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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Shyam Saran: India's China challenge

July 23, 2010

India should build on China’s aversion to
risk-taking in pursuing its diplomatic objectives with New Delhi
Shyam Saran
Business Standard (India)
July 21, 2010

New Delhi -- One of the key challenges for
India’s foreign and security policy for the next
decade and beyond will be the management of
China’s emergence as a great Asian and,
increasingly, global power. This challenge is
further complicated by the simultaneous, though
less spectacular, emergence of India itself as a
country with significant and increasing economic
and military capabilities. For both countries,
Asia remains the principal platform for power projection.

In fashioning an appropriate China strategy,
India must recognise that the essential character
of India-China relations is and will remain
competitive. We represent two contrasting but
long-standing civilisations. Each has its own
deeply rooted cultural ethos despite the shared
legacy of Buddhism. In more contemporary times,
China has seen its emergence in Asia as regaining
its historical, though sometimes mythical, status
as a pre-eminent power, at the summit of a
hierarchical economic and security architecture
in the region. There has been and will continue
to be resistance to the emergence of any rival
centre of political and economic power. This has
been a consistent theme throughout the past 60
years of China’s posture towards India. However,
in a classic exercise of the Chinese art of
“walking on two legs”, China has also sought to
cultivate a more positive and benign relationship
with India, to avoid tipping India into an overt
and threatening military alliance with one or
more of China’s adversaries. More recently,
tactical alliances with India have been useful to
China in safeguarding its interests on several
global issues such as climate change and
multilateral trade. The “Copenhagen spirit” is a
manifestation of this. Tactically, there may be,
at times, a more friendly and cooperative
approach. At other times, there may be negative
pressures, such as activism on the unsettled
border or a more threatening posture on the Tibet
issue. What is critical for us to recognise is
that this does not deflect China from its
strategic objective of preventing India from
challenging her march towards predominance and pre-eminence in Asia.

Let us look at the historical record. China has
never hesitated to use its alliance with Pakistan
to keep India tethered firmly in South Asia. We
have a rare example here of a nuclear weapon
state actively assisting a non-nuclear weapon
state in acquiring both strategic weapons and the
means of delivery. The target was India. This has
been for China a low-cost, low-risk means of
constraining India without having to confront her
directly. In fact, at crucial junctures, China
has refrained from intervening on behalf of
Pakistan. This happened in 1965, in 1971 and
again more recently during the Kargil conflict.
In December 1971, the US NSA, Henry Kissinger,
virtually pleaded with his Chinese interlocutor,
Ambassador Huang Hua, that China should carry out
some military operations on India’s borders to
relieve the pressure on Pakistan. But China did
not bite. China has worked against India’s claim
to permanent membership of the UN Security
Council and lobbied actively to deny India the
waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to
enable her to participate in international
nuclear commerce. But China has avoided being the
only holdout in publicly opposing India. This
points to an important aspect of Chinese
behaviour, that is, some aversion to risk-taking
in pursuing its diplomatic objectives relating to
India. We need to build upon this in our engagement with China.

India must learn to pursue its interests with the
same unsentimental calculation that China
displays in advancing her perceived interests.
We, too, need to learn to “walk on two legs” and
pursue a more nuanced policy. We should welcome
constructive engagement with China on issues
where our interests are convergent. At the same
time, we should not hesitate to demonstrate our
willingness to defend our interests with
firmness. It was interesting to see that during
our NSA’s recent visit to China, the two sides
spoke of the need to respect each other’s “core
concerns”. This is a good sign provided there is
clarity about what these core concerns are and
how legitimate they are perceived to be by
others. We should not accept that China’s
territorial claim to the South China sea is its legitimate core concern.

There is no doubt that in the aftermath of the
global economic and financial crisis, China has
acquired greater diplomatic clout in relation to
other major powers. This has the potential of
shrinking our own room for manoeuvre and
increasing our vulnerability. However, precisely
because of our own display of economic resilience
and dynamism, and the significant acquisition of
military, in particular, naval capabilities, our
diplomatic clout, too, has increased. The sheer
weight of India’s sub-continental profile makes
it an indispensable partner in tackling any
global or cross-cutting issue such as energy
security, non-proliferation and public health.
Here is an opportunity to expand our own
strategic space vis-a-vis other major powers, including China.

It has been our experience that China has been
more accommodating towards India whenever it has
felt that India’s range of options had expanded.
It was China which proposed a “strategic and
cooperative partnership” with India in April 2005
and negotiated what is undoubtedly, from India’s
standpoint, a favourable set of "Basic Principles
and Political Parameters” as the basis for
resolving the boundary issue. This happened in
the aftermath of the historic strategic
partnership forged between India and the EU in
November 2004 and the impending and significant
upgradation of Indo-US relations envisaged for
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to
Washington later in July that year. The more
diplomatic options India is perceived to have,
the more diversified its relations with other
major powers, the greater the display of
accommodation on the part of China on Sino-Indian
issues. Therefore, we should actively pursue
coalition-building globally as well as with all
those major powers who wish to see a more plural
and loosely structured economic and security
architecture in Asia. This would include Japan,
Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam. We should
promote a more inclusive arrangement in the
region, welcoming the participation of the US and
Russia. This is not a containment policy towards
China. It is a strategy of expanding India’s
options, which would help manage relations with
friends and adversaries alike. After all, even
friends should know that we have alternatives available.

* The author was India’s foreign secretary and
until recently the prime minister’s special envoy
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