India's Subtle China Strategy

Manmohan Singh's been called soft on China. Yet his approach has more toughness than meets the eye.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit China this week following on from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s trip to India in May—an impressive tempo of summitry between the world’s two most populous nations. But it is not all good news in Sino-Indian relations.

Although this is a positive sign of the high-level attention being devoted to a historically tense relationship, Singh’s visit comes in the wake of yet another diplomatic provocation from China towards India—the issuing of unorthodox visas to Indians residing in disputed territory.

Often criticized domestically for being too soft-handed, the Indian government deserves some credit for its balanced strategy of managing difficult relations with China. The big question, though, is that, given that Chinese needling on the contested border appears unlikely to cease, does New Delhi have the strategic resolve to keep pushing back when it must?

Last week, a Chinese airline prevented two archers from Arunachal Pradesh from boarding a flight to the archery world youth championship in Wuxi, having been issued an irregular stapled visa by Chinese authorities. China claims a portion of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Southern Tibet’, and China’s Foreign Ministry has argued that the latest episode is in line with its established policy of not issuing standard stamped visas to residents of disputed territories. However in reality the application of this policy has been inconsistent, and the timing of the latest incident means that India is understandably reading it as a deliberate slight.

What sometimes perplexes India is that such events occur against a background of generally improving relations between the Asian giants, including cooperation in multilateral forums on issues such as climate change and energy security, a quickening pace of high-level interactions, and growing bilateral trade, which has reached US$70 billion, albeit with a significant imbalance in China’s favour.

Premier Li’s visit to India earlier this year resulted in eight agreements and involved promises of cooperation on trans-border rivers. Since then, officials from both sides have engaged intensively on developing an improved consultative mechanism to manage border tensions, potentially giving the leaders an announcement for this week’s talks.

In light of such progress, it is easy to underplay the latest incident as a simple bureaucratic error. However, it is more plausible to conclude that China is developing a pattern of deliberately provoking India ahead of major bilateral visits, as if to demonstrate which is the greater power.

Firstly, in April, just weeks before Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to China, and a month before Premier Li’s visit to India, a platoon-strength contingent of Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control into Indian territory in Ladakh. A three-week standoff between Chinese and Indian forces resulted. New Delhi viewed the incursion as a clear violation of the territorial status quo.

Similarly, ahead of Indian Defence Minister AK Antony’s trip to China in July, the PLA’s Major General Luo Yuan warned India not to “provoke new problems” by increasing military deployments and advised that "India should be cautious about what it says and what it does"

Similar episodes can be found in earlier years, such as China’s then ambassador to India’s claim that all of Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory, ahead of a visit to India by President Hu Jintao in 2006.

Of course, the opacity of decision-making combined with the proliferation of foreign-policy actors in China raises legitimate questions as to whether these occurrences should be understood as centrally guided policy gestures, an over-assertion of authority by individual actors, or simply a series of coincidences. But the pattern of timing suggests something deliberate. The larger purpose behind such Chinese needling is presumably to ensure that India comes to the negotiating table with fresh awareness of Chinese strength.