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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Clueless on China

July 12, 2010

Brahma Chellaney
DNA (India)
July 9, 2010

Yet another round of India-China border talks
took place in Beijing a few days ago. 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 has emerged as a great power in the
making. Not only has India allowed its military
and nuclear asymmetry with China to grow, but New
Delhi’s room for diplomatic maneuver is shrinking.

Power asymmetry in inter-state 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 military or economic power imbalance with another state.

But by staying engaged in the useless border
talks, knowing fully well that Beijing has no
intention of settling 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 4,057kmHimalayan 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.

Beijing originally floated the swap idea --
giving up its claims in India’s north-east 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 since 1981, making them 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,
and14 joint working group meetings between 1988
and 2002. The latest discussions constitute the
14th rounds of talks between the designated Special Representatives since 2003.

The People’s Daily -- the Communist Party
mouthpiece that reflects official thinking --
made it clear last summer: "China won’t make any
compromises in its border disputes with India.

"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 defining a gameplan and resolutely
pursue clearly laid-out objectives.

Staying put in a barren process cannot be an end in itself for India.

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

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