China’s habit of playing foul

By Kanwal Sibal, The Shillong Times, 13 July 2017 Read the original story here

China’s current provocation in the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim tri-junction area adds to the long list of its taunting conduct against India in recent years. India, however, has been extremely restrained in reacting to Chinese provocations. Unfortunately, this has given China the room it needs to play the double game of using engagement to contain India strategically.

China has the habit of projecting itself as the injured party and it has sympathisers for its line in India, but in reality China has been very belligerent towards India. It has begun asserting its claims on Arunachal Pradesh with greater aggressiveness since president Hu Jintao’s visit to India in 2006. In a further hardening of position, Chinese officials began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” in recent  years. This nomenclature was formalised in Chinese maps in April 2017 which also carried “standardised” Chinese names of six districts in the state to show that these areas were historically under China’s administrative control. China has not shirked from protesting each time either our Prime Minister or other political dignitaries visit the state, which is offensive. It has admonished India for initiating development projects in Arunachal Pradesh, while being itself involved in development projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. China’s official comment on the inauguration in May this year by of a bridge across the Brahmaputra in Assam was diplomatically totally inappropriate. Through its previous Special Representative (SR), China has in March 2017 made it known publicly that the cession of Tawang by India is a pre-condition for considering a border settlement. In the context of 19 rounds of SR talks, this entirely untenable position reveals the degree to which China negotiates in bad faith.

In Ladakh too, China has pursued its tactics of engaging India politically while exerting military pressure. It engineered the Depsang incident in advance of its prime minister’s visit to India in 2013. It staged the Chumar incident in 2014 to coincide with the Chinese president’s visit. Its other provocations have included giving stapled visas to J&K residents, refusing a visa to India’s army commander in J&K, shortening the length of India-China border by excluding J&K (and Arunachal Pradesh), all implying that J&K was not sovereign Indian territory.

It has launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in total disregard of India’s legal claim over POK. It is unbothered that its position on the CPEC is totally contrary to the positions it takes on areas where it disputes India’s sovereignty such as Arunachal Pradesh. It is unconcerned about inconsistency, believing that its big power status now entitles it too to the practice of double standards. China believes that it is now strong and important enough internationally to have its way when it wants.

To the long list of provocations one should add China’s obstinate opposition to India’s NSG membership unless Pakistan is simultaneously accommodated. Likewise, China has opposed the designation of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist by the UN. It has added insult to injury by calling on India to settle the issue with Pakistan bilaterally. This hyphenation with Pakistan is intended to lower India’s stature internationally.

It is important to note that China has engaged in almost all these provocations during the course of the 19 rounds of SR level talks on settling the boundary issue. By its actions on the ground it has knowingly eroded the purpose for which the SR mechanism was set up.

The latest Chinese provocation in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan is consistent with Chinese tactics of rejecting any contention that the territory it wrongfully occupies is disputed and treating those areas as disputed where it wants to lay claim. Besides the fact that the Doklam plateau is disputed between China and Bhutan and China’s act in wanting to construct a road there changes the status quo in violation of the understandings between the two countries, not to mention those between India and China. China is fully aware that this area is acutely sensitive for India’s security because of its closeness to the Siliguri corridor. It is also aware of India’s security commitments to Bhutan and that an Indian intervention will be inevitably triggered by any threatening Chinese move.

China’s grave provocations over the last 14 years since the SR mechanism was established have to weighed against India allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang in March this year over China’s strenuous objections and menacing statements. Earlier, in December 2016, he was invited to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. There is no proportionality here. The root of the problem in India-China relations lies actually in China’s ambition to dominate Asia, impede the emergence of India as a rival power, contain India in South Asia by continuing to build Pakistan and undermine India’s position in its own neighbourhood.

Amazingly, the Chinese state media is accusing India of bullying and regional hegemony when the actual bully in Asia is China and it is China that has hegemonic ambitions in Asia. The calls for supporting Sikkim’s independence show how China’s hubris is blinding it to its own vulnerabilities in Tibet and East Turkestan.

To defuse the situation the ball is not in India’s court as the Chinese ambassador to India claims. If China binds itself not to disturb the status quo, the ball would be in play again, though China will always play foul.