The other day Lt Gen. VK Singh, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, made a candid assessment about policy towards China. He said: “There was a conscious decision taken to separate the land dispute from the economic, commercial and people to people relationship (with China). Don’t know if it will succeed.”
Singh’s comments appear to reflect the view within his ministry that until India is able to build its hard power, meaning economic and military strength, to a level matching China, the mandarins in Beijing will neither respect this country nor reciprocate Delhi’s good intentions. In fact, some Indian diplomats and scholars say that is the nub of the problem with China.
Reciprocity is an iron principle of foreign policy. India swears by it. But there are degrees of reciprocity as in the case of the India-Pakistan relationship where everything, from bilateral visits to the treatment (or harassment) of each other’s diplomats, is subject to strict reciprocity.
That reciprocity may be lacking in the India-China relationship where asymmetry is most obvious whether in terms of economy (China $8 trillion vs India $2.8 trillion), military spending (China $160 billion vs India $45 billion) or size of armed forces (China 2 million vs India 1.2 million).
Perhaps this asymmetry was what former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had in mind when in an interview on the Charlie Rose Show in March 2006 he said: “We are not in competition with China, we are not going to be part of any alliance against China… I don’t believe the present leadership of China threatens India or for that matter other countries.”
In March 2012, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Beijing, he even told China’s then President Hu Jintao that India would not participate in any containment strategy against China. It’s not clear if there was any reciprocal commitment from the Chinese leader, the reports of that time don’t suggest so.
“When late Prime Minister AB Vajpayee described China’s occupation of the Shaksgam Valley in north-eastern J&K as illegal, China responded by suspending all negotiations on the disputed western sector of the land boundary,” notes China scholar and Jawaharlal University professor Srikanth Kondapalli, adding “Nor did any exchange of maps (of the western and eastern sectors) take place contrary to Chinese assurances.”
Some diplomats question why India never objects when high-ranking Chinese leaders visit Aksai Chin in Ladakh, which was occupied by Chinese troops in 1962. It would offset repeated Chinese objections when Indian leaders visit Arunachal Pradesh. Nor is India able to impress upon the Chinese to do away with the “stapled visas” that are issued whenever Indian officials from that state travel to China.
It was a point underscored by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in September 2014 when she said: “For India to agree to a One China policy (Taiwan as part of China), Beijing should reaffirm a One India policy. When they raised with us the issue of Tibet and Taiwan, we shared their sensitivities. So we want that they should understand and appreciate our sensitivities regarding Arunachal Pradesh.”
The Chinese have never done so. Frustrated, nine years ago the MEA refused to incorporate the standard reference to respecting the One China policy in joint statements. But India’s silence on Aksai Chin and the Shaksgam Valley and only reacting to China’s pronouncements on Arunachal Pradesh has given Beijing the initiative. It has reinforced the impression that China is setting the agenda even on a bilateral dispute.
The Doklam standoff two years ago may have gone some way towards altering Chinese perceptions about India. Our diplomatic engagements with the United States and Japan and inclusion in key western military arrangements would have also forced the Chinese to rethink their ideas about India. But until India is able to grow its economy and military, the Chinese will never play ball.
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