People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 03

January 15, 2012


Minor Hiccups in India-China Relations


Yohannan Chemarapally


SINO-INDIAN relations continue to hog the headlines in the establishment media. A motivated section of the Indian media seems to be bending over backwards to vitiate bilateral relations between the two countries. The most recent illustration is the reportage relating to the Indian businessmen facing trial in Chinese courts on charges of cheating and financial skulduggery. A senior Chinese official was reported as saying recently that his government is making all efforts to see that Sino-Indian relations remain on track. Also, an Indian Air Force delegation recently left, as scheduled, for China despite the minor diplomatic hiccups that preceded the visit. An IAF officer stationed in Arunachal Pradesh was refused a visa on technical grounds by the Chinese authorities.




There are other indications that high level contacts on key issues are likely to resume soon. The eleventh hour decision by China to postpone the border talks that were scheduled to be held on November 28 had taken New Delhi off-guard. Dai Bingguo, the senior most Chinese State Council official, was to come to Delhi as the leader of the Chinese delegation to hold talks with India’s National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon. Both of them are the designated Special Representatives tasked by their respective governments with finding a solution to the long running border row. India’s external affairs ministry has said that China had initially objected to the holding of a high profile Global Buddhist Congregation 2011 in which the Dalai Lama was to give the concluding speech.  


Scholars and religious leaders from 31 countries attended the conference held in the last week of November. The star of the show was Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The Indian external affairs ministry’s Public Diplomacy Division was the co-sponsor of the conference. It was the first time that the leaders representing the three main branches of Buddhism came together for such a high profile international event. New Delhi had insisted that the Buddhist meet was a purely spiritual event and had no political connotations.


Though the Indian government formally continues to treat the Dalai Lama as a “spiritual leader,” the Chinese side views him purely as the leader of the Tibetan exile movement out to divide the country. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, speaking after the postponement of the border talks, reiterated that Beijing considers the Dalai Lama “as one who has been engaged in the separatist activities for a long time under the pretext of religion.” An article put out by the Chinese news agency Xinhua blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting the recent suicides by 11 Tibetan monks. In the past few weeks, the monks in separate incidents carried out self-immolation protests in the western Sichuan province.


The Dalai Lama’s statement last year that Arunachal Pradesh and the town of Tawang are integral parts of India had also angered Beijing. The Tawang monastery is among the most sacred places of worship for Tibetan Buddhists. New Delhi has so far been careful in not allowing the Tibetan leader to directly question Chinese sovereignty over the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Chinese government has also been signalling its unhappiness to the Indian government on the deferential treatment being accorded to the Dalai Lama. Beijing has objected to the meeting of the Tibetan spiritual leader with the Indian prime minister and other senior officials.




The indefinite postponement of the border talks had indicated that the Chinese side is toughening its diplomatic posture towards Delhi. Beijing’s decision to stay away from the border talks came only a week after the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, met with his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, at the ASEAN summit in Bali. The last round of border talks was held a year ago on the sidelines of the last ASEAN summit in Hanoi. At that time, the two prime ministers had asked their Special Representatives to press ahead with “the framework negotiations.” The two sides had agreed on the political parameters and guiding principles that would provide the framework for the talks during Premier Wen’s visit to India in 2005. Fourteen meetings have already taken place between the Special Representatives of the two countries on the border issue. China’s top expert on India, Ma Jiali, has said that the border dispute was the most important issue between the two countries, surpassing other issues like maritime and economic competition.


In March this year, the Indian prime minister and the Chinese president Hu Jintao had announced the resumption of high level defence interaction and the starting of a high level economic dialogue. India had suspended defence exchanges in 2010 after the Chinese government issued a stapled visa to a senior Indian army officer serving in Kashmir. For some years now, China has been issuing stapled visas to citizens hailing from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. China views both the states as “disputed territories.” The two governments were busy preparing a “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs,” when the border talks were suddenly postponed in late November.


However, the high level defence and security dialogue between the two countries continues to be on track. The deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Ma Xiaotian, led the Chinese military delegation for the talks held in the second week of December.


Indian officials admit that resolving the border issue is going to be a long drawn out affair. Large sectors of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) remain un-delineated. According to officials in Delhi, differences in perception on large areas of disputed territory continue to persist till the LAC is delineated and that it was unrealistic to expect a breakthrough at this juncture.




Till recently, officials of India’s external affairs ministry were insisting that bilateral relations were on a good footing, contrary to the overblown reportage in sections of the Indian media about worsening ties with China. The officials played down stories of border incursions, noting that military patrols from both the sides inadvertently crossed the unmarked borders. “Not a single bullet has been fired in the last thirty years along the LAC by both the sides,” noted an Indian official.


Reports appearing in the Indian media about regular border incursions are not based on facts on the ground, highly paced Indian officials have said, adding that “effective mechanisms are in place” to prevent any untoward incidents from happening on the LAC. The officials also denied that the two countries are competing for influence in the region and have insisted that India was not interested in raising tensions at the behest of outside powers. They pointed out that bilateral trade has again grown significantly this year. China is already India’s biggest trading partner. Officials admit that Chinese companies are very competitive and are deservedly active in many key sectors of the Indian economy.


Though there are differing strategic perceptions on neighbouring countries, especially regarding Pakistan, India and China have been cooperating on key issues in various international forums like the WTO and the UN.  The two countries are part of the important Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping that is emerging as a counterweight to the West in international affairs. There have been ongoing consultations on issues affecting the West Asian region. Both the countries depend on oil from the region to keep their economies running.


Indian officials blame the West for hyping up the so called rivalry between the two countries. As an illustration, they cite the western media reportage on an incident involving an Indian naval ship and Chinese naval authorities in the South China Sea. A leading American newspaper had reported that there was a “confrontation” after the Indian ship was told to leave the “disputed” waters. No such “confrontation” took place, aver Indian officials.


There was also a controversy of sorts regarding the contract signed by Indian oil company ONGC-Videsh and Vietnam to jointly explore two blocks off the disputed Spratly Island in the South China Sea. The area is claimed by both Vietnam and China. China had objected to the deal. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman had stressed on the “indisputable sovereignty” of his country over the South China Sea and expressed the hope that foreign countries would not get involved in the dispute. “For countries outside the region, we hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve this dispute through bilateral channels,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman had said. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily, in an editorial accused India and Vietnam “of reckless attempts in confronting China.” Indian officials deny that China had presented a diplomatic “demarche” that oil exploration in the South China Sea be stopped. At the Bali ASEAN summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that it was India’s “commercial right” to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea.  




Beijing is warily watching the recent Indian and American moves along China’s borders. India is being increasingly viewed as a de facto ally of the West after the signing of the India-US nuclear deal. The US, India and Japan are to hold a trilateral summit in Washington soon. The Chinese government feels threatened by the heightened level of activity in the South China Sea and around its borders. The western media is talking about a “new great game” unfolding in the region. The Obama administration is at the same time encouraging India to follow a more aggressive “Look East” policy. Beijing feels that there is some amount of coordination involved between Washington and Delhi on East Asia.


The People’s Daily recently warned India about “the price to be paid for taking what America offers”. The recent statement of the Australian foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, backing a trilateral military pact between his country, the US and India, is indicative of the new contours of alliances that are emerging in the region. Australia has also announced that it has removed the ban on exporting uranium to India. Australian governments till now had insisted on India signing the NPT before uranium could be sold for India’s nuclear reactors. China is helping Pakistan in building new nuclear reactors.


The message sent by the joint military exercises --- Malabar-2007 --- involving the navies of US, India, Australia, Singapore and Japan in the Bay of Bengal have not been lost on China. At the 2011 ASEAN summit, the US led the chorus against the emerging China threat. Interestingly, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, had earlier described both India and China as potential rivals challenging American interests in the region.  Before he reached Bali for the summit, President Barack Obama had loudly declared in Canberra that the US was “a Pacific power and was here to stay.” The Obama administration also announced the plans for stationing of 2,500 US marines in Australia to assist US allies and their interests in the region.   .


Around the same time, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on a visit to the region, was busy assuring allies like the Philippines that America supports their territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. America already has huge military bases in Japan and Korea. Beijing may be viewing India’s foray into the South China Sea as part of the western stratagem to needle China.


Beijing’s fears have a basis. The US defence department’s report to the Congress in August notes that China “would face great difficulty” if threats arose to its shipping through the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. Chinese commentators have been saying that the US should not treat the South China Sea as “an American lake.”


China feels further threatened at the fast pace of events unfolding in Myanmar. The sudden thaw the military dominated government there has effected with Washington has made Beijing’s antennae go up. China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner but there are signs that the relationship is fraying a bit. Recently, the Myanmar government suspended a 3.6 billion dollars China funded Myitsone dam project. China does not want another unfriendly country along its long borders.