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Sino-Indian relations: Beijing muffs its hand October 22, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

Australia is not the only country on the receiving end of China’s new-found diplomatic ‘forthrightness’.  India too has recently received a sizzling serve from the Beijing end of the court.

As we pointed out in South Asia Masala, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is also claimed by China, is the current immovable object in the Sino-Indian relationship.  However, on this occasion that tricky problem has been exacerbated by a planned visit of the Dalai Lama to the disputed state and to Tawang, birth-place of the revered Sixth Dalai Lama, which lies within the borders claimed by India.

A hard-hitting editorial in the People’s Daily on 14 October accused India of “hegemony” and of a policy of “befriend the far [the US] and attack the near [other South Asian powers]”.   On the same day the paper claimed that India’s yet-to-be tested Agni V strategic ballistic missile would be capable of reaching the northern Chinese city of Harbin if launched from North East India. (Agni V is scheduled to be tested in 2011).  The next day the People’s Daily contained a scathing critique of child labour in India and India’s poor performance in education.

Even more concerning for New Delhi, China has been issuing visas for Indians from Kashmir on separate pieces of paper rather than stamping them in passports, implying that Kashmir is not part of India and reversing years of Chinese policy towards Indian Kashmir.

These recent moves by China are indicative of the depth of Beijing’s anger about the planned visit by the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh.  But in the above-cited editorial, concern is also implied about the deepening relationship between India and the United States.  China also appears to be taxed by the anti-China rhetoric that is developing in certain Indian strategic circles and in parts of the Indian media.

India and the US have just completed their largest ever joint exercise in terms of participating troop numbers.  The exercise involved a total of 1000 special forces from both sides and demonstrations of the US Stryker and Javelin anti-tank missile system.

After a period of near comatose calm on the China issue, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has finally taken off its velvet gloves.  The MEA will now question Beijing on a series of dams China is allegedly planning to build on the Yarlung Zangbo river (which becomes the Brahmaputra in India).  India maintains it has an agreement with China that no such dams would be built without prior consultation and that no such consultation has occurred.   Other Indian ministries and ministers have also criticized China’s public commitment to funding infrastructure projects in Pakistani Kashmir.

If China’s aim is to ensure that the India-US relationship retains its current hedging quality rather than develops a more robust strategic content, then such heavy-handed tactics will clearly have the exact opposite effect.  This would not be good for China or Asia.  What is needed is a rise of China and India that supports Coral Bell’s concept of a ‘concert of powers’ in the region.  But it is a slippery slope indeed that leads from fundamental shifts in the balance of power to the pinnacle of a concert of powers.

On its part, India has adhered meticulously to its ‘One China’ policy.  Although the Dalai Lama is an honoured guest in India, New Delhi does not formally subscribe to his views on Tibet.  Perhaps he will now return the favour by finding an excuse not to visit Arunachal this November.  If so, it would be intriguing to know whether any covert Indian pressure was bought to bear.

Meanwhile, India and China are likely to patch things up for the forthcoming trilateral India-China-Russia meeting and the projected Singh-Wen meeting on the ASEAN sidelines.  But what might be patched up now is likely again to unravel at some time in the future.  Unless Beijing backs away  from its Arunachal claim – which it won’t – the border issue is likely to fester and possibly cause an ‘accident’, which neither India nor China would want or could afford.

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