Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, May 21, 2010 – Ever since the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, entered China more than two thousand years ago, the Middle Kingdom has had a fascination with the “Western Heaven”, one of the Chinese names for India. Visitors to China are met with warmth and appreciation, the more so as these days, there is a revival of interest in Buddhism in China, with temples across this vast nation being filled with worshippers. The Chinese are at their core a very spiritual people, and since the time of Deng Xiaoping (the wise creator of the Chinese economic miracle), the Communist Party has not placed any obstacles to such behaviour. Indeed, during visits, it is becoming increasingly common to see even party members professing their faith in Buddhism, and going regularly to temples to place incense and pray.

In a country such as the UK, Chinese and Indian students meet and mingle with each other in a very friendly way, exactly as they do in each other’s country. However, relations between India and China are not even a tenth as warm as they are between China and Pakistan. Indeed, in an international context where visitors from Pakistan are viewed with concern (because of the actions of a few), China is one country where Pakistanis are made to feel special. Because of his beard and brown skin, several strangers wore a broad smile and asked this columnist if he was from Pakistan. There was a perceptible change in tone when informed that he was from India. In Chinese media, while the coverage of Pakistan is usually very friendly and upbeat, there are a lot of negative reports about India. Indeed, the prestigious “Global Times” went so far as to call India a “hegemon”, a word that has not been used about this country since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Although the governments of both countries regularly claim that relations between India and China are excellent, the fact remains that there exists a substantial “trust deficit” between the two giants of Asia, exactly as there is between Pakistan and India. Part of the reason for this lies in Pakistan. One of the points that has most annoyed the Indian side has been the fact that thus far, China has prevented the bringing to book of Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Masood Azhar under Resolution 1267 of the UN Security Council. Mr Azhar was escorted to freedom ten years ago by then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, and promptly showed his gratitude by seeking to launch an attack on the Indian parliament. Each time that an effort is made to get him proscribed as a member of Al-Qaeda, it is the Chinese who keep coming up with technicalities that prevent such a decision from being effectuated, to the chagrin of New Delhi.

Another action by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has angered the official establishment in India is the recent practice (since 2008) by Beijing of issuing stapled visas to citizens from Indian Kashmir. As the Chinese authorities issue regular visas to visitors from Pakistan-held Kashmir, this difference in treatment is viewed by South Block as a sign that China supports Pakistan’s claim over the whole of Kashmir. This policy is in contrast to the 1996 declaration by then PRC President Jiang Zemin that Kashmir was an issue to be settled bilaterally between India and Pakistan, and that — by implication — China had no role to play. Subsequently, in 2006, current President Hu Jintao spoke of a “parallel policy” towards India and Pakistan, or equal treatment to both sides. The fact that stapled visas are issued only to those from Indian Kashmir and not PoK has had a very negative effect on the goodwill for China within the Indian establishment.

It is interesting how India fails to understand what core Chinese concerns are, and vice versa. For example, since he got asylum in India in 1959,the presence of the Dalai Lama and more than 130,000 Tibetan refugees in India has been an irritant to bilateral relations, yet the official establishment in India is in denial about this, taking the view that the Dalai Lama is only a spiritual leader. Of course, North Block (the Home Ministry) has been firm on Tibetan protestors in India, taking strong action to see that the Olympic torch passed through Delhi unmolested, and preventing mass demonstrations on each anniversary of the recent Tibet unrest. However, this has not been enough to fully quell Beijing’s suspicions that India is part of the international effort to dilute the links between Beijing and Lhasa.

Another area of difference has been Afghanistan, although efforts have been ongoing to bridge the gap. Because of the fact that the Peoples Liberation Army of China is a strong backer of Pakistan’s army, the Chinese Foreign Ministry – although more subtly than poor US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, who advertises his desires the way a neon sign does – has gone along with Islamabad’s position that India should exit Afghanistan, and that Pakistan should be given primacy in policy towards that country. Naturally, such an approach is unwelcome in Delhi, which regards Afghanistan as a core area of interest. Indeed, it may be noted that while China was able to gain Xinjiang and Tibet when Mao Zedong took power in 1949, leaving only the island of Taiwan, the case of India was different. Because Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru handled relations with London far less skillfully than M A Jinnah, the Empire in India was chopped up into several pieces before the British left. Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Burma were separated from the mainland, as was Nepal and subsequently Pakistan. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru became Prime Minister of a country that was one-third the size of China, although at that time, India’s economy was bigger than China’s. This huge loss of territory is one reason why Indian leaders find it politically impossible to give up any more territory as part of an overall settlement, whether with China or with Pakistan.

Although there are indeed differences in perception between China and India, the fact remains that it would be immensely beneficial for both countries to work together. For example, joint Sino-Indian bidding in oil, iron ore and coal could ensure that prices for these raw materials fall to much lower levels. Because China and India often bid against each other, oil blocks (for example) have usually commanded a hefty premium. As for the all-important education system, tens of thousands of Indian citizens can come to China to help the people there become fluent in English, whereas at present Beijing relies on teachers from the UK and Australia, who are limited in number. It is a reflection of the unutilised potential of Sino-Indian ties that last year, nearly a hundred thousand Indian students went to the US to study, but less than 3000 came to China, or 10% of the number of Indian students going to a country much less important geopolitically, Australia.

Both China and India are focussed on economic growth, and both are vital in each other’s future. The lower price of Chinese telecom and power equipment can enable prices to get reduced in India, thus benefitting consumers. At present, telecom and power equipment manufacturers from Europe have been the gainers in a campaign against Chinese equipment suppliers. The Home Ministry in India believes that the best cure for a headache is to chop the head off. Because of a David Headley getting through, the ministry has changed visa procedures so drastically that the 99.995% of applicants that want to come for bona fide reasons have become angered, and many have dropped the idea of a visit to India. As for scholars (and even speakers at conferences), several are denied visas because they seek to undertake “sensitive research” (such as delve into issues that are widely discussed, for example nuclear policy). What happens is that most such people come as “tourists” and continue the research anyway, under the nose of the Home Ministry. Rather than just block endlessly, what the Home Ministry should do is to put in place procedures that can prevent anti-India activities from getting carried out. Because of the ban placed in India on Chinese companies, European equipment manufacturers are smiling all the way to the bank.

Unlike between China and Pakistan, where there exists a multiplicity of contacts, the institutional dialogue mechanisms between India and China have not changed for several decades. They are marked by an absence of depth and breadth, with both sides uttering platitudes before going off to a banquet together. What is needed is for many more contact points to get established, and for those to talk openly to each other about the other. Both China and India have too much at stake to remain distant for much longer. Just as Jinnah dealt with London with far finesse and success than Nehru did, Pakistan is dealing with China in a way that has left India far behind.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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