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Border talks: How India plays into China's hands

July 02, 2010 16:03 IST
By staying engaged in the useless border talks, knowing fully well that Beijing has no intent to settle territorial issues, India gives greater space to China to mount strategic pressure and gain leverage, notes strategic expert Brahma Chellaney.

Yet another round of India-China border talks is under way in Beijing. The unending and fruitless talks on territorial disputes underscore the eroding utility of this process. It is approaching three decades since China and India began these negotiations. In this period, the world has changed fundamentally.

Indeed, with its rapidly accumulating military and economic power, China itself has emerged as a great power in the making, with Washington's Asia policy now manifestly Sino-centric. Not only has India allowed its military and nuclear asymmetry with China to grow, but also New Delhi's room for diplomatic maneuver is shrinking.

Power asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger or seek to propitiate it. Wise strategy, coupled with good diplomacy, is the art of offsetting or neutralising military or economic power imbalance with another State.

But by staying engaged in the useless border talks, knowing fully well that Beijing has no intent to settle the territorial issues, India plays into China's hands. The longer the process of border talks continues, the greater the space Beijing will have to mount strategic pressure on India and the greater its leverage in the negotiations.

After all, China already holds the military advantage on the ground. Its forces control the heights along the long 4,057-kilometre Himalayan frontier, with the Indian troops perched largely on the lower levels.

Furthermore, by building new railroads, airports and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.

Diplomatically, China is a contented party, having occupied what it wanted -- the Aksai Chin plateau, which is almost the size of Switzerland and provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang route through the Karakoram passes of the Kunlun mountains. Yet it chooses to press claims on additional Indian territories as part of a grand strategy to gain leverage in bilateral relations and, more importantly, to keep India under military and diplomatic pressure.

At the core of its strategy is an apparent resolve to indefinitely hold off on a border settlement with India through an overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo. In not hiding its intent to further redraw the Himalayan frontiers, Beijing only helps highlight the futility of the ongoing process of political negotiations.

After all, the territorial status quo can be changed not through political talks but by further military conquest. Yet, paradoxically, the political process remains important for Beijing to provide the fa├žade of engagement behind which to seek India's containment.

Keeping India engaged in endless talks is a key Chinese objective so that Beijing can continue its work on changing the Himalayan balance decisively in its favour through a greater build-up of military power and logistical capabilities.

That is why China has sought to shield the negotiating process from the perceptible hardening of its stance toward New Delhi and the vituperative attacks against India in its state-run media.

Add to the picture the aggressive patrolling of the Himalayan frontier by the People's Liberation Army and the growing Chinese incursions across the line of control.

Over the decades, the Chinese negotiating tactics have shifted markedly. Beijing originally floated the swap idea -- giving up its claims in India's northeast in return for Indian acceptance of the Chinese control over a part of Ladakh -- to legalise its occupation of Aksai Chin. It then sang the mantra of putting the territorial disputes on the backburner so that the two countries could concentrate on building close, mutually beneficial relations.

But in more recent years, in keeping with its rising strength, China has escalated border tensions and military incursions while assertively laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh.

The present border negotiations have been going on continuously since 1981, making them already the longest and the most-barren process between any two countries in modern history. The record includes eight rounds of senior-level talks between 1981 and 1987, and 14 joint working group meetings between 1988 and 2002. The latest discussions constitute the 14th round of talks between the designated Special Representatives since 2003.

The authoritative People's Daily -- the Communist Party mouthpiece that reflects official thinking -- made it clear in a June 11, 2009 editorial: 'China won't make any compromises in its border disputes with India.' That reflects the Chinese position in the negotiations. But even when Beijing advertises its uncompromising stance, New Delhi refuses to heed the message.

What does India gain by staying put in an interminably barren negotiating process with China?

By persisting with this process, isn't India aiding the Chinese engagement-with-containment strategy by providing Beijing the cover it needs?

While Beijing's strategy and tactics are apparent, India has had difficulty to define a game-plan and resolutely pursue clearly laid-out objectives. Still, staying put in a barren process cannot be an end in itself for India.

India indeed has retreated to an increasingly defensive position territorially, with the spotlight now on China's Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet's status itself.

Now you know why Beijing invested so much political capital over the years in getting India to gradually accept Tibet as part of its territory. Its success on that score has helped narrow the dispute to what it claims.

That neatly meshes with China's long-standing negotiating stance: What it occupies is Chinese territory, and what it claims must be on the table to be settled on the basis of give-and-take -- or as it puts it in reasonably sounding terms, on the basis of 'mutual accommodation and mutual understanding'.

As a result, India has been left in the unenviable position of having to fend off Chinese territorial demands. In fact, history is in danger of repeating itself as India gets sucked into a 1950s-style trap. The issue then was Aksai Chin; the issue now is Arunachal.

But rather than put the focus on the source of China's claim -- Tibet -- and Beijing's attempt to territorially enlarge its Tibet annexation to what it calls 'southern Tibet', India is willing to be taken ad infinitum around the mulberry bush. Just because New Delhi has accepted Tibet to be part of China should not prevent it from gently shining a spotlight on Tibet as the lingering core issue.

Yet India's long record of political diffidence only emboldens Beijing. India accepted the Chinese annexation of Tibet and surrendered its own British-inherited extraterritorial rights over Tibet on a silver platter without asking for anything in return. Now, China wants India to display the same 'amicable spirit' and hand over to it at least the Tawang valley.

Dr Brahma Chellaney is the author of the international best-seller, Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins, New York, 2010).

Brahma Chellaney