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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

India should stand up to China as an equal

February 25, 2008
by Kanwal Sibal
February 22, 2008

India's China policy has been marked by friendship, sentimentalism,
fear, diffidence, appeasement, brinksmanship, wishful thinking and
engagement. This mixture of attitudes reflects the complexity of the
relationship, our difficulties in managing China's challenge, the
nature of the Chinese regime, China's strategic advantage over India
and the fulgurant rise of China in recent years.

Some very far-reaching strategic mistakes were made in not
comprehending the Maoist take-over of China and its implication for
India. Mao Tse-Tung seized China through revolutionary violence, while
India won freedom through a non-violent struggle. China's leaders were
Communist, India's were nurtured in democratic thinking. Mao's China
wanted to settle historical wrongs against the country, Mahatma Gandhi
and Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to forget and forgive historical wrongs.

In one country the militants had wrested power, in the other pacifists
assumed power through a constitutional process. The political
trajectories of the two countries and the nature of their leadership
were so different, that a clash of thinking and ambitions should have
been more than anticipated.

India could not physically prevent China from militarily occupying
Tibet in 1950, but the dangerous strategic consequences of this for
India's security should have been flagrantly obvious. A political and
geographical buffer was being removed for the first time in history.
Given the absence of a formally demarcated border in the western
sector and China's position on the MacMahon Line, China's occupation
of Tibet should have warned India, that the Chinese would sooner or
later assert their physical control over the entire Tibetan border as
they saw it. Our so-called 'forward policy' should have been insured
with adequate military preparations on the ground.

The 1962 border conflict scarred us politically, militarily and
psychologically. It made India look militarily feeble; it provided
China reason to support insurgencies in our north-east; it damaged our
standing in the third world as well as our leadership pretensions; it
made China a potent player in South Asian affairs; it gave Pakistan an
additional political and military crutch for confronting India; it
gave space to our neighours to play the China card against us, not
only Nepal and Sri Lanka, but later Bangladesh too.

China's disinclination to settle the border issue and our non-existing
capacity to force it to do so in its own interest, left us no choice
but to try to stabilise the situation on the border through the
Agreements on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity and on Confidence
Building Measures in the 1990's. These have contained the border
problem, but have also frozen it to India's disadvantage. The status
quo always favours the side not anxious for change. India wants peace
on the border but also wants a border settlement. It suits China also
to have peace as it defuses the border issue politically and
militarily and gives it a free hand to settle Tibet internally.

China, on the one hand, wishes the world to believe that it has
pacified Tibet, with Tibet riding the crest of prosperity under
Chinese rule. And yet China takes ground decisions which reflect a
sense of insecurity about its hold over the territory. The railway
line it has built, at great expense, makes less economic sense and
more military/security sense as it augments China's capacity to move
troops and munitions to the border and meet any future local challenge
to its rule in Tibet. The impressive road infrastructure that China
has built along Tibet's border with India, along with expansion of
airfields in Tibet in recent years, is surely intended not for border
trade but for border domination, behind which Tibet will be held

The importance of the Dalai Lama factor should not be underestimated,
no matter China's posturing about his growing irrelevance to the
reality on the ground in Tibet. India, as the most concerned party,
has always had a timorous policy towards him. The Dalai Lama has
himself said publicly that India is over-cautious in dealing with

There is no international pressure on China to negotiate with the
Dalai Lama. China can revile him as a 'splittist', even when he has
publicly reaffirmed on various occasions his acceptance of Chinese
sovereignty and has limited his demand to real autonomy. China
realises that once, on the back of an agreement with him, the Dalai
Lama were to return to Tibet, their position in Tibet would become
complicated as would their policy towards India. Reconciliation with
the Dalai Lama means in effect reconciliation with India.

China's claims on Indian territory, and indeed, China's military
pressure on India is on account of its direct military occupation of
Tibet. The extent of Chinese cynicism towards India is reflected in
its claim on Tawang because of its Tibetan links and the fact that one
of the earlier Dalai Lamas, an institution that they have tried to
destroy politically, was born there.

The Chinese unabashedly play the Tibetan card to the hilt against
India. Yet we are reluctant to play the Tibetan card against China. A
reasonable settlement between the Dalai Lama, the recognised spiritual
head of Tibet, and the Chinese is good for China, good for the
Tibetans and good for India.

It will resolve a festering issue of denial of political and cultural
rights of a distinctive people and the suppression of their separate
identity. Equally importantly, the example of Dalai Lama leading a
peaceful, non-violent struggle to redress grievances and injustice, is
deeply relevant in the context of the rise of extremism and terrorism
to fight real or imagined grievances and injustice by people and
communities elsewhere in the world.

The world needs to press China to deal with the Dalai Lama with
transparency and sincerity.

There are two possible approaches to the border issue. One is to
envisage a settlement which will involve fairly substantial give and
take, in favour of India in the western sector and China in the
eastern sector. The border would be settled not on the basis of actual
ground control but based of complex agreed principles. China could
easily make concessions in the western sector as they are occupying
territory much beyond their own historical claims. For India making
equal concessions in the eastern sector would be impossible  for
political and security reasons. India cannot but seek to move back
China in Aksai Chin in view of their very advanced positions, which
gives the Chinese a handle to raise the ante in the east.

The other approach would be that to have a realistic solution, it
would be necessary to work on the basis of the hard realities on the
ground. What China is actually holding, it will not cede in
negotiations, and so would it be in India's case. This implies a very
limited give and take, only to make the border more rational and
remove anomalies here and there. If one is to proceed on the basis of
what each country is holding, then the delineation of the Actual Line
of Control (LAC) on the maps becomes necessary.

In some areas, the two sides have conflicting views of where the LAC
is and in these pockets both sides do patrolling to assert their
claim. Periodic reports about Chinese incursions relate to their
patrolling in the areas we claim are under our control, bearing in
mind that the entire length of the border is not permanently manned on
both sides.

The understanding between the two sides to exchange maps of their
respective perceptions of the LAC in order to identify the physical
extent of the disputed areas, was important. On completion of this
exercise in the middle, western and eastern sectors (in this order)
the process of actual negotiations of give and take in these areas was
to have begun. After exchanging maps in the middle sector, and after
India presented its map of the western sector in 2002, the Chinese
halted the exercise without any cogent explanation.

During Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to China in 2003, we decided to
abandon the earlier agreed approach and proposed a 'political
solution' to the issue. To this end, Special Representatives of the
two countries were nominated and given a mandate to establish a set of
guidelines (which they have done) for proceeding towards resolution.
The Chinese, having rejected the approach of first delineating the LAC
as an attempt to maintain the status quo, are making the subsequent
approach unworkable by demanding significant territorial adjustments
in the east, laying claim to Tawang, China's Tawang claim shows
absence of any real desire for a border settlement and the tactic is
to contrive an issue so as to transfer the responsibility for an
impasse on to the Indian side.

In 1962, China had captured Tawang and yet it withdrew from it and the
rest of Arunachal Pradesh largely to what is the MacMahon line,
thereby de facto accepting its validity. In the western sector, it did
not go back to the pre-1962 line and retained the fruits of its
aggression. If they needed to hold Tawang for religious or security
reasons or felt that their legal claim was rock solid, they would not
have withdrawn. 45 years later to demand Tawang is sheer political

The phenomenal growth of India-China trade (almost $40 billion or Rs
160,000 crore) is a welcome development as it contributes to
increasing mutual prosperity. It is important to note that on the
Indian side the decision to boost economic exchanges is a political
one based on the logic that the border issue should not stand in the
way of normalisation of relations in other fields. Its political
character is underlined by the completely opposite attitude of
Pakistan, i.e., no normalisation of relations with India, including in
trade, unless the core issue of Kashmir is settled. For the Chinese
the decision is not political. China controls what it wants on the
border and claims more as a pressure point.

China has strategically neutralised India by supplying Pakistan with
nuclear and missile technologies. It is the biggest defence supplier
of Pakistan. While it is extremely sensitive on the issue of 'One
China', on which it has extracted support from us, its position on
Jammu and Kashmir, veering from support of Pakistan's position to a
quasi-neutral position, and notable for the absence of any endorsement
of our legal position, stands out as a contrast. Its claim on vast
swathes of Indian territory, in any case, makes mockery of "one
India". Its export dependent growth needs all markets, and certainly a
large one like India's.

Given China's size, its view of itself in historical terms, its claims
on India, on Taiwan, in the South China sea etc, its rise has
implications for the region and beyond. As China grows muscles, it
will flex them. China's opaque political system adds to outside
concerns  as it makes its conduct unpredictable. Countries hope that
prosperity and integration with the global system will make China more
responsible and more transparent internally, increasing confidence
levels abroad.

While a policy of containing China would be imprudent, yet it cannot
be given a free hand in Asia. Other players in the region have to
caution China about political and other costs of seeking domination.

Any initiative to that end serves our interests even as engagement
with China continues. However, engagement does not mean acquiescence
to Chinese hegemony in Asia.

China's calculatedly ambiguous position on India's permanent
membership of the Security Council as well as on opening doors of
international cooperation in India's civilian nuclear sector indicates
a serious adversarial posture towards our rising aspirations.

If Russia, Britain and France can support India's candidature and
these countries, with US in the lead, can support us on the nuclear
issue, why shouldn't China, if it wishes to build a strong,
forward-looking, cooperative relationship with India as the second
biggest Asian power.

The satisfaction we seem to derive from semantic play by the Chinese
on these two issues reflects our mental acceptance of an inferior
status vis-a-vis China and our readiness to be patronised by that

We should not demand equality from China, we should behave as equals.
We should protect our interests more forcefully. Our border
infrastructure should be developed rapidly. Our strategic programmes
must be accelerated. The prime minister's visit to Arunachal Pradesh
in January was a very welcome development. With announced plans to
integrate the state more closely with the rest of the country, it
signalled to the Chinese that our land of the rising sun will not be

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary of India
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