India and China aim to raise their bilateral trade to $100 bn. If they want to take the relationship forward, they need to bury the ghosts of Mao Zedong and Zhou EnlaiFew tents and some temporary structures in the wilderness of a cold desert shouldn’t usually bring two large neighbours to a brink of a diplomatic fracas, but the India-China story is different. So when Chinese soldiers crossed over the actual line of control in northern Ladakh and decided to peg their tents on the Indian side, alarm bells began ringing in New Delhi.
There are enough reasons for India to not trust China. History has taught her tough lessons. However, the latest testy border spat needs to be handled with the future in mind, not the past.
Indeed, China’s military adventurism should be a cause of concern and should be questioned, not with the usual fear so deeply ingrained in the Indian establishment after the humiliating defeat in the 1962 border war but with a confidence of a rising economic and military power.
Fifty years ago, ill-equipped Indian soldiers and a scrappy political leadership saw Chinese troops get a quick upper hand. But 2013 is different. Not only is the Indian military better equipped, it is also better prepared. Also, there are enough nations who would quickly side with India.
What is necessary is that short-term gains should not dictate the long-term agenda on both sides. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to Beijing next week should be used to ask Chinese tough questions and find suitable responses.
While it is highly unlikely that a full-fledged war will break out — it should not — it is necessary to understand the potential reasons behind China’s aggressive behaviour not only towards India, but also its other Asian neighbours with whom Beijing has scrapped over islands and ocean beds in recent months.
One, let us not forget that China’s new leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, who have taken over at a time when the country once-booming economy is slowing down, are trying to consolidate their power. Xi is not only the secretary general of the Communist Party, but also chairman of the Central Military Commission. While he tries to find and place his own men in the country’s elaborate political and military system, a show of strength always works well with all stakeholders.
Second, the new leaders could be looking at raising nationalistic heat to deflect people’s attention from a sluggish economy. At least two generations of Chinese have only seen high economic growth rates that have fuelled prosperity. Xi has arrived on the scene after a decade of high growth led by his predecessor Hu Jintao, who unfortunately left behind an economy desperately in need to structural reforms and high levels of corruption unheard of in the Chinese system earlier. China’s GDP is expected to grow by 7.5 per cent this year against high double-digit growth for most of the past 30 odd years. Domestic insecurities usually prompt leaders to go beat the war drums, and the military aggression can be a result of shifting sands at home.
Third, the incursion could be connected with Li’s forthcoming visit to India later this month. Given the unresolved border dispute, China might be flexing muscle ahead of his visit to ensure that Indians do not raise embarrassing issues during what will be his first official foreign visit since becoming premier. China likes to approach issues from a position of strength, so while Xi has conceded that the border dispute will take time to resolve Li might want to put pressure on India to give up a few miles ahead of his visit. China already has India surrounded, with large political, economic and diplomatic interests in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Fourth, there is also a view that China is unhappy about India getting closer to Japan and the United States, which is refocusing on Asia after a decade of involvement in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Limited aggression against its neighbour could be seen to be a sign of irritation on China’s part and a signal that there is only that much leeway India can have if it wants to have friendly relations with Beijing.
Whatever be the reason, better sense needs to prevail on both sides as a war will do no good to either. There is obviously a huge economic cost involved if relations worsen. It happened with Japan – Beijing’s biggest trading partner — last year when a dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea prompted Chinese people to start attacking Japanese factories and products. The business loss was immense.
India and China are aiming to raise their bilateral trade to $100 billion soon. If they want to take their relationship forward, they need to bury the ghosts of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai – the Chinese leaders who launched the war on India — and look to the future. There is enough room in the world for both India and China to play without coming into each other’s way. But before that they definitely need to get out of each other’s way in Ladakh.
2nd May 2013 Business World edition