ISSN 2330-717X

Wen Jiabao’s India Visit Exacerbates Fault Lines


By Rajeev Sharma

India-China ties are set to enter treacherous waters in the coming months. This is clear from the recent Chinese attitude, wherein Beijing has favored Pakistan at the cost of India. China is selling a one Giga watt nuclear reactor to Pakistan and is determined to ink a civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement with the country which has for years indulged in nuclear proliferation. China has been issuing stapled visas to Indians living in Jammu and Kashmir but not for Pakistanis in Kashmir. This makes it clear on whose side China is in South Asia.

Against the backdrop of many serious differences, the visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (December 15-17) was expected to lower the temperatures. It did not; instead it only exacerbated the Sino-Indian fault lines. Wen’s talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at New Delhi’s Hyderabad House on December 16 failed to produce any dramatic results. The good thing is that the two sides continue to stay engaged though both eye each other warily. This is demonstrated by the fact that this is the eleventh time the two leaders met this year alone.

They set an ambitious bilateral trade target of $100 billion by 2015, not an impossible task considering that India-China trade has trebled to $60 billion since 2002 and China has already become India’s single largest trade partner. The much-awaited PM-to-PM hotline has finally been activated—three days before Wen’s visit. In addition, the two sides signed six pacts in areas ranging from media and cultural exchanges to green technologies, the sharing of hydrological data on the Sutlej River, and collaboration between their banks, though it must be said that it is unusual of China to sign so few agreements during its top leader’s foreign trip.

This is the half glass full picture. The half glass empty picture is more important. China did nothing with regard to major Indian concerns, among them:

  • The issuance of stapled visas to Indians living in Jammu and Kashmir
  • Support for India’s candidacy for a permanent membership seat in the United Nations Security Council;
  • The dam the Chinese are building on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet;
  • The very close China-Pakistan defense relationship and the fact that the two countries are on the verge of signing a deal for the Chinese sale of one Giga watt nuclear reactor to Pakistan; and,
  • China’s continued soft gloves treatment to the issue of terror fountainhead Hafiz Mohammed.

And yet, Wen left India with business deals worth $23 billion for Chinese companies.

For its part, India played hardball as well. The Indian delegation, particularly Home Minister P Chidambaram, told Wen and his delegates why it was imperative for China to take action against Hafiz Saeed. China maintained a Sphinx-like silence on the UNSC issue and dispelled fears on the Brahmaputra dam. Earlier in the year the Chinese denied that they were building a dam on the Brahmaputra River. India too paid back in the same coin when it refused to say the usual in the joint communiqué issued after the talks: that India acknowledges Tibet to be an integral part of China.

The Terror Issue

India attaches a great importance to the issue of terror emanating from Pakistan in its dealings with China. There are indications that the Indians are going to show increasing vociferousness with the Chinese in this regard. There are several reasons for this. There are increasing signs that the Chinese Communist Party that has enjoyed unchallenged monopoly in running the huge country since 1949 is now facing a significant challenge from the People’s Liberation Army. This can be a monumental development with significant bearing on Indian security.

The PLA is known to have very close and good contacts with Pakistan Army, which in turn, enjoys a cozy and special relationship with Pakistan-based anti-India terror outfits that were created, equipped, trained, nurtured and funded for decades by the adjunct of Pakistan Army – the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Secondly, now that China has openly communicated its preference to Pakistan over India, China’s complicity with Pakistan on the terror issue may well be the harbinger of a new development – Beijing reverting back to its covert policies of a quarter century ago of aiding and abetting the anti-Indian insurgent outfits in the Northeast.

The Chinese refusal to allow the United Nations impose sanctions on Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed and his charity-terror front, Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD), smacks of dangerously myopic policy followed by Beijing. This is not the first time that China has refused attempts made by India or the UN in putting restrictions on Pakistan-based terrorist groups and leaders. Earlier, China had blocked similar attempts to rein in Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT).

By preventing the international community from imposing restrictions on terrorist groups based in Pakistan, China is sending a message to Pakistan that it will stand by its ally in dire circumstances. This action on the part of China is also a reminder to India that it will not allow any positive move made by the latter in bringing peace and stability to Asia.

This is a policy fraught with great peril to China itself. It is not difficult to see why. By allowing terrorist groups like LeT to remain as powerful as they are today in Pakistan, China is enabling the Talibanisation of Pakistan, a development which cannot leave China untouched. The growing extremist influence in all walks of life has already made Pakistan a country on the precipice. A failing state on its borders will bring only calamity and not stability, which China must ensure to benefit from the enormous investments it has made in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia in the recent years.

China’s actions betray an underestimation of the dangers posed by terrorist groups like LeT. The presence of terrorist training camps closer to the Xinjiang border present a long-term threat to China’s interest in its least developed western region, populated by Uighur Muslims who are quite uncomfortable with China and its policies to dilute their presence in their traditional home. The Chinese decision to prevent action against LeT creates a situation where its own set of home-grown radicals will get easy access to training camps and other resources to carry out terrorist attacks.

What Next?

Two events in past one decade or so have impacted Sino-Indian relations hugely: India’s second set of nuclear tests in May 1998 and the July 2005 India-US decision to go ahead with a game-changer civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement. The first because a leaked letter of then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to then US President Bill Clinton explaining reasons for the nuclear tests made it clear that India had taken the step mainly because of China. The second because China saw Washington’s intent to sign the 123 agreement with India as a counter balance to China and getting India into the nuclear weapon international community through the back door.

The deepening Indo-US ties prompted a rethink in China’s India policy, evidenced in China’s hyper active behind-the-scene lobbying against an India-specific waiver at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group in 2008. India got the NSG waiver though China did not want it, primarily because the US lobbied very hard for it. A country that does not support India’s entry in a small cartel like NSG can hardly be expected to back India’s claim for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. And China knows that it is not impossible especially when the other P4 members, particularly the US, have come out with strong and unequivocal support for India’s case.

Since its reluctant support to India at the NSG in 2008, China has been accusing India of “befriending the far, attacking the near”. China itself can be held guilty of the same. For years China has been wooing its far abroad like Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, while ignoring its near abroad. It is not just India but almost all neighbors of China – Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Japan – have issues with China.

China gives respect to only those who stand up to it. India’s resurgence may or may not be a threat to China depending on how the Chinese respond to the rising India. One way is to categorize India as an enemy and take diplomatic and military steps to deal with India accordingly. In that event, India will inevitably put a diplomatic equivalent of Newton’s Third Law of Motion in practice: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The other way is that of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has time and again said that there was enough space in the world to accommodate both India and China.

The coming few weeks may shed some light on what the inscrutable China is going to do with respect to India. China can make a new positive beginning by immediately scrapping its stapled visas policy for Indians from Jammu and Kashmir.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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