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Treat With Caution

Treat With Caution

Author: Ashok Ganguly
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: June 10, 2008
URL: http://telegraphindia.com/1080610/jsp/opinion/story_9379204.jsp

China's animosity towards India is more than historical

It was certainly not diplomatic, but it was spot on. At the time it was said, it was felt that George Fernandes, India's defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance government, had committed a diplomatic faux pas. He had declared that China was India's biggest enemy. Considerable embarrassment and indignation followed. "How could he?" people asked, including his own colleagues. But Fernandes did not retract his statement. In their heart of hearts, everyone knew that a long-festering truth was out in the open. Diplomacy requires a certain manner of transactional behaviour and dialogue even under the most trying circumstances. But the people in a democracy are not bound to ignoring reality. History may credit Fernandes for saying openly what needed to be said for a very, very long time.

China's animosity towards India has a history. In recent times, it was rekindled by Mao Zedong in the Fifties. He was peeved with India for providing refuge to a persecuted Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans who were fleeing from the pogroms of the People's Liberation Army. The other irritant for the Chinese was Jawaharlal Nehru's growing international prominence as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. While the Soviet Union was friendly towards India, it was with the full knowledge of, and understanding with, Nikita Khrushchev, that Mao Zedong embarked upon an unprovoked military attack on India in the Northeast - "to teach India a lesson" as he is supposed to have put it. The end of hostilities left a festering and what appears now to be a well-entrenched sore on the India-China border.

China has become a significantly strong global military and economic power and its belligerence has become more erratic and blatant. There is no other nation that has as many territorial disputes with a majority of its neighbours as China has.

As far as India is concerned, what we want has always been a reasonable neighbourly relationship and a sensible diplomatic resolution to any border issues. China's aims are entirely different. It has now dealt a hand by claiming Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Sikkim as its own territory.

By the nature of our economies, China and India have to transact bilateral trade and commerce. However, trade must be seen entirely in commercial terms, without any emotions or long-term expectations. Under the circumstances, it is strange that a section of our countrymen and some prominent NRIs have been promoting the concept of 'Chindia' as a potentially pre-eminent global joint entity of huge commercial and economic potential. This is unlikely to ever bear fruit. Unlike us, the Chinese are neither emotional nor starry-eyed about India, other than for the short- to medium-term gains they wish to make in the Indian marketplace.

The recent events of the passage of the Olympic flame through various countries, and the protests which followed in its wake, were triggered by the disturbances in Tibet and some other parts of China. The responses of the Chinese State were crude and heavy-handed. In India, we have directly experienced their unsuccessful attempts to interfere in the security arrangements for the passage of the Olympic torch through New Delhi. Similarly, the Chinese foreign office summoning the Indian ambassador in the dead of night was a display of the same arrogance and belligerence. Whether the man on the street in China feels the same way about India is difficult to know.

It is reasonable to expect that as China becomes more economically powerful its belligerence towards India and other countries is likely to increase. Fortunately, there is now greater access for the international media in China. This was on display in the recent reporting of the devastating earthquake in the Sichuan province. The media showed the world the soft side of the Chinese State on display for the domestic as well as international audience by the presence and participation of Chinese leaders in the rescue operations. This was in stark contrast to the recent orchestrated tour of Tibet for foreign journalists and diplomats. China will stay open as long as it suits its purpose, and that is at least until the Beijing Olympics. It may also be the case that China can no longer keep the Chinese people in the dark regarding major disasters and crises, thus ensuring a degree of selective openness.

In search of raw material and food, China is exploring 21st-century colonialism in its neighbourhood and in Africa. It will surely include South America in due course. All this presages a welcome transition where management by absolute secrecy and isolation may no longer be possible.

China's one-party rule will remain manageable as long as the economy keeps growing and 1.3 billion Chinese remain reasonably contented and hopeful. There are, of course, dangers that the Communist Party of China may be faced with some unanticipated challenges in the future, triggering major disequilibrium. The recent events in Tibet and in India's northeastern borders make one wonder whether the PLA and CPC are in as much harmony as they have been historically. In any future major domestic crisis, China's immediate neighbours are more likely to bear the brunt of the CPC's belligerence in its efforts to divert the attention of the Chinese people from its internal problems.

The international community and India are well aware of the fault lines in the fast-unfolding Chinese story and their potential consequences. While diplomacy must remain, as it has through the ages, the primary means of engaging with China, India has to be significantly better prepared in the event of China's unprovoked belligerence, such as claiming ownership of parts of Indian territory, as China has done.

It is the government's role to conduct diplomacy and militarily secure India's northeastern borders against any Chinese designs. However, the Indian public, and particularly the Indian business community and consumers, must appreciate the fragile nature of what may appear to be the huge trade and business opportunities between China and India. Naturally, and at least for the time being, it has to be business as usual, but plans for the long term have to be couched with caution. Chindia, as a concept, is a non-starter. Fernandes had publicly raised an issue of the true nature of the China-India relationship. The relationship has not changed much during the last 50 years and is likely to remain as uncertain in the future.

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