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Ajai Shukla: Global chilling


Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

At a meeting in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on Monday, the first serious steps since independence were taken towards building a comprehensive network of roads, tracks and hydro power stations in the areas of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh that are claimed by both China and India. In contrast, the Middle Kingdom has wasted no time in developing its outlying territories, even those that are disputed. New Delhi, however, has been guided by a military and intelligence establishment, which has argued that any roads that it builds in these areas could be used during hostilities by Chinese invading forces. Also holding back development has been the argument that, with a border dialogue with China progressing nicely, why rock the boat with "provocative" construction activity? But now, 45 years after the 1962 debacle, a more confident PMO has committed Rs 1,000 crore to linking the border areas with mainland India.
This is not a one-off initiative. On Saturday, India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, travelled to Shillong for a first ever "public diplomacy" initiative, talking of cross-border linkages between the Seven Sisters of the north-east (Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) and the South East Asian countries like Myanmar and Thailand. Mr Mukherjee promised a network of linkages like the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport facility (connecting Indian eastern ports, through Myanmar's Sittwe port, and then via riverine transport, to a road in Mizoram), an India-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, an India-Vietnam rail link, and an India-Bangladesh passenger train.
The background to this is an 8-month-old hardening by China of its rhetoric over the border dispute. In November 2006, ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit to India, Beijing turned down an Indian request for a meeting of the Special Representatives who are negotiating a border settlement. Immediately afterwards, the usually silent Chinese ambassador to India stridently and publicly declared that Arunachal was disputed territory. Over the last few months, China has refused visas to Indians from Arunachal, suggesting that they are Chinese citizens who need no visa. And in the G8 summit in Hamburg two weeks ago, China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, declared that the presence of "settled populations" in Arunachal would not affect China's claims to that state. In doing so, Beijing has signalled that it could turn its back on the agreement signed by Premier Wen Jiabao during the high water mark in the Sino-Indian relationship in 2005, in which Article 7 agreed that "In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas". The Chinese establishment had never been happy about agreeing to this provision.
Larger global forces usually drive shifts in regional dynamics, of the kind being witnessed between India and China. The new global geo-political order, as seen from New Delhi, is being catalysed by rapidly deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow. After a decade of viewing China as America's new long-term threat, Russia has re-emerged from the Cold War meltdown as Washington's most likely present-day threat. In tackling Russia, China, like in 1972, could suddenly be Washington's new countervailing ally. Key officials in New Delhi are already visualising a changing environment in which India is no longer the key partner needed to balance China. And China's aggressive new rhetoric on the border question is seen as coming from this realisation in Beijing.
If evidence were needed of the shift in relationships, it was there to see in the G-8 summit in Germany two weeks ago. While global warming was the official summit theme, there was equal focus on the growing chill between former Cold War adversaries, Russia and America. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, focused the spotlight straight on the greatest fault line: a planned US missile interceptor shield in eastern Europe, right at Russia's doorstep, ostensibly to guard against missiles launched from Iran. Russia offered an alternative: the use of an existing Russian radar station in Azerbaijan, right at Iran's doorstep. Washington says the Russian radar was too close to Iran; it still needed the X-band radar that it plans to set up in the Czech Republic and the interceptors that it will base in Poland. On Friday, NATO approved the US interceptor shield.
China, in contrast, is now viewed from Washington as the lesser of the two evils. Washington has appreciated Beijing's "positive role" in driving the dialogue with North Korea. China is also working behind the scenes in resolving Iran's uranium enrichment face-off. And gone are Washington's neo-conservatives, like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who saw the US global challenge as containing China through a ring of allies. In their place now are self-described "Cold Warriors" like Robert Gates, who were brought up seeing China as the irreplaceable cornerstone in the Asia-Pacific security architecture. At the Shangri La Dialogue on June 1, in a forum that had been used before him by Donald Rumsfeld for unrestrained China-bashing, Gates pronounced himself optimistic about America's relationship with China.
China, not India, could be the new swing state in the new global security architecture. What does that mean for Sino-India relations? What does it mean for the future of the US-India nuclear deal? The answer lies in the way Russia's relationship with America plays out. But whatever the outcome, India must continue with consolidating its internal and regional relationships. In the shifting winds of global diplomacy, these relationships will form its anchor.

First Published: Tue, June 19 2007. 00:00 IST