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Sino-India ties: Dr Singh has 2 clear choices

October 20, 2009 10:58 IST

Indian policymakers have always been better at formulating strategy than at moving on after it has served its purpose. In so many of our engagements -- non-alignment, nuclear non-proliferation, trade talks and climate change, for example -- our intellectually and morally grounded positions have been policy rocks that withstood decades of pressure from competing interests. But, when changed times demanded changed strategies, Indian policymakers -- entranced perhaps by the beauty of their creations -- remained leader-footed in responding to new realities.

Nobody would advocate a continually shifting policy framework, and the role of parliamentary resolutions in immobilising Indian policy is well understood. Despite that, New Delhi must wonder at its flat-footedness in seizing fleeting strategic opportunities.

One such opportunity will again arise on Friday, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, at the ASEAN summit in Thailand. The meeting, requested by Chinese officials, will almost certainly focus on the escalating rhetoric between India and China and the need to cool tempers. Dr Manmohan Singh has two clear choices: on the one hand, he could repeat India's oft-repeated position that Arunachal is an integral part of India; that the Dalai Lama is a religious head who is free to travel anywhere in India without engaging in political activity; and that peace and tranquillity should be maintained on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

That would constitute a missed opportunity. A more pro-active strategy would use this opportunity to persuade China to cooperate with India in defining the LAC.

The present undefined situation on the LAC contains the potential for an armed clash, something that would dramatically inflame current tensions. Despite the "Peace and Tranquillity Agreement" of 1993, and the "Confidence Building Measures" of 1996, patrols from both sides routinely "intrude" into each other's territory in nine separate hotspots where India and China disagree about where the LAC lies. Since 1988, Indian officials in the Expert-Level Sub-Group of the Sino-Indian Joint Working Group (JWG) have argued for clearly delineating the LAC. Only then would the potential for patrol clashes be eliminated.

For twelve years, Beijing resisted that Indian argument, believing that by leaving the LAC ambiguous, China would retain the potential for extending its holding later. Only in 2000 did China agree to a "sector-by-sector" exchange of maps, with each country marking its perception of the LAC. Negotiations were to follow to agree upon a common LAC, aimed at ending "patrol intrusions" by creating for both armies a line that they could not cross.

In the 8th JWG meeting, in late 2000, India and China exchanged maps of the relatively inconsequential central sector (on the Uttaranchal-Tibet border), marked with the respective perceptions of the LAC. But, even for the central sector, no "agreed LAC" has yet been negotiated. And China remains unwilling to exchange maps of the western sector (the Ladakh-Tibet border) or the eastern sector (the Arunachal-Tibet border).

Influencing China into delineating the LAC, important as it is, requires a major mental shift amongst Indian negotiators. Over decades, beginning with the 1962 conflict, skilful Chinese manipulation has induced the Pavlovian mindset amongst Indian interlocutors that raising issues forcefully with Beijing would invoke some form of diplomatic punishment. On the other hand, relatively anodyne statements and actions from New Delhi would ensure the relationship remained "on track".

Consequently, until last year, China never faced "destabilising" political visits to Tawang, Indian troop increases in Arunachal, the refurbishment of border infrastructure, or even a modicum of political freedom to Tibetan refugees. This self-imposed Indian restraint has inhibited the timely resolution of problems; instead, issues fester until a breaking point is reached.

As New Delhi acts more vigorously to assimilate Arunachal, its diplomacy must acquire a matching assertiveness. Beijing must be frankly told -- not through the media, but face-to-face -- that raising the rhetoric will invoke a robust diplomatic response from New Delhi, not the back-pedalling that China is used to. And Beijing must be certain that an armed patrol clash, stemming perhaps from an undefined LAC, would greatly inflame Indian public opinion.

Such a shift in India's engagement with China requires skilful diplomacy. National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan, who is sufficiently preoccupied with internal security, cannot realistically continue as India's special representative in the flagging political dialogue to resolve the border issue. Since 2005, this political initiative has only gone backwards; the recent discussions in New Delhi eulogised China's "shared vision" with India and the "strategic and cooperative partnership". But, for a dialogue mechanism set up to negotiate a breakthrough on the border dispute, little was said about the border.

Ajai Shukla
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