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.
In fact, this may not be doing China any favors. While it may appear that India has taken a soft approach in response to recent provocations, a closer look suggests that India is learning to play its own game, and is quite effectively pushing back.
While Premier Li’s visit to India went ahead and the joint statement contained the standard platitudes, a true indication of the tensions in the relationship may lie in what was left unsaid. India avoided reaffirming its commitment to the One China Policy in the joint statement and visit. Prime Minister Singh stated that broader ties could not blossom without peace on the border at another point in the visit.
This may not seem an especially robust response to a territorial incursion, but viewed in the context of the caution with which Manmohan Singh’s government has approached most big issues, this omission is a notable diplomatic signal that India has its own cards to play. The first occurrence of such an omission was during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s Indian visit in 2010, in objection to China’s policy of issuing stapled visas to Indian Kashmiris and undertaking construction work in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir.
India is also deepening its Look East policy and investing substantial diplomatic effort in reaching out to build robust strategic partnerships with states within China’s East Asian neighborhood, including Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. If India can play its cards right, Look East will continue to play an important balancing role against both China’s assertiveness on the border and its increasing presence in the Indian Ocean.
In this way, the timing and warmth of Prime Minister Singh’s trip to Japan, just a week after Premier Li’s visit to India in May, served to send a warning shot to China. In thinly veiled language about China, the two prime ministers “expressed their resolve to further consolidate and strengthen the Strategic and Global Partnership […] taking into account changes in the strategic environment.” This message was clearly received in China, and although China’s foreign ministry responded cautiously to accusations of strategic encirclement, state-run media reacted to the visit with
India has also become more assertive regarding its role and interests in Southeast Asia. Although New Delhi’s diplomats have been quick to distance India from involvement in maritime sovereignty disputes, they have regularly reiterated the importance of protecting the maritime commons and India’s commitment to freedom of navigation. This rhetoric is backed up by deepened relations with Vietnam, despite China’s protests and a recently expanded strategic partnership with Indonesia.
With general elections looming next year, India’s Congress-led coalition government is under pressure from the vociferous Indian media, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposition, and parts of the public to take a tougher line on China. While it can be expected that Indian actions will be informed by this domestic audience, it is hard to see how a change of government in New Delhi next year—with BJP candidate Narendra Modi as a possible prime minister—would lead to a fundamentally different China policy.
As the Lowy Institute’s India Poll reveals, the attitudes of the Indian public towards China are complex. Eighty-three percent of Indians believe that China poses a threat to Indian security, and 88 percent perceive war with China to be a possibility in the next ten years. At the same time, a third of Indians would like to see India’s relationship with China strengthen over the next ten years, and 64 percent think that China and India should cooperate to play a leading role in the world.
Reconciling these competing sentiments with India’s own economic interests and strategic concerns will continue to require deft and flexible diplomacy in the coming years. The Singh government is demonstrating how this can be done: subtly hedging even while advancing trade ties and maintaining good relations on the surface.
Danielle Rajendram is a research associate in the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, where her work focuses on Indian foreign and domestic policy, India-China relations and Asian security issues.
Image: Indian Prime Minister's Office.