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Shyam Saran: India's China challenge

India should build on China's aversion to risk-taking in pursuing its diplomatic objectives with New Delhi

Shyam Saran  |  New Delhi 

One of the key challenges for India’s foreign and security policy for the next decade and beyond will be the management of China’s emergence as a great Asian and, increasingly, global power. This challenge is further complicated by the simultaneous, though less spectacular, emergence of India itself as a country with significant and increasing economic and military capabilities. For both countries, Asia remains the principal platform for power projection.

In fashioning an appropriate China strategy, India must recognise that the essential character of India-China relations is and will remain competitive. We represent two contrasting but long-standing civilisations. Each has its own deeply rooted cultural ethos despite the shared legacy of Buddhism. In more contemporary times, China has seen its emergence in Asia as regaining its historical, though sometimes mythical, status as a pre-eminent power, at the summit of a hierarchical economic and security architecture in the region. There has been and will continue to be resistance to the emergence of any rival centre of political and economic power. This has been a consistent theme throughout the past 60 years of China’s posture towards India. However, in a classic exercise of the Chinese art of “walking on two legs”, China has also sought to cultivate a more positive and benign relationship with India, to avoid tipping India into an overt and threatening military alliance with one or more of China’s adversaries. More recently, tactical alliances with India have been useful to China in safeguarding its interests on several global issues such as climate change and multilateral trade. The “Copenhagen spirit” is a manifestation of this. Tactically, there may be, at times, a more friendly and cooperative approach. At other times, there may be negative pressures, such as activism on the unsettled border or a more threatening posture on the Tibet issue. What is critical for us to recognise is that this does not deflect China from its strategic objective of preventing India from challenging her march towards predominance and pre-eminence in Asia.

Let us look at the historical record. China has never hesitated to use its alliance with Pakistan to keep India tethered firmly in South Asia. We have a rare example here of a nuclear weapon state actively assisting a non-nuclear weapon state in acquiring both strategic weapons and the means of delivery. The target was India. This has been for China a low-cost, low-risk means of constraining India without having to confront her directly. In fact, at crucial junctures, China has refrained from intervening on behalf of Pakistan. This happened in 1965, in 1971 and again more recently during the Kargil conflict. In December 1971, the US NSA, Henry Kissinger, virtually pleaded with his Chinese interlocutor, Ambassador Huang Hua, that China should carry out some military operations on India’s borders to relieve the pressure on Pakistan. But China did not bite. China has worked against India’s claim to permanent membership of the UN Security Council and lobbied actively to deny India the waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to enable her to participate in international nuclear commerce. But China has avoided being the only holdout in publicly opposing India. This points to an important aspect of Chinese behaviour, that is, some aversion to risk-taking in pursuing its diplomatic objectives relating to India. We need to build upon this in our engagement with China.

India must learn to pursue its interests with the same unsentimental calculation that China displays in advancing her perceived interests. We, too, need to learn to “walk on two legs” and pursue a more nuanced policy. We should welcome constructive engagement with China on issues where our interests are convergent. At the same time, we should not hesitate to demonstrate our willingness to defend our interests with firmness. It was interesting to see that during our NSA’s recent visit to China, the two sides spoke of the need to respect each other’s “core concerns”. This is a good sign provided there is clarity about what these core concerns are and how legitimate they are perceived to be by others. We should not accept that China’s territorial claim to the South China sea is its legitimate core concern.

There is no doubt that in the aftermath of the global economic and financial crisis, China has acquired greater diplomatic clout in relation to other major powers. This has the potential of shrinking our own room for manoeuvre and increasing our vulnerability. However, precisely because of our own display of economic resilience and dynamism, and the significant acquisition of military, in particular, naval capabilities, our diplomatic clout, too, has increased. The sheer weight of India’s sub-continental profile makes it an indispensable partner in tackling any global or cross-cutting issue such as energy security, non-proliferation and public health. Here is an opportunity to expand our own strategic space vis-a-vis other major powers, including China.

It has been our experience that China has been more accommodating towards India whenever it has felt that India’s range of options had expanded. It was China which proposed a “strategic and cooperative partnership” with India in April 2005 and negotiated what is undoubtedly, from India’s standpoint, a favourable set of “Basic Principles and Political Parameters” as the basis for resolving the boundary issue. This happened in the aftermath of the historic strategic partnership forged between India and the EU in November 2004 and the impending and significant upgradation of Indo-US relations envisaged for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Washington later in July that year. The more diplomatic options India is perceived to have, the more diversified its relations with other major powers, the greater the display of accommodation on the part of China on Sino-Indian issues. Therefore, we should actively pursue coalition-building globally as well as with all those major powers who wish to see a more plural and loosely structured economic and security architecture in Asia. This would include Japan, Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam. We should promote a more inclusive arrangement in the region, welcoming the participation of the US and Russia. This is not a containment policy towards China. It is a strategy of expanding India’s options, which would help manage relations with friends and adversaries alike. After all, even friends should know that we have alternatives available.

The author was India’s foreign secretary and until recently the prime minister’s special envoy

First Published: Wed, July 21 2010. 00:38 IST
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