Asking the right questions can be terribly important in most circumstances. Especially in the dry pitiless world of international politics littered with bleached bones, of angled skylights and twisting branches.
One of India's leading corporate newspapers reported that China has “opened another anti-India front — this time in Nepal … Besides acquiring major construction projects in Nepal, the Chinese are also opening language centres in Nepali cities … [the] underlying objective appears to be to unleash anti-India propaganda in that country.”
Past pattern shows that the report may well turn out to be the stuff for India's “China-watchers” to fill up their future columns.
A think-tanker or two may also wet his toes. In these salubrious autumn days in Delhi, a seminar may even be trumped up over high tea to discuss upcoming Chinese language centres in Nepal. However, questions must be asked. How is it that Chinese construction companies' remarkable success in winning projects in Nepal becomes an “anti-India” activity? Doesn't Nepal have a right to award contracts to Chinese companies — just as the Saudis, Iranians, Nigerians or Chileans are increasingly doing? Looking beyond, other questions arise including some troubling ones.
Why should China teach the Nepalese their ancient language if the intention is to disseminate invidious propaganda? Chinese, after all, is one of the most difficult languages to master. The Chinese are a practical people and it seems logical that Beijing's purpose will be is served quickly and most efficiently if its anti-India propaganda is dished out in Nepalese language. Virginia Woolf compared translations to a mangled train after the accident.
What is worrisome is why so many Hindi-knowing Nepalese would want to learn Chinese. Yes, the really troubling question ought to be why India's neighbours neighbouring countries are getting so manifestly attracted to fostering close ties with China.
It is up to us to find a logical answer, which of course is possible only in a full and free spirit of stocktaking. stock-taking. Clearly, for posing such difficult questions, a pre-requisite is that we must be a self-confident people. Equally, intellectual forays get delimited when there is a growing “militarisation” of the mind.
Lastly, for asking the correct questions, we must have a mind where, as Rabindranath Tagore famously taught us a long time ago, “the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert of dead habit.”
Alas, our China-watching has become pedestrian and cliché-ridden. We will pay a price for this since China is a very serious power and it is rapidly transforming. Even assuming that that adversarial instincts in inter-state relations could remain immutable, there is a strong case to be made in favour of applying reason while making judgment. What else could we have expected Beijing to do other than what it did when we posed a development project in Arunachal Pradesh to the Asian Development Bank for funding?
To frame the question differentially, why is every Indian ambassador expected to take up with maniacal zeal all instances of “cartographic aggression” — display of Indian boundaries other than ditto what India claims? The point is, under international law, precedents could constitute a needless vector. Which is why sometimes a country, rightly or wrongly, may feel compelled to act precisely against precedent-setting joyful mountaineering expeditions and proceed to create a fait accompli — as India probably did in Siachen in 1984. The ADB is a major international institution and Beijing acted in its best interests. There is enough professionalism in South Block to have anticipated the high probability bordering on the certainty that Beijing would act precisely in the fashion it did.
The question is, why then did North Block press its proposal to the ADB since, as it now transpires, India does have the capacity to mobilise “domestic” funds for the undertaking of development projects in its sensitive border regions? In retrospect, did South Block know at all what North Block was doing when the latter approached the ADB? Did the Department of Economic Affairs seek MEA's political clearance? These questions are extremely relevant since often enough the our right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing — including on highly sensitive issues involving relations with Pakistan or China — given the exasperating vanity fair going on all the time between the czars on Raisina Hill.
Indeed, our narrative on China gets muddied when we dwell on its dealings with India's neighbours. Our discourses are demanding the impossible — that if China develops friendly relations with its South Asian neighbours, it will be deemed as a hostile act. No doubt, India has a right to safeguard its interests against Chinese policies that are patently directed against its interests. Surely, India has the prerogative to build up its military sinews. the sinews of its military strength. But then, we should also have the intellectual clarity to frame our responses to the situations surrounding us. Whereas, what is often enough seen is the propensity to take shelter under a dubious thesis that was first propounded by a minor Pentagon analyst in her late 20s — who since moved on, unsurprisingly, to the Rand Corporation — known as the “string of pearls.”
The advocates of the thesis have vociferously portrayed the Chinese activities in the South Asian region as unalloyed acts of hostility directed against India with the grand design of creating an arc around India's neck that would stifle our performance as a regional power. A colossal amount of damage has been done by the Indian acolytes of the “string of pearls” thesis. Some dispassionate analysis will be is in order. Take the three big pearls for a good, close look — Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The recent developments in Myanmar show that not only have the Indian “experts” been completely off the mark in assuming that Yangon was about to become a Chinese pearl, China may actually be caught in a tangled web. Not only does Beijing lack the stranglehold over Myanmar, as our experts blithely believed, but the issue is more about how Beijing could easily extricate itself from supporting the isolated regime in Yangon. We are seeing a curious spectacle of Yangon taking full advantage of Beijing's predicament.
To cull out an expression from an American scholar, “Pulled from many directions, China's task resembles balancing a stool missing a leg.” Again, too many people in our strategic community seem not to care that Sri Lanka first offered the Hambantota port for development to India. New Delhi thumbed its nose at it, disdainfully showed its thumb up, whereupon Colombo turned to Beijing for help. We seemed to have forgotten that Sri Lanka was a sovereign country and wanted to exploit its unique factors to its advantage for economic development. We are no one to dictate whether it needs such modern facilities at Hambantota or has any right to make the port an important transportation hub in the Indian Ocean.
At any rate, we have nothing to fear about Sri Lanka becoming a pearl in a Chinese string, as there are very few people on this planet who treasure their autonomy of thinking and action as the Sinhalese do — and to boot, it, they are first-rate practitioners of the art of diplomacy. Again, reams and reams of paper have been wasted on the Chinese “presence” in Gwadar. But what is coolly overlooked is that China of its own volition turned down the Pakistani offer to run the Gwadar port after its development with considerable Chinese aid.
Arguably, China would benefit by out of a direct access to the Persian Gulf but it factored in that a managerial role in Gwadar was superfluous for achieving the purpose. Nor does China harbour rancour that Pakistan decided that Gwadar is best managed by a Singaporean firm with American links. (Curiously, Gwadar has become an American pearl — just as Myanmar too might, too, if the determined American diplomacy toward Yangon makes headway.) China-Pakistan relationship has literally become a no-go area for rational analysis in our country. Myths are galore, pride mixes with prejudice and self-righteousness. Take Chinese “military assistance” to Pakistan. Does China possess the technology, which the U.S. is systematically passing on to Pakistan? Izvestiya reported that during the visit by Defence Minister A.K. Antony to Moscow recently, the two sides discussed the development of a new supersonic missile “invincible to interception,” which “no army in the world possesses.” Has China, which faces a worldwide embargo, got any competing military technology to pass on to Pakistan? Also, let us not completely overlook that China is coping to balance its “all-weather friendship” when the U.S. is systematically tightening its vice-like AfPak grip.
In sum, we need to analyse why our neighbourhood diplomacy is faltering. Ask Bahadur why Maithili isn't good enough for him. The Myanmar regime offered a level-playing field for India. An Indian company could have undertaken Hambantota port development. The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project offered a rare enterprise for making Islamabad a stakeholder in good-neighbourly relations.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)