Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The China-India Talks

Another round of China-India talks have taken place along with a meeting between the Indian and Chinese defence ministers.  Doesn't seem to have stopped the occasional eruptions at the border, though.  My take on the issue was published by the Economic Times yesterday.

Look At What Lies Beyond the McMahon: China and Russia Getting Cozier

The back-to-back talks between India and China appear to have satisfied both sides. Coming after the Depsang incident, the talks focused on border management mechanisms in the form of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). Though the talks reportedly made good progress, the BDCA has not yet been signed. There are already existing mechanisms for management of issues relating to Indian and Chinese forces on the border, but these clearly failed in the case of the Depsang intrusion. A new agreement might help avoid future crises of this nature. 

But even if a BDCA is reached, it is a somewhat limited gain. While it is always possible that a local misunderstanding could lead to a military escalation and an unnecessary war, most wars do not start that way. Most wars are deliberate -- indeed, not one of the wars that India was involved in since 1947 was an accident or a consequence of unintended escalation. Even if some border incident lights the fuse of war, there are usually deeper and more deliberate causes.

The Myth of 1962

This is one of the myths of the 1962 Sino-Indian war: that it was caused by India's so-called forward policy that led to an unintended military escalation. This deeply held narrative forgets other factors -- India's failure to fully grasp the consequences of the Sino-Soviet split and Nehru's flawed assumption that India was so important to the global balance that this would deter Beijing. India was caught flat-footed in 1962 because it ignored or was ignorant of the broader international political developments. This should not happen again. The current Sino-Indian talks are taking place amid disquieting changes in the Asian region that we ignore at our peril. Potentially the most serious of these is the deepening strategic partnership between Russia and China. One of the anchors of Indian strategy has been its close relationship with Moscow. Since the early 1960s, India and Russia have taken comfort in the mutuality of their concerns about China. Though Russian relations with China had improved after the end of the Cold War, India could be confident that this improvement would not adversely affect India. It was, after all, Washington's foolish policies that were driving the two together and it appeared fixed on American global role rather than on the Asian balance.

Moscow  Moves Closer

But this seems to be changing. Russia has signed a very large arms deal with China. Though what arms China will get is not yet clear, the deal is thought to include Russia's latest weapons, including the Su-35 fighter and Amur-class submarines. This overturns both Russia's commitment to India not to supply China with weapons that are more advanced than what Moscow has supplied to India as well as Russia's own reluctance to supply such weapons to China because of Russian worries them, as it has in the past. Although China's arms industry is improving, it is still incapable of producing the most advanced weapons that can match what Russia and the US produce. This deal could dramatically increase Chinese military capabilities. Russia and China have also started their latest joint naval exercise. This includes 18 warships and is the largest military exercise that China has held with any foreign navy. That Russia would join with China in this naval show of force at a time when China is embroiled in serious maritime dispute with Japan and others in the region is an indication of how much Russia has moved towards China.

In addition, Washington's onagain off-again attempts to create a global partnership with China is simply whetting China's ambitions rather than satisfying it. And it is scaring American allies in the region. Japan's latest defence White Paper, which clearly spotlights China, is a good indicator of the increasingly tense international relations in Asia. Distracted USAmerica's attention deficit disorder when it comes to Asia does not help either. While much of the attention in New Delhi focused on Secretary of State John Kerry's supposed sympathies towards Pakistan, a more pertinent problem is that like many other previous secretaries of state, he seems more intent on using his term in office to go after the biggest whale of them all, a solution to the Arab-Israel dispute. The consequence will be less attention to China and the Asian balance with all its attendant consequences.

In the meantime, China shows little signs that it will stop using Pakistan to constrain India. Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just completed his own visit to China to underline their partnership. And China shows little sign that it will drop its opposition to India joining the Nuclear Supplier's Group.

This is not to suggest that consultative measures to control military escalation and border crises are useless but simply that it is insufficient. India also needs to pay greater attention to the larger international political trends in the region and act accordingly.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good instance of how systemic 'pulls and pressures' end up 'shaping and shoving' the foreign policy outcomes of individual nations. Never thought of looking at changes taking place in the global power tectonics as having a direct bearing on India-China bilateral relations. Coming to think of it, it makes sense.