G Parthasarathy

Dealing with an ‘expansionist’ China

G PARTHASARATHY | Updated on March 09, 2018

India should stay firm on border issues and develop strategic ties with its eastern neighbours

Addressing an election rally in Arunachal Pradesh on February 22, Narendra Modi called on China to shed its “mindset of expansionism”. “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and will remain so. No power can snatch it from us. I swear in the name of this soil that I would never allow this State to disappear, break down, or bow down. China should shed its expansionist mindset and forge bilateral ties with India for peace, progress and prosperity of both nations,” he said. This message was reinforced with the appointment of Kirin Rijiju from Arunachal Pradesh as Minister of State for Home Affairs.

China made the predictable noises, with Prime Minister Li Keqiang congratulating Modi on his appointment and President Xi Jinping sending Foreign Minister Wang Yi to deliver a personal greeting.

Did these gestures signal any substantive change in China’s policies, either on its outrageous territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh, or the continuing intrusion of its troops across the Line of Actual Control? The answer is clearly in the negative.

On the eve of Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visit to the Middle Kingdom, China published yet another official map depicting the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. While the UPA government had claimed that new “mechanisms” had been agreed upon to curb cross-border intrusions, the intrusions continued. Given these developments, the NDA Government should carefully consider reviewing and re-orienting the existing policies on China.

Rejigged response

Any talk of more robust military responses to Chinese adventurism is ill-advised. The NDA Government has unfortunately inherited a situation where India’s armed forces are inadequately equipped and lacking in numbers. It would take a minimum of five years before the armed forces will be able to present a more self-confident response to Chinese adventurism.

New Delhi should now re-orient its diplomacy by taking note of the fact that Chinese assertiveness and aggression are directed not only against India, but towards all its maritime neighbours.

Just as China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh have no legal or historical basis, its claims on its boundaries with all its maritime neighbours are in violation of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas (Unclos).

China has used force to seize disputed islands claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam and to explore for offshore oil and gas.

Tensions with Japan are escalating because of China’s claims to the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan since 1894. China’s unilateral declaration of an “air defence identification zone” beyond its borders has been rejected by South Korea and Japan.

Strategic containment

Its territorial claims on maritime borders face challenges from South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Yet another major source of concern has been the Chinese policy of “strategic containment” of India, primarily based on enhancing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, missile, maritime, air power and army capabilities. This is an issue which India inexplicably and rarely, if ever, highlights either bilaterally or internationally.

This policy of “strategic containment” through Pakistan has been reinforced by China’s readiness to provide weapons and liberal economic assistance to all of India’s Saarc neighbours. Worse, bending to Chinese pressures, India has periodically avoided proposed joint military exercises with Japan and the US.

A measured response would be for India to step up military cooperation with Vietnam, including supplying it with Brahmos Cruise Missiles. Given the fact that Russia is a major arms supplier to Vietnam, President Vladimir Putin’s concurrence can surely be obtained for such supplies to Vietnam. Russia has, after all, given its concurrence to China’s supply of Russian-designed advanced RD 93 fighter aircraft engines to Pakistan.

Will growing trade relations with China soften its approach to border claims or its “strategic containment” of India, as some in India appear to believe?

Unyielding position

Bilateral trade with China today amounts to around $66 billion, with India facing a growing trade deficit currently around $29 billion. China’s annual bilateral trade with Japan amounts to $314 billion and with South Korea, $235 billion. China is also the largest trade and investment partner of Vietnam. Both Japan and South Korea also have substantial investment ties with China.

Despite this, China has remained unyielding on its territorial claims on these countries, not hesitated to use force and threatened to cut its investment ties with Vietnam after recent tensions.

To believe that China will embark on a path of reason on border issues because it sells a few bullet trains and invests in infrastructure in India would be, to put it mildly, naïve. On the contrary, India needs to ensure that unrestricted, duty-free access of Chinese products in areas like energy and electronics does not adversely affect indigenous development and production, or undermine energy, communications and cyber security.

While dialogue, economic cooperation and interaction with China in forums like BRICS and G20 are mutually beneficial, there is a need to review our approach to border issues.

China has no intention of exchanging maps specifying its definition of the Line of Actual Control, either in Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh. India should now insist that the border issue has to be resolved in accordance with the “guiding principles” agreed to in 2005.

The boundary has to be along “well defined and easily identifiable natural geographic features”. Second, any border settlement should “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”.

Proceeding according to these “guiding principles” enables India to reinforce its claims that the border lies along the Karakoram Range in Ladakh and the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh.

Given China’s agreement to safeguard the “interests of settled populations,” its claims to Arunachal Pradesh are untenable.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on July 17, 2014

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