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India-China Strategic Equation: The Cash-Gift Symbolism



Author : C.Uday Bhaskar


While India and China are Asia’s two largest neighbors and the most populous nations in the world, their high-level political contact is limited and more so in the defence sector. Thus the visit of a Chinese Defense Minister to India may be deemed a significant event – more so when the last such visit took place eight years ago in 2004. Furthermore, this visit was scheduled at Beijing’s request and comes at a time when China is preparing for its leadership change at the national apex and President Hu Jintao will step down.

General Liang Guanglie visited India from September 2-6 and alas, the visit received more notice for the surprise cash gift that the visiting dignitary gave to the Indian Air Force pilots who flew him in the special VIP aircraft. Clearly this was a protocol error on the Chinese side and the rather awkward matter was resolved with the pilots reporting the matter to their headquarters. A decision was then taken by the Indian government that the money (rupees one hundred thousand in total; approx US$ 1800) would be deposited in the national treasury – and not returned politely, as one would have expected – lest the Chinese sensitivity be offended.

The symbolism in the manner in which this mater unfolded – first the surprise cash gift by the Chinese minister and then the muted Indian response - may offer some indicators about the nature of the India-China relationship over the last 50 years and the likely trajectory in the near future.

It is instructive that General Liang chose to visit India in the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, which has left a deep scar on the collective Indian consciousness. Deemed to be Mao’s ‘lesson to Nehru’ – the Chinese military advance that took India by total surprise began on October 20, 1962 against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis that pitted the former USSR against the US led western alliance.

For India, this war was a national trauma and Prime Minister Nehru never recovered from the humiliation that followed. The war and its disastrous consequences revealed the glaring inadequacies in India’s higher defence management and the political understanding of the tenets of statecraft. It is moot if the Indian leadership – drawn from all constituencies of a vibrant democracy – has indeed learnt the appropriate lessons from 1962. My own assessment is - regrettably no.

Over the last 50 years, China with its single-party communist rule that brooks no dissent (recall Tiananmen of 1989) has moved steadily ahead of India by way of accretion of comprehensive national power. For China, the relationship with India was secondary – and till recently Beijing was dismissive and peremptory. India had limited maneuverability by way of how it dealt with China in the latter phase of the Cold War and the US-China entente was a challenge.

However, the post 1962 rapprochement began with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988. Yet bilateral relations were strained and further aggravated by the opaque Sino-Pakistan nuclear weapon and missile cooperation, which in turn allowed the Pakistani military to engage in nuclear weapon enabled terror (NWET) against India. In the intervening decades, India has become a declared nuclear weapon power, demonstrated its restraint and status-quo nature in the 1999 Kargil War and finally managed to re-arrange its estranged relationship with the USA over the complex nuclear issue. Each of these three developments has a co-relation with the India-China bi-lateral relationship and the Liang visit has to be contextualized against this backdrop.

At the global level, the post 9/11 US military initiatives in Afghanistan first and then Iraq and now back to Af-Pak have also altered the nature of the US-China relationship. India in turn is affected by these developments. Deep wariness is an inherent element of the Sino-Indian relationship and given the many complex and unresolved issues between Delhi and Beijing, the joint communiqué issued by both sides at the end of the Liang visit is very significant. Reiterating their commitment to improve the relationship, it noted: “They also discussed the regional security situation and international issues of common interest and concern.

Both ministers agreed that expanding bilateral cooperation between the Defence Ministries and Armed Forces of India and China helps enhance mutual trust, deepens friendship and promotes comprehensive development of the India-China Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.”

The regional security issues range from religious extremism and related terror which China is very concerned about and the post 2014 scenario in the Af-Pak region, to developments in the Indian Ocean. Sustained consultation between India and China on all these issues is desirable and it is hoped that the legitimate security and strategic interests of both countries are respected and accommodated. This mutuality is currently absent in the bi-lateral relationship.

In yet another significant but little noticed section of the joint communiqué – the last bullet point avers that both countries will: “Work together to maintain peace and stability of the Asia- Pacific region.” Given recent developments in the South China Sea and India’s own interest in that region, this acknowledgement of Delhi’s relevance in the Asia-Pacific is welcome – and to be cautiously interpreted.

The challenge for India and China is to evolve a framework wherein their legitimate security interests are identified and accepted in a consensual manner and then accommodated in a progressive and equitable manner.

India’s subaltern status and the Sino-Pak alliance have posed many hurdles in the past – but there are opportunities in the future. These need to be recognized but if the cash-gift symbolism is to be recalled – India constantly deferring to perceived Chinese sensitivities - that is not the recipe for an abiding and equitable relationship.

Delhi has to internalize many lessons from 1962 as it prepares to deal with its largest neighbor and a major trading partner over the next decade.

C Uday Bhaskar is a strategic affairs analyst. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com. This article first appeared in the South Asia Monitor on September 09, 2012.
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