By Bhaskar Roy
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit starting April 14 in China will provide the two leaders of India and China another opportunity to discuss and exchange views on both multilateral and bilateral issues. Chinese President will hold separate meetings with all the heads of states attending the summit and that includes Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Prime Minister Singh will, of course, be briefed extensively by two most eminently qualified personalities in the country-National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon, and Foreign Secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao. Nevertheless, it will do no harm to discuss some issues here.
The political ambience in China is very complex at the moment. It is just recovering from the blowback of a rather miscalculated foreign policy in 2010 where military power underpinned its assertive postures. The countries in its immediate region from Japan and South Korea to the South-East Asian nations like Vietnam, the Philippine and Indonesia and others were alarmed. The US and Australia had to demonstrate their interests in the stability of the region, In fact, realists within China’s foreign policy and security establishment have started a debate. The policy being most hotly debated is China’s strong support to North Korea despite the latter’s unprovoked military action against South Korea. A major military crises in North-East Asia was avoided due to highly restrained position from South Korea, Japan and the USA.
China’s increasing sharp behaviour, sometimes belligerent, in the last several year and especially in 2010, raised several serious questions among the international community. Today, it is one of the most powerful countries in the world. During the cold war years the Soviet Union was militarily powerful
to keep the US led NATO on balance. But it was economically weak and crumbled. On the other hand, China is an economic powerhouse despite some serious internal weakness, and its military modernization has taken several quantum jumps in tandem with its economic growth that has assumed a formidable nature. For most countries the issue is not how much China is behind the US in military power measurement, but how it compares with countries in its proximity including India. Many Chinese military strategists claim that India’s defence modernization is more than it requires, thereby suggesting India was a threat to its neighbours. Yet, they argue that China’s huge military machinery ever growing in number and sophistication are only defensive in nature. This, of course, is the official propaganda line of China – basically psy-war.
Therefore, a very pertinent question is being asked: What is rising, assertive China’s grand strategy? Chinese strategy of opacity, denial and even deception, neither the Preeminent Communist Party of China (CCP) nor the Chinese government have even explained officially China’s grand strategy. Hence, is ambiguity the strategy to hide real intentions? Last year, the issue of the ambit of China’s “core” interest arose. Chinese officials “unofficially” suggested to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton that Washington accept South China sea as China’s core interest. Clinton’s assertion that freedom of South China sea was of USA’s national interest, provoked a strong response from the Chinese foreign minister.
Chinese strategist, Da Wei, recent wrote China’s basic policies have never changed, and that includes position on territorial issues. It may be noted that to resolve maritime claims China is yet to offer the solution of give and take or “mutual accommodation and mutual adjustment”. Such a non-negotiable position as maritime claims has serious implications for all nations using these water ways including for India.
“China’s National Defence White Paper-2010”, released on March 31, 2011, has some direct messages for India. It noted in a separate paragraph the several confidence building agreements signed between the two countries between 1993 and 2005. Interpreted, China would like to maintain status quo on the border and is not seeking any forward movement on the issue in the near future. It, however, is not proposing a freezing of border talks as other issues are also discussed in the ambit.
At the same time, the White Paper suggested resumption of military exchange following New Delhi suspending military exchanges on China’s stapled visa policy even for Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal GOC-in-C Northern Command, as he commanded Kashmir. Although Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao assured China would look into the stapled visa issue when he visited India in January, since then China has officially retired its position more than once.
If India agrees to resume military exchanges without reciprocal action, not promises of consideration, from China it will amount to accepting China’s changed position on the Kashmir issue. Resumption of military exchanges could be an issue that Hu Jintao may raise with Dr. Manmohan Singh.
China does not want any direct confrontation with India at the moment. This can be discerned from their position on Nepal in the past one month. China’s army Chief Gen. Chen Bingde’s visit to Nepal heading a very high level military delegation was mainly on the Tibet issue, warning the Nepali government not to give any room to the 20,000 odd Tibetan refugees in the country to stage anti-China activities. More importantly, Gen. Chen emphatically warned Kathmandu to be alert to and prevent US and some EU country’s operations from Nepal’s soil to destabilize Tibet.
Outgoing Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Qiu Guohang, chose Maoist Vice Chairman Baburam Bhattarai to convey China wanted Nepal to conduct an equal relationship among Nepal, China and India, and that the Maoists had to get their act together to establish a stable government. Hard-line Maoists project Bhattarai as pro-India, and Bhattarai own political position on China and India apparently convinced the Chinese that he would be the best medium to send the message to India.
For China, it seems, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal @ Prachanda, is becoming too much of a maverick and was becoming risky for China’s India strategy. Beijing has worked out that the moment is not opportune to open a broadside against India when it was besotted with many other foreign policy challenges. It may be noted that the Chinese official media has been very circumspect in reporting on Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lank which would seem as India-baiting, though using sections of the media in these countries cannot be ruled out.
President Hu Jintao is very likely ask how India is going to deal with the new democratically Tibetan government-in-exile, without the Dalai Lama’s political leadership. Although not officially recognized by India or any other country, the so-called government is located in India. Beijing genuinely fears that without the Dalai Lama’s temperate hand, the Tibetan movement can become militant threatening the stability of Tibet. This is a question that India must address with its considered policy on the Tibetan issue,. There need be no hesitation as India has nothing do with the Dalai Lama’s policy or China’s Tibet policy. On India’s part, it has recognized Tibet as a part of China.
China must realise that India can raise some very serious questions over military assistance coming from China to India’s North-East insurgents like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), and the Naga separatists group the NSCN (I/M) and others. The evidence is no longer in the realms of electronic intercepts. Leaders of these organizations arrested in recent months have confessed in detail money paid to Chinese state owned companies for huge quantity of arms, explosives and communication equipment. As usual, the Chinese leaders will pretend ignorance and innocence, but the evidence is that officers of Chinese intelligence were directly involved in these deals. The Chinese leaders no longer have credibility here, and they have lost all credibility on nuclear and missile proliferation to Pakistan and Iran.
There would be wider discussions, but in these top level meetings time is severely limited. The beginning, however, must be initiated at this level to be addressed at ministerial and official levels. There are many other issues including China’s policy in South Asia, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean. There is also the question on the skewed bilateral trade in China’s favour, China’s poor quality goods exports to India, and Chinese companies selling spurious drugs and other products under fraudulent Indian labels. The government of the People’s Republic of China can no longer hide under subterfuge.There is every reason why India and China can live together and work together to make a great Asia in which other Asian stake holders including Japan and Vietnam would be happy participants. The US, Europe and Australia would be willing contributors and partake of the huge cake. This is one hopeful track, but is it realisable? It is too idealistic to expect even an agreement to maintain an multipolar Asia where the smallest of the countries have an independent say without being threatened. Following Japan’s earthquake and Tsunami, sections of the Chinese official media are already declaring that Asian leadership in favour of China has been decided!
Given the foregoing, India must approach the BRICS summit with listening more. President Hu Jintao will push for the agenda on currency valuation issue to start with. China has been resisting persistent pressure from the US and now from EU to revalue its currency, the Renminbi (RBM) which has been kept artificially low to help its exports. This also harms India’s trade with China. Beijing is trying to reduce the influence of the US dollar, but the Euro experiment has not succeeded. It has succeeded to an extent to use RMB as an exchange currency with the ASEAN to an extent. Yet, China is wary to transform RMB to full convertibility.
But the most important aspect of the BRICS is, according to some top Chinese intellectuals, is domination of BRICS. Among the BRICS countries, Brazil has problems with the US, so has Russia on economic issue to start with. The latest entrant South Africa is huge recipient of Chinese investment. The odd ball is India. China has declared officially that it is open to new entrants to the group on the basis of consensus. Most signals suggest China is guiding BRICS + as a group to counter the US and the west on a variety of issues from currency, trade to climate change. India will have to determine where and how far it can go. The anti-US and pro-US lobbies in India (including in the gernment) will have to decide soberly what is in India’s national interest. To be bowed down by majority in the group will be a negative foreign policy, and regrettable.