by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th July 10
The last couple of weeks have seen interesting developments in the Sino-Indian relationship. On June 28, a Chinese Web newspaper called Global Times posted an article that argued forcefully that Indian control of the northern Indian Ocean would be a positive development for China’s security. The timing of this article was noteworthy, coming as it did just four days before National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon left for China to begin a new dialogue on exploring new ways to impart a positive direction to the Sino-Indian relationship.
The author, Zhang Wenmu, a Beijing University professor, argued that only Russia, India and the US had direct interests in the northern Indian Ocean, while China had only an indirect interest. Indian control of these waters would suit China better than a strong US Navy presence in these waters.
Besides, argued Prof Zhang, the more India focuses on the Indian Ocean, the safer Tibet becomes for China. If India were bent on containing China, it would focus on Tibet, not the Indian Ocean. Prof Zhang believes that India’s ongoing naval build-up would bring India into confrontation with the US, rather than with China, mirroring the way that China’s naval expansion is currently precipitating a confrontation between the Chinese and US navies.
Admittedly, this radical idea has been expressed only unofficially, and in just a single media article so far. But it is standard Chinese practice to test reactions to potentially controversial ideas — such as an entente with India in the Indian Ocean — through a trial balloon of this kind.
Furthermore, Mr Menon’s visit to China, from July 3 to July 6, took place in the backdrop of the naval confrontation that is building up between China and the US. Beijing has made it clear that it would not allow a joint US-South Korea naval exercise, scheduled for mid-July, in the Yellow Sea to be conducted unhindered in waters that it regards as China’s zone of influence.
In March 2010, according to The New York Times, Beijing had told two visiting US administration officials that China would not tolerate US interference in its territorial disputes in the western Pacific, labelling the South China Sea for the first time as a “core interest” for China, on a par with Tibet and Taiwan.
Now, Washington has challenged Beijing; an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, the flagship of the US 7th Fleet, is leading a powerful naval flotilla into the waters off China.
China’s predicament explains Prof Zhang’s argument as well as the warmth with which Mr Menon was received in China. Premier Wen Jiabao received him for a 40-minute meeting, as did Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, Mr Mr Menon’s interlocutor on the border issue. Wen Jiabao was quoted as pointing out to Mr Menon that “It will be Asia’s century if India and China have a strong relationship”, and officials told the media that “a way forward” for the relationship was explored.
China’s new appreciation for India’s concerns — which has flowered since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh supported Premier Jiabao’s stand at the Copenhagen climate summit — must be leveraged by New Delhi into forward movement on the Sino-Indian territorial dispute. While fully resolving the dispute is a complex task, Beijing must be made to understand that better relations with China hinge on convincing Indian public opinion about China’s bona fides on the border.
A viable suggestion to China would be to diminish the profile of the dispute, transforming it from a territorial dispute — involving vast tracts of land amounting to 130,000 square kilometres — to a border dispute over where the boundary lies. Astonishingly, given the animosity and bloodshed that the dispute has generated, this is not difficult. Since the 1950s, China had been suggesting an East-for-West swap, in which China recognises India’s sovereignty over NEFA/Arunachal Pradesh (which India occupies) in exchange for recognition of Chinese sovereignty over the areas it already occupies in Aksai Chin/Ladakh.
The same proposal, with relatively minor changes, has also guided the settlement being discussed since 2003 between the special representatives of the two countries: currently Shiv Shankar Menon and Dai Bingguo. Beijing’s insistence, after 1984, that the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh be ceded to China has been the only new stumbling block. The other disputed areas are small and relatively insignificant.
Today, it is theoretically possible for the two countries to agree on a border where China keeps Aksai Chin and India keeps Arunachal; while the Tawang tract and a dozen or so disputed enclaves be settled through further dialogue. This would radically diminish the very nature of the dispute, allowing an overall improvement in relations.
All that prevents such a settlement (other than an Indian parliamentary resolution, which would have to be dealt with anyway) is China’s belief that it could extract a more favourable settlement in the future. But China is pragmatic; when the US-India relationship was surging in 2005, Wen Jiabao made bold concessions, accepting an India-friendly draft of the “Political Principles” for a settlement, an important document that India holds up today to buttress its claim on Tawang.
With China under pressure on the Pacific front, and exploring common ground with India, Beijing must be persuaded to neuter a dispute that has long been, in the Indian psyche, evidence of Chinese animosity towards this country.