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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Hare and the Tortoise

May 8, 2008

Kanwal Sibal
Times of India, Editorial
May 7, 2008, 0015 hrs IST

Our dilemmas on dealing with China are acute. China's political system is opaque, which makes it difficult to read the country's mind. As dissent is suppressed, the degree of internal debate on any issue is unknown. China's leader-ship has been ruthless with its own people, killing millions in the past in exercises of political, economic and social engineering. This subtly intimidates those dealing with China.

China sympathisers contend that it is focused on becoming a developed country for which it needs a peaceful environment for the next 20 years or so. They accept the mantra of China's peaceful rise. The figures of China's military expenditure are downplayed by claiming that 60 per cent of the military budget is earmarked for increased establishment costs owing to pay rises.

China's resounding economic success has naturally influenced outside thinking. Capitalism and consumerism, towering skylines, avant-garde architecture, impressive infrastructure together convey a comforting message about Chinese aspirations.

In China, a politically closed system works alongside an open economic system. China accepts that the West can help in the modernisation of its economy, but does not ask for the modernisation of its politics. Its politics must cling to an outdated ideology, though its economics can be heartlessly pragmatic. When the rest of the world cedes so much space to China peacefully, it expects a reassuring change in how China governs itself and how it relates to its external environment.

The West has contributed crucially to China's spectacular economic growth, with the calculation that prosperity and the rise of a middle class will inevitably create domestic urgings for democracy. Whether an economically satisfied China will be a politically satisfied China remains doubtful. One can well reason that China's self-image, its view of its own history, the sense of grievance it still nurtures against those who exploited or brutalised it in the past, will condition the country's choices as it grows stronger.

Despite its size, China is not a territorially satisfied country. Many countries have reconciled themselves to borders that were a product of history they could not control, with losses or gains over time. Borders have been artificially drawn or imposed by outside powers in the colonial era, often in contempt of history, culture, language and ethnicity. If powerful countries have ambitions to restore their “historical” borders, their conduct must be judged irresponsible.

Despite claiming territory not its own, China has obtained quasi-global support for its own territorial integrity. Neither Taiwan's nor Tibet's case for independence has any outside support. Even the Dalai Lama's call for Tibetan autonomy within Chinese sovereignty elicits no outside backing for fear of offending China. The recent uprising in Tibet has demonstrated the alienation of its culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct population from its Chinese masters. This has provoked demonstrations against Chinese human rights policies and its treatment of political dissidents, but no call for Tibetan self-determination. This kind of respect for China's territorial unity has not been reciprocated by Chinese self-restraint vis-a-vis India and others.

The person who still embodies the Tibetan hope of some form of self-rule has been politically cold-shouldered by India for decades. India has indirectly done great service to China by keeping the Dalai Lama politically in check, inducing him, through denial of political support, to define his agenda for Tibet around the sensitivities and limitations of India's China policy. The Dalai Lama's realistic negotiating position on Tibet is in large measure a product of India's temporising policies.

The cost of recovering lost ground in our relations with China has now risen formidably. China is much more integrated internationally; other countries have major stakes in it. Peace and tranquillity on our border cannot be disturbed. The phenomenal growth of bilateral economic ties cannot be scoffed at. Our Look East policy depends on tension-free relations with China. Improved Sino-Indian relations add comfort to our ties with Russia too, in the framework of the trilateral India-Russia-China dialogue. India and China have convergence on some significant international issues on which they are both under pressure.

With India and China regarded as the global powers of the future, any serious downturn in their ties would be viewed as baffling and self-destructive. Finally, India will have to cope with tensions with China alone. Even the US will not sacrifice its more expansive ties with China for India's sake. We have, therefore, to build up leverage against China incrementally by creating political space for ourselves, much as China has done by simultaneously denying it is a threat and claiming Arunachal Pradesh, by professing friendship and supporting genuine Tibetan autonomy.

The indelible stamp India and China have left on Asian civilisation in the past was outside the logic of political and security equations and national destiny. As modern nations, India and China operate in an openly competitive environment. The two have marked differences in temperament and outlook, which has a bearing on the future. We are not as competitive as the Chinese, or as conscious of national power. Nor do we think in such grandiose terms. We tolerate dissenting views. Our relationship with the state is different. We are not as regimented and disciplined. Our dilemmas with China, apart from unfavourable power equations, reside also in differences of spirit and mentality. Our democratic and wayward tortoise hopefully holds more promise for the future than the authoritarian and well-trained Chinese hare.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.
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