India-China Relations: Business as usual or down the slippery slope?

08 Jun, 1998    ·   112

Giri Deshingkar analyses the Indo-China relations after the nuclear tests.

The back peddling and damage-limitation exercise on the China front should not obscure the foot that the BJP’s core position on China remains the same as what was said in Mr. Vajpayee’s letter to Mr. Clinton. Despite the improvement registered in India-China relations since 1988, the BJP continues to be extremely distrustful of China , particularly on three points. It believes that China committed aggression against India in 1962 and is still making a solution of the border dispute difficult. Secondly, China refuses to accept the merger of Sikkim into the Indian Union. Lastly, China continues to transfer to Pakistan nuclear weapons and missile technologies to prevent India from emerging as a great power on the world scene.



Perceptions are perceptions; one cannot argue with them. At best, one can juxtapose one set of perceptions with another held by other leaders in the past. Before the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, the Indian government had looked itself into the same set of perceptions which had immobilized India ’s China policy for a quarter century. While the rest of the World, particularly the US and the Soviet Union had decided to jump out of the corner in which they had printed themselves, India continued to derive comfort from its "principled" policy that the India-China border was not in dispute and China stubbornly refused to see the "truth"; as for the war of 1962, India was the aggrieved party and it was for China to make amends. But the costs of this policy had begun to tell. India had to maintain a huge armed presence on its northern borders despite the fact that few major armed incidents had taken place on that border for nearly 35 years. Then, the tension on the border threatened to explode around the Sumdorong valley. Whatever the genesis of that incident, one thing became clear: continuous tension can produce ugly incident. And in 1966-67, neither the US nor the Soviet Union was available as countervailing power in the event of armed conflict.



Fortunately today, the Indian-China border is no longer tense. Over the last decade, the difficult-to-handle "border" problem has been transformed into establishing "peace and tranquillity" along the line of Actual Control. In November 1998, India and China signed an agreement on military confidence building measures. The perception of the Indian leaders then in power allowed this to happen. But the new leaders of the BJP-led government have questioned the fundamentals on which such agreements were based.



No. It is not George Fernandes. The Chinese were taken aback at first when he began to speak about a threat from China . But they quickly learned to dissociate his views from those of the government as a whole. But when they read Mr. Vajpayee’s letter to Mr. Clinton they were left in no doubt that Mr. Fernandes was allowed to go at China as a matter of deliberate design. It seemed to them that Mr. Vajpayee’s views on China had turned 180 degrees since his China visit of 1979.



What are the Chinese to make of the greatly softened tone and the damage-limitation efforts? The most benign conclusion they can come to is that the BJP-led government is fickle-minded; it had not thought through the consequences of the stand it took. But the skeptics among the Chinese will ask why things would turn out any better in the future? So, henceforth they will exercise far more than the usual caution in dealing with India . To put it another way, China will be prepared to forget in order to carry on with the business improving relations with India but they will not forgive India ’s current leaders for the nasty jolt.



From India ’s point of view, the worst conclusion the Chinese could draw is that shouting back at India can be efficacious shock therapy. They believe that their intention in the 1962 war was just that. So was it in the war of 1979 with Vietnam . At other times they did not hesitate to take on the much more powerful Soviet Union to prove the same point. It is true that after the Chinese decided to improve relations with all their neighbours they never had the occasion to shout or hit back. But they will if they think they are being pushed beyond the limits of tolerance. It is best to avoid getting oneself into a gratuitously provocative situation. This of course is a worst case scenario. No vital interests on the Indian side warrant invoking it. Talks on the line of Actual Control, which approximates India ’s claim line, have been inching forward. China ’s recognition of Sikkim as a part of India was only a matter of time until the recent exchange of hot words. China has repeatedly denied that it has been helping Pakistan with technologies to build nuclear weapons and medium range missiles. Even if India does not believe such denials, technology transfers of this kind are clearly violative of the NPT and MTCR guidelines. If the US as the most important leader of these two regimes chooses, for its anti-India reasons, not to act against China (and Pakistan), citing China as the provocation for India’s nuclear tests in the letter to the US President is worse than useless.