The great Himalayan Divide between India and China was in evidence last week following the Chinese refusal to support India’s case for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While non-entry into the Group is not the end of the world, for India lives to fight another day, of concern is what the Chinese stance implies for the bilateral relationship between the two Asian giants.
This is a relationship that has been assiduously tended over the years since the mid-seventies when ambassadorial relations between the two countries were restored at the initiative of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Despite the humiliation suffered in 1962, she famously opined that “we cannot march to Peking” and that normalisation of relations constituted the triumph of maturity over the futility of alienation.
Transformation in the 1980s
Cut to summertime, the year being 1986. An Indian border patrol on its way to re-establish a post in the Sumdorong Chu area in the north-eastern corner of the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh found it had been pre-empted by a group of Chinese military personnel who had already set up camp at the same location. Tension between the two sides escalated in the period that followed, stretching through 1987, as each side accused the other of jockeying for positions, with virtual cheek-to-cheek confrontation ensuing. The grant of statehood to Arunachal Pradesh in early 1987 infuriated the Chinese and raised the temperature further.
In an age of 24/7 electronic media and social media platforms, one shudders to imagine what the consequences of the Sumdorong Chu confrontation may have been. Diplomacy, as former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh once said, “must not be conducted in an amphitheatre.” The eighties were a different era, and although the situation festered, with the two sides holding their positions, a discussion in Parliament apart, the subject found very limited mention in the media, which was focussed at that time on the intervention by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka.
The initiative that defused the problem came from India. It was no white flag, but an act of strategic boldness. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to activate a channel that had lain dormant since the fateful April 1960 visit of Premier Zhou Enlai to New Delhi. Since the early eighties, the Chinese had expressed their keenness for a visit by the Indian Prime Minister to Beijing. The Indians demurred, the view being that such a high-level visit would expend critical political capital with no assurance of success, and that the consequential fallout would do further disadvantage to India.
Thus it was that Rajiv Gandhi went to China on a state visit in the bleak Beijing winter of 1988. The warmth of the reception from Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders compensated for the cold weather. The visit was an unquestioned success, for it not only defused the tensions at Sumdorong Chu, leading eventually to the elimination of dangerously close confrontation between troops of the two sides in the area, but also established a template for bilateral relations that has been followed to this day.
That template basically enabled the advancement of relations in a broad spectrum of areas ranging from trade to scientific and technological exchanges, educational and cultural cooperation, even as efforts to seek a fair and reasonable solution to the boundary question between the two countries continued. The border issue did not become the arbiter of relations in other fields, which for the first time since 1962 were allowed to grow on a relatively independent trajectory.
The Seoul denouement
Fast-forwarding to the present, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to questions about the Chinese attitude on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) issue, during a television interview after the denouement in Seoul, was measured and calibrated. He appeared to see the relationship with China as an organic continuum, evolving slowly over the last three decades, a relationship where experience foreshadows hope, counselling pragmatism and careful deliberation. Foreign relations, he said, are not about changing mindsets, but about achieving a meeting of minds. Geopolitical rivalry and calibrated cooperation, seemingly antithetical, coexist within the framework of our relationship with China. The latter has pinned its colours to the Pakistani mast as recent developments have demonstrated. It is suspicious about our friendship with the United States, our closeness to Japan, and our naval cooperation in the East and South China Seas with these countries. It challenges us with its myriad dalliances in our neighbourhood.
However, an absence of friendship, and the prevalence of suspicion did not prevent the systematic development of a management regime in our relations with China. This regime has functioned efficiently in transacting dialogue, managing tensions on the border through confidence-building mechanisms, and maintaining high-level leadership contact. Given the agenda of national development and accelerated economic growth to meet popular aspirations, especially of our young demographic, the compass of bilateral relations with China needs to be carefully set by India. This is to enable time and space to grow comprehensive national strength and especially hone our economic and strategic capabilities. Mutual recrimination will only widen the geopolitical fissures that complicate the relationship. We must not assume that the advantage will necessarily be India’s.
With a steady hand
It is the easiest thing for China and India to spew venom against each other. Given the residual bitterness of the past, this is the default option. There are already manifestations of this in the public space. But, consider the terrain. The Prime Minister speaks of multi-alignment, of dexterity in transacting foreign relations. As a nation, we must internalise such an approach. This does not call for being blindly venturesome, courting risk and conflict with China, but more boldness and deftness in safeguarding the Indian interest through well-thought-out and nuanced steps to build even closer relations with like-minded democracies like the United States and Japan, while consolidating internal strength and resilience. Steps to further enhance strategic and defence cooperation with these countries, as also fulfilling the promise and potential of the India-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement in an expeditious manner, should be a part of this process. At the same time, existing dialogue mechanisms and trade and economic linkages with China should continue to be maintained at an even pace.
And, without indulging in the national pastime of blame-mongering, we must ask ourselves the basic question on whether the time was ripe for a concerted campaign to enter the NSG. From the very outset of this foray, we should have been aware of the barometric depths of Chinese opposition and non-responsiveness to our case. There lay dragons. We chose valour instead of discretion, the whiff of grapeshot to the battle respite. The India-China relationship has been diminished by these latest developments and their impact on the construction of a stronger edifice of bilateral interaction. Independently of the latter, we need to carefully assess the pros and cons in pursuing entry into the NSG in this current phase. On both fronts, a season of reflection is called for.
Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary.
Mutual recrimination will only widen the geopolitical fissures that complicate ties. We must not assume the advantage will necessarily be India’s