Meeting The Chinese Threat
I write this, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has denied that China has intruded into the Indian territory (about 10 km inside Depsang Valley, Ladakh) and that the Chinese aircraft earlier had come deep inside to drop eatables and cigarette packets. No wonder why despite after two flag meetings between the Indian and Chinese armies, Chinese troops are refusing to leave, their stated reason being that they are in their own territory.
On the other hand, the present UPA government is trying to downplay the issue as usual. One of the remarkable (rather sad) features of the Manmohan Singh government is that on matters pertaining to China and Pakistan, it is always on defensive. In fact, more often than not, some Indian officials have behaved as if they were there to justify and protect China’s interests, not India’s. China is candidly saying that it is diverting the course of the Brahmaputra river, which originates in Tibet, but our officials have given such a brief to the Prime Minister that he says that China will never do that. China threatens India of consequences if it explores oil in the Vietnamese water in the so-called South China Sea, and we withdraw. China does not give visa to a senior General of ours just because he worked in “disputed Kashmir”, and yet we resume military-level deliberations with that country. China always insists whenever there is a bilateral high-level interaction that we must say that Tibet is its integral part, but it does not categorically acknowledge that Sikkim is an Indian state, let alone Jammu and Kashmir. Instances like these are only indicative, not exhaustive.
Therefore, one is not surprised that the ongoing tensions in Ladakh notwithstanding, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid will go ahead with his visit to China on May 9. Khurshid’s trip is supposed to be a prelude to the visit by newly-elected Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India later next month. A lot of significance is being attached to Li’s visit, his first abroad after becoming Prime Minister last month. Apparently, Khurshid is “confident” that India and China will be able to resolve the present impasse. Noting that there is a working mechanism between the two countries to deal with such issues, Khurshid told the reporters: “Let us allow that mechanism to find its solution and repeatedly it has found. And we have good reasons to believe that it should be able to do it again.”
I am not going to join the issue with External Affairs Minister, leaving that task to our illustrious contributors on the subject, which is this week’s cover feature. I would like to make three broad points. One is that China is exploiting the situation at the border because it is disputed. Had Tibet remained an independent country, which it had been for centuries, there would have been, as His Holiness Dalai Lama says, no border disputes at all. Because, India shared borders with Tibet, not China. But then the fact remains that Tibet is under the Chinese control and we have to deal with the Chinese in resolving the vexed boundary issue. The Chinese have a distinct style in their negotiations on territorial disputes. Going by the article of M Taylor Fravel, Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, titled “Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation: Explaining China’s Compromises in Territorial Disputes,” published in the journal International Security, of its 23 territorial disputes active since 1949, China offered “substantial compromises” in 17, usually agreeing “to accept less than half of the territory being disputed”. To give just one example, in 2011, China resolved a 130-year-old territorial dispute with Tajikistan by which the latter ceded around 1,000 square kilometres of land in the Pamir Mountains to China. What this meant was that China got only 3.5 per cent of the 28,000 square kilometres of land it laid claim to! In Tajikistan, the Chinese concession was hailed and that opened the doors for the Chinese business to strike some lucrative ventures in this geopolitically significant Central Asian nation.
However, on a closer scrutiny, the situation is different. According to Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Chinese strategy is to first step up the territorial claims in a big way and then settle for less, appearing thus to be a very reasonable power which goes for major compromises and territorial concession to reach a border resolution agreement. And here, I will go one step further to suggest that these so-called concessions are on areas that have lesser geo-economic importance.
That explains why China is far from reasonable with Vietnam and the Philippines on some islands in South China Sea. In fact, it is now claiming virtually the whole of South China Sea as its territory, alienating almost all the South East Asian countries and Taiwan. China continues to have bitter disputes with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Indeed, so expansive are China’s claims nowadays that many Asians are wondering what will satisfy China’s desire to expand its territories. It lays its territorial claims everywhere on the spurious logic that once upon a time some Chinese or the other had put his feet and left with some Chinese goods there. It claimed Tibet on the ground that Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed Tibet (most parts of it) in the early 13th century. It is a strange logic, because taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation! Besides, why are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe, Russia and the whole of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia since these also constituted the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan?
The problem with the Chinese version of history is where to draw the line. But China overcomes all this, and this is my second point, by describing the territories where it is not prepared for fair compromises as its “core interests”. Earlier China formally referred to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang province as “core interests,” a phrase that connotes an assertion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that will brook no compromise. Now territories in South and East China Seas seem to fall under its core interests. Invariably, core interests of anybody or any country involve few basic and vital issues. But in China’s case, the list of its core interests is expanding every passing year, both in number and kind. In 2011, for instance, “China’s political system and ensuring sustainable economic and social development” were officially declared as being among China’s core interests that included “state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification (with Taiwan)”.
It is against this backdrop that, and that is my third point, the ambiguity over China’s traditional nuclear doctrine that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, a doctrine which India also shares with China is matter of great concern. According to James M. Acton of a leading American think-tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, China’s just released white paper on defence omits, unlike the previous white papers, the promise that China will never use nuclear weapons first. So far, that explicit pledge had been the cornerstone of Beijing’s stated nuclear policy. The latest white paper endorses the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack but does not rule out other uses.
This development could have some dangerous implications for India in the sense that China could always argue that it is free to use nuclear weapons when situations falling under its core interests go out of its control and domination. That means that if India thinks of retaliations against the Chinese advancements in Ladakh, Beijing may well use nuclear weapons against India. As it is, Pakistan, which, with active Chinese support, has more nuclear weapons and missiles than India, has already said that given India’s superiority in conventional weapons, it will have no compunction whatsoever in using nuclear weapons against India. Now the Chinese ambiguity on the subject has further aggravated the matter.
Is India prepared to meet the Chinese threat? Will India ever define its own core interests? It is time we did.
By Prakash Nanda