Manmohan’s China visit defies strategic logic
October 20, 2013
Why is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heading towards China? I am unable to answer this question; in fact, there is no economic, diplomatic or strategic logic. Of course, it is said that he would like ‘to prioritise investment and business by easing norms for business and tourist visas’ as well as reduce border tensions.
But is the timing right?
‘Business’ was the objective of Premier Li Keqiang when he visited Delhi in May. But when Chinese talk about business, they talk about trading from China to India. Li charmed everybody; he spoke of the 3 Idiots, a film that his daughter ‘forced’ him to see, the Indian establishment (and media) melted: “The guy is really nice; he loves Indian movies”. Further, he chose to eat vegetarian food at his Indian counterpart’s banquet. Wow, here is a Chinese leader who is different; he deeply respects our customs; he likes India.
The South China Morning Post then commented that Li’s foreign tour (India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany) was a success, “On his maiden, eight-day diplomatic trip as premier, Li Keqiang not only engaged in serious bilateral talks but also attempted to show his personable side to boost the image of the Chinese leadership.” At that time one of the main issues between India and China was the trade imbalance. Both countries had fixed an ambitious target of US$ 100 billion as the trade turnover by 2015.
After the Li-Singh meeting a joint statement was issued stating, “The two countries agreed to take measures to address the issue of the trade imbalance. These include cooperation on pharmaceutical supervision including registration, stronger links between Chinese enterprises and Indian IT industry, and completion of phytosanitary negotiations on agro-products.”
Last financial year, India’s exports to China reached only $ 13.52 billion while its imports were $ 54.3 billion. A trade deficit of $ 40.78 billion is not paltry!
The Times of India then reported that the companies represented in Li Keqiang’s business delegation ‘seem bent on selling instead of buying in the Indian market’. The question is: has this changed? Let us put the question differently, can a new visit change this? The Prime Minister is said to be keen on ‘increasing the tenure of business visas [for Chinese] to one year from the current six months with multi-entry provision and ensuring Home Ministry security clearance within 30 days for project visas’.
How inviting more Chinese companies to set up shop in India will help to reduce the trade imbalance is a mystery. The Times of India commented: “The emphasis is significant as security concerns dog Chinese investments in several sectors like telecom”. The relaxation of the visa policy for Chinese nationals will not solve the security issues, further it could only aggravate the trade imbalance.
It sounds like India is trying to be nice with China while it issued ‘stapled’ visas to two Arunachali archers on their way to an international competition to Yunnan; this is called the Gujral doctrine, the nastier you are with me, the nicer I will be with you. One knows where the infamous ‘doctrine’ led India in the past. The current reasoning of the Government is that easier visa rules could only help larger exchanges of delegates attending academic or business meetings and conferences. But reciprocity is not guaranteed. You will say that it is the beauty of the ‘doctrine’!
Further, despite warnings from all sides, the Prime Minister is dead bent on signing a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) during his three-day visit to China, starting from October 22. Some babus in South Block may have concocted a new Agreement (in what will it be different from the 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012 agreements nobody knows), which could be shown by the PMO as a justification for the visit.
But will China be more sincere in the implementation of the new agreement than they have been for the previous ones? Another question, has India done her home work? Probably not. But, the Chinese have done theirs. The Chinese Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan has just visited the Xinjiang Military District dealing with the Aksai Chin area and India’s border in Ladakh.
According to Xinhua, the Minister “called for a strengthened border and national defense in northwest China’s Xinjiang.” He spent an entire week on an ‘inspection tour’ of the region. Can you imagine Antony spending a week in Arunachal and visiting the forward posts? One can always argue that it is impossible; he would have to walk for too many days, as India has no roads there.
General Chang took the time to visit military units “to further consolidate border defense and cast a wall of copper and steel in the frontier.” What does it mean for India? Just that China will be ready for any eventuality and the PLA will maintain its pro-active posture in the area. The Chinese Defence Minister told the military units “to lay a solid basis for Xinjiang’s long-term peace and stability by consolidating political power in grassroots governments and stepping up the fight against encroachment, separatist and terrorist activities.”
Apart from the border with India, the Xinjiang Military District has to deal with the restive local Uyghurs who are, like the Tibetans, resentful of the ‘ethnic’ policies imposed by Beijing. Regarding the border with India, Xinhua reported, “Military units were told to put border and national defence into prominent place and contribute to the consolidation of the defence in China’s borders.” Interestingly, General Wang asked the local commanders to take ‘initiatives in operations’. Ominous words for India; but nobody seems to be worried on this side of the border. Xinhua said, “The Minister demanded military officers to strengthen strategic thinking, carry forward construction projects as well as take initiatives (in operations).”
One wishes the local Indian commanders would sometimes have the same opportunity to ‘take initiatives’. The Cabinet Committee on Security is said to have discussed the border pact, whose objective is “to prevent face-offs between the troops of the two countries along the over 4,000 km disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC).” Will it really prevent anything? I can bet that it will not. In any case a point is certain, the Chinese have done their home work.
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Seeking to compensate for his low political stock at home, Manmohan Singh has undertaken more overseas trips as prime minister than any predecessor, visiting China multiple times. Yet, India punches far below its weight internationally, while its regional security has come under siege, with his tenure witnessing a sharp deterioration in ties with China.
The highlight of the latest China visit of India’s most-travelled prime minister will not be progress on any of the core issues dividing the two countries but a Chinese-ordained border accord designed to supplant existing frontier-peace and confidence-building agreements that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undermined through repeated cross-frontier raids and other incursions. No Indian official has explained the rationale for entering into a new agreement demanded by the party that has breached existing border-peace accords with impunity.
New Delhi’s willingness to let China dictate the so-called Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) mirrors its broader strategic timidity in permitting Beijing to lay down the terms of the bilateral relationship. China has fashioned an asymmetrical commercial relationship, reaping trade surpluses, even as it stymies any progress on issues of core concern to India.
China’s most-insidious warfare against India is in the economic realm, yet India has done little to stop Beijing from turning it into a raw-material supplier to the Chinese economy and from subverting Indian manufacturing through dumping of goods. Perpetuating such a lopsided economic relationship gives Beijing little incentive to bridge the political divide. It also aids China’s strategy to prevent India’s rise as a peer competitor.
Even as Beijing disturbs the territorial and water-flow status quo, New Delhi won’t leverage China’s growing India-market access to influence Chinese conduct. China, however, does not shy away from mixing politics and business. It has quietly used trade to punish countries it quarrels with. For example, Japanese exports to China, which sank 13.2% in the first seven months this year, have been falling since September 2012, when China began wielding the trade sword over the Senkaku islands dispute.
Singh’s visit will likely yield the usual platitudes about friendship and cooperation while leaving India’s concerns unaddressed. With an unresolved border issue, Beijing has been reluctant to even clarify what the two sides farcically call the line of actual control (LAC). And even as it turns Tibet into the new hub of its dam-building spree, China has brazenly sought to turn the tables on India, accusing it through a state mouthpiece last week of “attempting to reinforce its actual control and occupation of” Arunachal Pradesh through water projects there.
Singh, acquiescing to China’s sidelining of the core issues, told reporters before leaving that, “The two governments are addressing them with sincerity and maturity without letting them affect the overall atmosphere of friendship and cooperation”.
Even by his pusillanimous standards, making a Chinese-dictated accord the highlight of his official visit marks a new low in Indian diplomacy.
Consider the humiliating circumstances that spawned this agreement: PLA intruded deep into Ladakh’s Depsang Plateau by stealth before Beijing embarked on coercive diplomacy, forcing India’s hand on BDCA, whose draft it had sent earlier. In return for China withdrawing its encamped troops from Indian land, India demolished a line of defensive fortifications in Chumar and ended forward patrols in the area, besides agreeing to wrap up negotiations on BDCA, which until then it had baulked at.
The Depsang encroachment inflicted permanent damage to the existing border-peace accords, including the 2005 mutual commitment to “strictly respect and observe” the LAC. Yet, paradoxically, China demanded a new agreement to take precedence over the more equitable 1993, 1996 and 2005 border-peace accords.
Indeed, such was the bloodless victory China scored by deploying a single platoon of no more than 50 soldiers in Depsang that India, in the manner of a vanquished nation, merely offered its comments and suggestions on the Chinese-imposed draft and sent its national security adviser and defence minister in rapid succession to Beijing to commit itself to BDCA’s “early conclusion”.
Now, by personally paying obeisance in Beijing, Singh culminates this mortifying process, lending his imprimatur to an agreement that can only embolden China to up the ante. In fact, since India’s virtual capitulation to Chinese demands more than five months ago, China’s military provocations have included multiple daring raids and other forays across the Himalayan frontier, the world’s longest disputed border.
Via the planeload of journalists he takes, Singh trumpets almost every overseas visit as a diplomatic success. His spinmeisters are also marketing BDCA as positive for India, highlighting features that in reality are dubious.
Why would a new military hotline with China make a difference when a similar hotline with Pakistan hasn’t worked? Given that India timorously deploys border police to fend off incursions by the aggressive PLA, the clause on “no tailing” of each other’s patrols is really applicable to China. But any accord for China is just a political tool to advance its interests, including by lulling the other party into complacency and creating exploitable opportunities.
Singh’s China policy represents a case study in how meekness attracts bullying. BDCA is a symbol of that.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.