India-China Relations

30 Jun, 1998    ·   122

Report of the third IPCS Seminar on the Implications of Nuclear Testing in South Asia

Professor G. P. Deshpande, Mr. Giri Deshingkar, and Mr. Vinod Khanna made presentations on aspects of India-China relations since the recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan.

Professor Deshpande argued that it would be a mistake to evaluate Sino-Indian relations only in terms of a few problematic issues.  The Chinese government has been working to minimise the impact of recent inflammatory statements by Indian officials, and is grappling with India’s new, albeit still ambiguous role as a nuclear-capable power. India’s tests, and Pakistan’s as well, have regional and global implications.  The vagueness of these implications means that Sino-India relations are in a period of transition with the outcomes still unclear.

Deshpande drew attention to the “hypocrisy factor” in post-Pokhran relations among India, China, and the United States.  All three countries are guilty of minimising the implications of India’s new status as a nuclear weapon-capable state, and “denying the power of nuclear weapons.”  While border disputes remain a problem in Sino-Indian relations, Deshpande argued that the nuclear tests have no relevance here.  The two governments can and should continue their dialogue to resolve these disputes.

The next presentation was by Mr. Giri Deshingkar.  He argued that the Chinese government’s attitude to India’s nuclear program has changed markedly after India’s recent nuclear tests. The Chinese government never questioned India’s right to develop and possess nuclear weapons after its 1974 explosion, and it had never asked India to sign the CTBT. The Chinese response to India’s 1998 blasts was much more alarmed compared to its mild reaction to the 1974 blasts; the difference was due to India’s characterisation of the recent tests as directed toward weaponisation, as opposed to the “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974.  The Chinese government has not challenged the sovereign right of India to conduct its recent tests; however, it does question the propriety of doing so.  It has expressed “grave concern” with India’s action, which ran “counter to international trends” and was “not in the interest of South Asia’s peace and stability.”  Notably, however, the Chinese government did not mention the impact on Sino-Indian relations.  While there has been some warming in Sino-Indian relations in recent years, they are unlikely to improve further as long as the BJP-led government remains in power.

Deshingkar concluded with a warning that while the Chinese and Indian governments made a no-first-use pledge to each other in 1996, recent BJP statements are putting a strain on Sino-Indian relations and undermining the spirit underlying the confidence-building measures.  A provocation such as the deployment of Agni could set Sino-Indian relations back to 1961.

Mr. Vinod Khanna based his remarks on the assumption that the BJP-led government does indeed desire good relations with China.  He cited recent conciliatory statements by Prime Minister Vajpayee.

The Chinese government appears to have compartmentalised its policies toward India: in its bilateral relations with India, it tends to be more conciliatory; whereas in the area of non-proliferation, China adopts a harder line, especially in multilateral forums like the Security Council P-5,.

There are several strands of thought obtaining in Beijing regarding India’s intentions.  Some believe that India plans to weaponise as soon as possible; this is the worst-case scenario. The Chinese government has genuine concerns about the NPT and CTBT unravelling.  Will this encourage proliferation among other Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan?  It is also paying much closer attention to the BJP’s election manifesto and reading its statements on foreign policy issues such as Tibet more closely than before.

US President Bill Clinton sees a convergence of interests between the US and China on “managing” South Asian security.  India should remember, however, that there are major areas of disagreement between the US and China.  It should adopt a more sophisticated approach to improve its relations with both countries.  In regards to China, India should send a high-level delegation to Beijing and suggest a series of confidence-building measures such as those taken with Pakistan.  India should also ensure that nothing happens on the ground in disputed border areas.

A discussion among the participants followed.  One noted that China was expecting India to moderate its statements regarding the “threat” that China poses as they are disruptive not only to Sino-Indian relations but to Asia as a whole.  He also posed the question whether the Chinese were themselves ready to resolve the border issue with India.

Another raised the question whether the changing situation in the north-eastern border areas ? including Chinese troop movements and infrastructural development ? is indicative of a change in Chinese government or PLA policy.  He argued that these developments represent a clear setback to Sino-Indian relations and that India should try to improve the situation.  However, this is unlikely to happen under the BJP government, with its emotional approach to such issues, and the provocative statements by Defence Minister George Fernandes (which the Chinese interpret as official Indian policy).

Another argued that China views India as a potential future threat.  In bilateral talks, China had indeed pressured India to sign the CTBT, and has indicated that it will not sign the FMCT unless India does.  It is also sensitive to changes in India’s force capability.  He warned that China will be as assertive as any other great power in attempting to shape the world order to its advantage.  It was suggested that the Chinese might decide to re-target its recently de-targeted missiles at India, should it resume testing of the Agni missile.

One person rejected the idea that peace and tranquillity was upset by India’s nuclear tests; he argued that it was upset by provocative Chinese actions in the last year, including troops movements on the border.  China’s reaction to India’s nuclear tests was alarmist, while its response to Pakistan’s tests was comparatively mild.  This participant asserted that the Chinese government called upon the international community to “force” India to halt its nuclear program.  This represents a marked shift from China’s usually moderate views on non-proliferation.  There are recurrent periods of anti-Indian sentiment in the Chinese press; this indicates a feeling of mistrust that is so close to the surface that any provocation brings it out into the open.  The Chinese government has been supportive of Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir in the past; however, it has since expressed some approval of India’s changed position in this regard.

One participant argued that India should reconsider its no-first-use pledge to China.  It was made in regard to conventional capabilities, and may be “incongruous” in the light of recent developments.  He said there was no need for India to be apologetic about naming China as a threat.  China has helped Pakistan to build its nuclear and missile capabilities to neutralise India; thus China has seen India as a threat for some time.

Another questioned the use of the word “threat.”  Is “threat” a word that accurately describes what India faces today?  In the post-Cold War world, countries are developing a more comprehensive view of what constitutes national security; labelling another country as a “threat” precludes other options for dealing with that country.  There is a disjuncture between the Indian government’s recent antagonistic language vis-à-vis China, and the Peace and Tranquility Agreement signed by the two countries.  The mindset that India is surrounded by threats is dangerous, argued this participant.

Another agreed that a reluctance to call China a “threat” was not cowardice, but a desire not to preclude other options.  Resuming a dialogue with China was of utmost importance.  Yet another participant noted that India is not as threatened by the so-called China-Pakistan axis as many believe; the two countries have had several disagreements in the past couple of years, with Pakistan most recently defying China’s request that it should not test its nuclear devices.

26 June 1998