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Between the line

China asserts in neighbourhood
September 15 , 2010


I WAS Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s press officer in 1962 when India and China clashed with each other. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s disappointment was clear from his remark that he never expected “a communist country attacking a developing country.” His daughter, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who later became Prime Minister, explained the country’s reverses as a choice between postponing economic development, which her father thought was the immediate need, and stepping up expenditure on defence, which “we believe could wait for some time more.”

This may again be the dilemma before New Delhi, although it is better equipped and better prepared than it was in 1962. The lack of infrastructure on the border, modern equipment, roads and aerodromes, once again tell the same old story of not coming up to the standard which the Chinese claims or probes demand. There may be something in the argument that the rhythm of 8-9 per cent growth rate may be disturbed if more funds are diverted towards defence. It is equally pertinent to know how much should be allocated for one and how much for the other is never clear even though the threat perception has to be kept in mind.

When China built the Aksai Chin road in Ladakh in 1954, despite knowing that it was the Indian territory or at best the disputed one, it should have been clear to New Delhi that the clash over the unsettled borders was bound to come “sooner than later.” Nehru depended on diplomacy and came a cropper. Whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has come to the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan area for flood relief work or as a force to stay there is, no doubt, a point of concern. But New Delhi’s grievance should be more directed against Islamabad which has the area under control than Beijing.

If Pakistan, whatever its compulsions or considerations, is not opposed to the presence of PLA, our protest would have little meaning. True, technically, the Azad Kashmir is part of Jammu and Kashmir which acceded to India in 1947 after the British left. But it is an open secret that India has often discussed agreements which would make the present line of control as an international border. As back as 1972, when the Shimla pact was signed, the then Pakistan Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was made the offer and he reportedly agreed to it but could not sell it to even his closest colleagues.

No doubt, India has passed a unanimous resolution in parliament to get back the Kashmir under Pakistan. But then parliament has also passed a resolution to secure every bit of Indian territories that China has “occupied.” Rhetorical statements may be part of politics but not of well considered foreign policy.

Even for a settlement on Kashmir, an urgent need, India and Pakistan will be discussing the territorial claim which the two countries cherish. The involvement of Kashmiris—a must for any solution—makes things more complicated. Our attention should be concentrated on the problem. No doubt, Beijing has said that the issue of Kashmir is for India and Pakistan to sort out. Why should China try and divide the state into the “northern part of Pakistan” or “India-controlled Kashmir”? This indicates that Beijing has already decided upon the status of Kashmir.

For example, the Chinese Embassy at New Delhi gives visa to residents of Jammu and Kashmir on a paper, stapled with the passport. Is Beijing’s Islamabad office follows the same practice? And why should China be denying a visa to Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaiswal, General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-chief), Northern Command, because he has been serving in Kashmir? Beijing’s role is not confined to semantics. It has its own agenda. On top of it, the presence of some 10,000 men of PLA in Gilgit-Baltistan is ominous. Of course, Islamabad is the immediate power to react to it, even though the two countries are close friends.

Tearing a leaf from the past, the price of arms aid by America and Great Britain to New Delhi at that time was its undertaking to hold a dialogue with Islamabad on Kashmir. When Swaran Singh reached Rawalpindi (December 29, 1962) for the inaugural round of talks with Bhutto, both ministers in their respective governments, the Pakistan Radio announced that China had settled its boundary in the northern areas of Kashmir. General Ayub, then heading Pakistan, did not think it necessary even to inform New Delhi. Nothing came out of the five rounds of talks probably because the China-Pakistan agreement on the border was at the back of New Delhi’s mind.

The various steps China has taken, from the stapling of visa on passport to amassing PLA soldiers in Gilgit-Baltistan, should make things clear for New Delhi—a plethora of irritations. However, it would be naïve to play into the hands of China as India did in 1962. A sense of growing strength has given Beijing a measure of superiority. It is crudely exhibiting it, particularly when India looks disorderly and divided.

More concerting for New Delhi is that Beijing is an emerging power in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, the countries surrounding India. New Delhi should also reach out to Taiwan, Vietnam and other south Asian countries which are feeling the assertiveness of China. And Beijing should be made to realize that India has accepted China’s suzerainty over Tibet but not the demographic change or the ruthless repression in that territory. The Dalai Lama is already feeling restive and edgy.
Nehru warned India as back as in 1962 thus: “It is a little naïve to think that the trouble with China was essentially due to a dispute over some territory. It had deeper reasons. Two of the largest countries in Asia confronted each other over a vast border. They differed in many ways. And the test was as to whether anyone of them would have a more dominating position than the other on the border and in Asia itself.”

Nehru wrote to the chief ministers just before India-China war. He said, “We do not desire to dominate any country, and we are content to live peacefully with other countries provided they do not interfere with us or commit aggression. China, on the other hand, clearly did not like the idea of such peaceful existence and wants to have a dominating position in Asia…”

A Chinese spokesman has said this week that Beijing wants peace and development in south Asia. But if India continues to feel the “assertiveness” of China, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said, New Delhi would always be overlooking its shoulders. Beijing would have to do more to let India feel confident. Can Pakistan help? Once its foreign minister told me that the road to peace from Delhi to Beijing goes through Islamabad?

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