Dealing with India’s China problem

Historically, India has displayed cluelessness in dealing with China. There will be increasing, and irreversible, costs if it persists with past follies
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First Published: Mon, May 20 2013. 06 45 PM IST
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Were it not for a fraught relationship, what has transpired between India and China in recent months could even be termed a coup in ties between the two. In appearance—from the incursion in Depsang valley in Ladakh to the celebratory atmosphere around Li Keqiang’s visit on Monday morning—the two neighbours seem to have moved away from conflict at light speed.
But once the diplomatic bromides are dispensed with, the fact of immense distrust between Beijing and New Delhi cannot be hidden. In India’s case, the problem is compounded by the utter cluelessness on the part of its establishment in understanding and dealing with the People’s Republic. China’s moves, in contrast, are thought out and calibrated to suit its requirements—military and diplomatic. This has been a constant since the 1950s.
Recent events prove this amply. In the days after the incursion in Ladakh, India tried appeasing China. There was no shortage of mollifying actions—ranging from the acne comment by external affairs minister Salman Khurshid to restraining the army from a giving a suitable response. In the end, India did not understand why China did what it did. The fact is that in two out of three conflict and conflict-like situations with India—1962, 1986 (Walong in Arunachal Pradesh) and now in 2013—Beijing has been embroiled in disputes or has faced serious internal challenges. It simply manufactures conflict-like situations with India to manage problems elsewhere, be they domestic or those with its neighbours.
India’s response, if it can be called that, is to hope for the storm to pass. Beyond that, influential voices argue for deepened commercial and economic ties as a solution to political problems. These hopes are misplaced. Japan and the US have far deeper economic relations with China. India’s trade with last year China stood at $67 billion. Japan’s was in excess of $300 billion. America’s involvement is beyond numbers and the economic ties between Washington and Beijing are close to being umbilical. That has not prevented China from behaving aggressively with either one. It wants the US out of the East Pacific. Barack Obama’s pivot to the Pacific now lies buried somewhere. As to Japan, at the first hint of trouble, it is Japanese businesses that are boycotted.
To believe that India, with its $67 billion worth of trade, can alter Chinese behaviour is to be exceptionally naïve. To be sure, trade with China and import of cheap goods helps Indian consumers. To an extent, trade may have a stabilizing influence for a period, as it did in the case of US from 1971 until, say, a decade ago. But to expect trade to remove the political differences is to expect too much. And that is where the problems lie.
The response has to be different. At a very practical level, it has to stop the confusion and waffling that marks its dealing with China. This has far greater importance than realized so far. For example, after the weak response over the past month, reports suggest that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had tough words over the border row with Premier Li Keqiang. The impression conveyed—both to China and other countries that observe India carefully—is one of confusion. A consistent line is essential.
India began a Look East policy with much fanfare some years earlier. That seems to have lost steam. It is time that India aggressively pursued political and military ties with countries such as Vietnam and Japan. New Delhi also needs to have a frank dialogue with Washington on China. This does not imply hostility but amounts to paying China back in its own coin. Meeting the Chinese challenge requires careful coordination with other countries. For this to happen, India has to shed its timidity and the fear of how its big neighbour will respond.
It is also time India blended diplomacy with the pursuit of commercial interest meaningfully. Indian companies often lose out to their Chinese peers abroad due to lack of government support. Even today, our foreign policy establishment has a brahmanical disdain for private companies. From Africa to Latin America, Indian companies are waging a lonely and losing battle with no home support. This has to end.
Together, these measures promise a political and economic combination sufficient to combat China. In all this, India is not devoid of advantages. Much of the world views the rise of China with suspicion. India does not attract such ill will. That is a great, unrealized advantage that New Delhi has not appreciated. The sooner it wakes up, the better it will be for it and the world.
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First Published: Mon, May 20 2013. 06 45 PM IST
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