, with the chief, General K Sundarji, ordering an airlift of troops, occupation of the parallel Lurongla-Hathungla-Sulunga Ridge overlooking the new Chinese forward station, and setting up of two forward posts on the river just 10 metres from the Chinese presence — all done without consulting with the government. Saran admits that “there was…a reluctance (in government) to take any military counter measures.” As a result of this “over reaction” (in Saran’s words), things eased for India, the Chinese became, according to the ex-foreign secretary, “more polite”, and an invitation from Chairman Deng Xiaoping to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit China, ensued.
In the interaction with the audience after his lecture, when I asked Saran if the Somdurong Chu event did not highlight the need for Indian foreign and military policy to be more “proactive”, and whether the country was not better off because Sundarji did not seek the usual advice from the MEA to do nothing, which would have prevented army action and perpetuated the Chinese perception of India as a punching bag, Saran, to my utter surprise and, with some vehemence, iterated the government line that India needn’t be “aggressive” to get its way.
Saran and the MEA’s stand is that all India needs to do to neutralise China, which believes in deception and opportunistic use of force, is to have “cultural exchanges” and “get inside the Chinese mind”, understand its strategic “calculus” and monitor the regional and international “context” and build up a web of partnerships to ensure it doesn’t turn adverse enough for Beijing to exploit with aggression. Such timidity may indeed win India peace but on China’s terms.
The awe that Indian officials hold China in is difficult to fathom. It disables our diplomacy and sells India short. China is respectful of the military power of adversaries and, even more, the willingness to use it. If only the Indian government appreciated hard power.
[Published in the New Indian Express, September 7, 2012, at http://newindianexpress.com/opinion/article602025.ece ]