By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th June 18
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech last Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was, for many, a damp squib. That annual event has traditionally provided a forum for the US-led camp in the Asia-Pacific to lambast growing Chinese aggression and expansionism, and for senior Chinese officials to blandly signal back that Beijing does not care what they feel. This was where, in 2010, Yang Jiechi – then China’s foreign minister and, until April, China’s Special Representative in border talks with India – famously brushed off Singapore's foreign minister with: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact.” This year, there was high anticipation over Mr Modi’s participation as keynote speaker, given recent Sino-Indian tensions like last year’s confrontation between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Doklam, in Bhutan, where blood came close to being spilt.
Mr Modi, however, motivated apparently by agreements reached with China’s President Xi Jinping at their “informal summit” last April in Wuhan, passed up the opportunity to call out China’s worrying aggression. Instead, in a throwback to Jawaharlal Nehru at Bandung, he dwelt on India’s historical role as a bridge between the Indo- and the -Pacific and as a champion of the liberal, international order. While duly ticking the boxes of freedom of navigation, connectivity and rule of law, Mr Modi took an emphatic step back from maritime confrontation with China, stating that India wanted no “return to the age of great power rivalries” in the Indo-Pacific.
Again echoing Mr Nehru, who he has often reviled as a peacenik, Mr Modi stated: “No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China. We are the world’s two most populous countries… Our cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border.”
This sensitivity towards China has become apparent this year. Assuaging Beijing’s concerns over India’s role in Tibet, the government has placed severe restrictions on the Dalai Lama and the 100,000-plus Tibetan refugees in India. An “inter-faith meeting” planned at Rajghat on March 31, to commemorate the 60thanniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Lhasa to India, was cancelled on March 2. Another rally planned in New Delhi on April 1 was similarly cancelled. There are restrictions now on “security grounds” on meetings between Chinese (read Tibetan) monks and the Dalai Lama. This sidelining of the Dalai Lama contrasts sharply with his high profile visit to Arunachal Pradesh a year ago, when he was warmly received by chief minister, Pema Khandu, evoking strong protests from Beijing.
Separately, compared to last year, New Delhi has sharply scaled down participation in the trilateral, US-Japan-India naval exercise Malabar, which begins on Thursday. Unlike the US and Japan, which are fielding aircraft carriers and submarines, India is sending just three mid-sized surface warships. Beijing will be pleased with that.
While New Delhi has tamped down on activities that might upset Beijing in the belief that the proverbial “reset button” has been pressed between Messrs Modi and Xi, it is business as usual in Beijing, which recently served up a pointed reminder of its claim over Arunachal. This began with a news report on May 20, in the South China Morning Post(hereafter “the Post”), which is owned by Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and is Beijing’s favoured media outlet for capturing readers’ eyeballs outside China. The report, titled “How Chinese mining in the Himalayas may create a new military flashpoint with India”, described a $60 billion trove of precious metals” unearthed near Lhunze, close to the border with India, which would provide China with a powerful incentive to exercise its claim over “South Tibet” (as China calls Arunachal Pradesh). Predicting conflict, the report said this would create “another South China Sea rising out of the world’s highest mountain range”.
The next day, on May 21, communist party mouthpiece Global Timesrebutted the Post’sreport, declaring (somewhat obviously) that there was no similarity between the South China Sea and the Himalayan border. Global Timesquoted a Chinese expert who said the Post’s“groundless hype reflected the fact that some Western powers are constantly sowing discord between China and India, and using Delhi as a pawn on the frontline challenging Beijing.”
This is typical of China’s clever, new propaganda, which keeps alive its claims over disputed areas even as its leaders vow tranquillity in “informal summits” with India. Beijing, knowing that reports of a high-value mine in Tibet near the Arunachal border would interest India, breaks the story through a planted report. Then it rebuts that with another (barely) deniable report that baldly stated: “Chinese mining in its own territory will not provoke conflict, unless India allows western powers to use it against China”. Thus Beijing shapes international perceptions, confuses and unnerves Indian policymakers and keeps the border issue on the boil.
Were China really interested, as Global Times claims, in “addressing disputes through direct negotiations and making sure such issues won't undermine normal ties”, would Beijing not be engaging New Delhi on contentious issues like water sharing and the downstream impacts of mining and industrialisation in places like Lhunze, which threaten damaging effects on the Subansiri river in Arunachal? Instead, China watchers note that Beijing is aggressively prioritising border infrastructure development and establishing “model border villages”. Chinese leaders in Tibet have visited 1962 war memorials, and held mobilisation drives near Lhunze, particularly in areas inhabited by Monpa tribals, who also populate Tawang. As Chinese state media widely reported last October, Xi Jinping wrote a personal letter to a family of Tibetan herders living in Yumai, a border village near Lhunze, thanking them for keeping China’s claim to that border area alive by inhabiting that inhospitable area. “Yumai would be occupied by India already if the family had decided to leave,” Chinese National Geography quoted the village’s headman as saying.
Beijing regards all the area it controls, whether disputed, loyal or not, as its own and develops it relentlessly. In contrast, New Delhi views its borders almost exclusively through the lens of defence, security and militarisation, evaluating even developmental infrastructure in that framework and often treating local inhabitants as potentially disloyal. Road development in Ladakh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh remains a sorry joke, tourism has never been promoted seriously; and healthcare, sanitation and education remains utterly neglected. With most northeastern states, the Centre’s compact boils down to: We’ll allow you the run of a few billions and station military troops; in return, you maintain the fiction of your state being a rose in the bouquet that is India. Unlike in authoritarian China, no prime minister since Nehru has harnessed local communities, including tribal leadership and graziers, to give them a major stake in their own security. New Delhi must realise that border security lies less in agreements with foreign leaders, and more in integrating and developing the territory it claims. It is in this important aspect that Mr Modi must borrow from Mr Nehru.