Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Premier Li's visit

Here's my take on the Premier Li's visit, published a few days back in the Economic Times

India need not sacrifice balancing China at the altar of better relations 

Despite the border intrusion, China has been making the right noises about improving relations with India. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will echo that theme during his visit to India this week. But New Delhi needs to look beyond the rhetoric and make hardheaded assessments about its relations with China.

This does not mean that India should not be open to Chinese efforts to improve relations or resolve the border dispute. What it does mean is that India should look to Chinese actions rather than its words.

Pushing to resolve the border dispute should not become an excuse to give in to China's demands that India stop building up its Himalayan defences. India began improving its infrastructure in the region belatedly, much after China had made significant improvements to its infrastructure in Tibet.

The terrain advantage along the border always lay with Beijing and China's infrastructure development in Tibet made the situation even more lopsided in China's favour. On the other hand, Indian infrastructure building in the region has been slow.

Giving in to Chinese demands on this issue would be foolish because though the threat of a border war is remote, it cannot be ruled out entirely. In addition, a military imbalance along the border will have telling effects on India's position even on the border negotiations. Irrespective of the state of the negotiations, India needs to speed up its efforts to strengthen its border defence capabilities.

The border dispute is only one facet of the challenge that India faces with China. A more serious issue is China's unrelenting efforts to counterbalance India, to which New Delhi has rarely responded in kind. As the weaker party, India should have been the one that should have been balancing China. Oddly, it is China that has shown greater interest in countering New Delhi.

This includes direct attempts to undermine India, such as India's claims to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and attempts to join the Nuclear Supplier's Group (NSG) and other groups associated with non-proliferation.

Beyond such direct efforts, Beijing continues to seek to counter India through its strategic partnership with Pakistan, a country with which China shares no economic interest, cultural or historical ties or ideological affinity. The only glue that binds the 'all-weather partnership' is a mutual interest in balancing India.

China not only shared nuclear weapons technology with Pakistan - a gift unparalleled in international relations - but also consistently championed Pakistan's case in multilateral fora. And there is little indication that this has changed or will change in the near future. China's policies are based on a strategic culture and worldview which is hardwired to think of international politics in terms of conflict and the pursuit of power.

So China sees India as a potential adversary and sees its growing power and partnership with others such as the US, Japan and other Asian powers as a possible threat to China. China is not unique in having such a power-oriented strategic culture except that it is possibly much more power-oriented and power-conscious than other countries.

The problem is that India has been the opposite. New Delhi has been probably much less power-oriented than most others and has historically shown a particular reluctance to balance against China. Whether this is a result of China successfully deterring India or simply left-over Nehruvianism, the consequence has been New Delhi's willingness to give unnecessary credence to China's concerns rather than India's interests.

Indian decision-makers need to remain open to the possibility of moving the border negotiations forward and improving other aspects of China ties. But equally, New Delhi needs to realise that irrespective of how well this visit goes, China will not stop balancing India.

Therefore, India should not have to sacrifice balancing China at the altar of better relations.  

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