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Border talks: How India plays into China's hands

July 8, 2010

By staying engaged in the useless border talks,
knowing fully well that Beijing has no intent to
settle territorial issues, India gives greater
space to China to mount strategic pressure and
gain leverage, notes strategic expert Brahma Chellaney.
By Brahma Chellaney
Rediff News (India)
July 3, 2010

Yet another round of India-China border talks is
under way in Beijing. The unending and fruitless
talks on territorial disputes underscore the
eroding utility of this process. It is
approaching three decades since China and India
began these negotiations. In this period, the world has changed fundamentally.

Indeed, with its rapidly accumulating military
and economic power, China itself has emerged as a
great power in the making, with Washington's Asia
policy now manifestly Sino-centric. Not only has
India allowed its military and nuclear asymmetry
with China to grow, but also New Delhi's [ Images
] room for diplomatic maneuver is shrinking.

Power asymmetry in interstate relations does not
mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of
the stronger or seek to propitiate it. Wise
strategy, coupled with good diplomacy, is the art
of offsetting or neutralising military or
economic power imbalance with another State.

But by staying engaged in the useless border
talks, knowing fully well that Beijing has no
intent to settle the territorial issues, India
plays into China's hands. The longer the process
of border talks continues, the greater the space
Beijing will have to mount strategic pressure on
India and the greater its leverage in the negotiations.

After all, China already holds the military
advantage on the ground. Its forces control the
heights along the long 4,057-kilometre Himalayan
frontier, with the Indian troops perched largely on the lower levels.

Furthermore, by building new railroads, airports
and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position
to rapidly move additional forces to the border
to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.

Diplomatically, China is a contented party,
having occupied what it wanted -- the Aksai Chin
plateau, which is almost the size of Switzerland
and provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang
route through the Karakoram passes of the Kunlun
mountains. Yet it chooses to press claims on
additional Indian territories as part of a grand
strategy to gain leverage in bilateral relations
and, more importantly, to keep India under military and diplomatic pressure.

At the core of its strategy is an apparent
resolve to indefinitely hold off on a border
settlement with India through an overt refusal to
accept the territorial status quo. In not hiding
its intent to further redraw the Himalayan
frontiers, Beijing only helps highlight the
futility of the ongoing process of political negotiations.

After all, the territorial status quo can be
changed not through political talks but by
further military conquest. Yet, paradoxically,
the political process remains important for
Beijing to provide the façade of engagement
behind which to seek India's containment.

Keeping India engaged in endless talks is a key
Chinese objective so that Beijing can continue
its work on changing the Himalayan balance
decisively in its favour through a greater
build-up of military power and logistical capabilities.

That is why China has sought to shield the
negotiating process from the perceptible
hardening of its stance toward New Delhi and the
vituperative attacks against India in its state-run media.

Add to the picture the aggressive patrolling of
the Himalayan frontier by the People's Liberation
Army and the growing Chinese incursions across the line of control.

Over the decades, the Chinese negotiating tactics
have shifted markedly. Beijing originally floated
the swap idea -- giving up its claims in India's
northeast in return for Indian acceptance of the
Chinese control over a part of Ladakh -- to
legalise its occupation of Aksai Chin. It then
sang the mantra of putting the territorial
disputes on the backburner so that the two
countries could concentrate on building close, mutually beneficial relations.

But in more recent years, in keeping with its
rising strength, China has escalated border
tensions and military incursions while
assertively laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh.

The present border negotiations have been going
on continuously since 1981, making them already
the longest and the most-barren process between
any two countries in modern history. The record
includes eight rounds of senior-level talks
between 1981 and 1987, and 14 joint working group
meetings between 1988 and 2002. The latest
discussions constitute the 14th round of talks
between the designated Special Representatives since 2003.

The authoritative People's Daily -- the Communist
Party mouthpiece that reflects official thinking
-- made it clear in a June 11, 2009 editorial:
'China won't make any compromises in its border
disputes with India.' That reflects the Chinese
position in the negotiations. But even when
Beijing advertises its uncompromising stance, New
Delhi refuses to heed the message.

What does India gain by staying put in an
interminably barren negotiating process with China?

By persisting with this process, isn't India
aiding the Chinese engagement-with-containment
strategy by providing Beijing the cover it needs?

While Beijing's strategy and tactics are
apparent, India has had difficulty to define a
game-plan and resolutely pursue clearly laid-out
objectives. Still, staying put in a barren
process cannot be an end in itself for India.

India indeed has retreated to an increasingly
defensive position territorially, with the
spotlight now on China's Tibet-linked claim to
Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet's status itself.

Now you know why Beijing invested so much
political capital over the years in getting India
to gradually accept Tibet as part of its
territory. Its success on that score has helped
narrow the dispute to what it claims.

That neatly meshes with China's long-standing
negotiating stance: What it occupies is Chinese
territory, and what it claims must be on the
table to be settled on the basis of give-and-take
-- or as it puts it in reasonably sounding terms,
on the basis of 'mutual accommodation and mutual understanding'.

As a result, India has been left in the
unenviable position of having to fend off Chinese
territorial demands. In fact, history is in
danger of repeating itself as India gets sucked
into a 1950s-style trap. The issue then was Aksai
Chin; the issue now is Arunachal.

But rather than put the focus on the source of
China's claim -- Tibet -- and Beijing's attempt
to territorially enlarge its Tibet annexation to
what it calls 'southern Tibet', India is willing
to be taken ad infinitum around the mulberry
bush. Just because New Delhi has accepted Tibet
to be part of China should not prevent it from
gently shining a spotlight on Tibet as the lingering core issue.

Yet India's long record of political diffidence
only emboldens Beijing. India accepted the
Chinese annexation of Tibet and surrendered its
own British-inherited extraterritorial rights
over Tibet on a silver platter without asking for
anything in return. Now, China wants India to
display the same 'amicable spirit' and hand over
to it at least the Tawang valley.

Dr Brahma Chellaney is the author of the
international best-seller, Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins, New York, 2010).

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