How India Deals with Pakistan and China by Kanwal Sibal, Member Advisory Board, VIF
It might be interesting to analyse our diplomatic handling of China and Pakistan on a comparative basis. These two countries pose the most difficult and complex foreign policy challenges to us. Is our approach to both countries similar, or there are differences in the way we engage them? Are the weaknesses of our policy making towards Pakistan reflected in our dealings with China too? Does public opinion have greater influence on policy making towards one country or the other? Does our shared history, culture and language with the people of what is now Pakistan constitute a dimension of our relationship that makes hard, unsentimental pursuit of national interest with that country more difficult than in the case of China, or is it that in the latter case too some romanticism about the two biggest countries of Asia, with no historical enmity, coming together to shape the future history of the continent and the world at large play a softening role, quite apart from the pro-China ideological tilt of a section of our political class? Are we diplomatically handling one country better than the other?
Any sensible policy towards a country has to be based not on some a priori principles but on objective factors, the history of the relationship, the place the other country has in the larger strategic context, the role of other powers and, most importantly, the specific nature of the issues on the table. Yes, policy makers can always bear in mind some Kautilya like general principles of state conduct, which in a broad sense can provide guidance, but these have been already been long internalized in policy making and do not provide much help in addressing concrete contentious issues in negotiations. With China we have the Panch Sheel principles, but these have hardly governed China’s actual conduct towards us. With Pakistan we have no over-arching principles supposedly governing our relationship, with no better or worse results for our bilateral ties.
Our policy options in dealing with Pakistan or China have to be guided by several underlying considerations. Our core objective has to be to build a peaceful and friendly relationship with both countries. But this cannot be a unilateral exercise. If the other side is unwilling to meet us half way or lays down unacceptable conditions for resolving differences, we cannot move forward towards our desired goal. If conditions of conflict remain, what do we do when faced with grave provocations? Do we retaliate or hold our hand? At what level do we keep the threshold of our tolerance? To decide this we have to evaluate the costs to us of a military conflict.
India has today reached for the first time in its modern history a point when it is veritably set to become a major power internationally. Our economy is growing at the rate of almost 9%, our corporate sector has given competitive depth to our economy and is now investing all over the globe, our huge economy with tremendous backlogs in infrastructure development that must be bridged provides great scope for India to rise economically further with domestic effort and foreign investment. Our massive manpower resources, adequately trained to meet internal development needs are also an international resource as they can meet the needs of the ageing economies of the West and Japan. Our aspiration to become a permanent member of the Security Council reflects our confidence in our growing international stature.
In this background should India risk entering into a military conflict with either power even if our interests are strongly challenged? The cost of a conflict will impose severer penalties on India as its steady rise at a critical juncture will be arrested, whereas a failing Pakistan will merely slide from bad to worse. Our relations with the Muslim world, from where we get most of our energy, will come under strain. Pakistan’s traditional friends in the West, however frustrated they may be currently with its duplicitous conduct on the issue of combatting extremist groups active in Afghanistan from inside Pakistan, will become active on Pakistan’s behalf to our discomfiture. The threat of a nuclear conflict in South Asia will be played up, reviving international concerns and adversely affecting investment flows into India. With Pakistan the potential of conflict escalation cannot be discounted given its irrational hostility towards us, aggravated by growing extremism within society there.
The economic arguments against any conflict apply to China too, as we need to project stability in our region, not instability and uncertainty that an atmosphere of military tensions creates. Apart from that, the India-China trade relationship at $60 billion has grown phenomenally, making China India’s biggest trade partner. A pro-China corporate lobby has risen in India for the first time, including in key sectors such as power and telecommunications. While this gives China a platform to influence Indian policies in its favour, its own stakes in the economic relationship have grown, though the manner in which China can separate political hostility from intensive economic engagement is instructive, as its treatment of Japan shows.
In China’s case the cost of a conflict with India will weigh heavily on it too in diverse ways, particularly as the fiction of its peaceful rise, already exposed by its assertiveness in the South China Sea on territorial issues, will get punctured further. A conflict with India will go contrary to China’s desire for a peaceful periphery for its economic modernization. It will also compromise the mutually beneficial cooperation with India on global issues such as Climate Change or the Doha Round, or in forums like the BRICS or the trilateral Russia-India-China dialogue that work outside the orbit of western powers and contribute to building China’s global stature. The Tibet question and the Dalai Lama issue can become more problematic for China if restraints on India, willingly accepted in the interest of a better India-China relationship, lose salience.
China’s inroads into POK and connectivity projects in the region are currently advancing under cover of an improving relationship with India. Given the dual track Chinese approach to India we are unable to seriously object to these developments. Tensions will open room for us to raise these issues more frontally. China, already worried about the strategic relationship developing between India and the US- with open US calls to India to “engage east” more firmly- will be pushing India more into the US camp if it became more assertive on the India-Tibet border. Already India, the US and Japan have held a trilateral naval exercise off Okinawa recently, and a decision to set-up a trilateral political dialogue has been announced. At the same time, India does not want to get trapped into US-China rivalry in East Asia and the Pacific, and be used as a pawn in a US hedging strategy against China to be discarded as and when the two, tied by an unhealthy economic and financial interdependence, manage to bridge their differences.
India’s foreign policy options both vis a vis Pakistan and China also depend on the state of preparednes of our armed forces. In the case of China we have allowed the military gap to grow too big, making any catching up most diffficult. If India has access to more technologically advanced weapons and platforms, our external dependence is a major weakness. China has an indigenous defence manufacturing base that far surpasses ours. Its military infrastructure across the border with us is incomparably superior, and is improving. We need to put our minimum nuclear deterrent in place on an accelerated basis in order to give ourselves space to counter China’s bullying tactics on issues of our territorial sovereignty.
As regards Pakistan we are better prepared to cope with it militarily, though Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear capability has neutralized our advantage in conventional strength. Pakistan has allies in China and the US, and both are arming it. One provides nuclear and missile capabilities to Pakistan, and the other overlooks these transfers. Pakistan uses terrorism as an instrument of state policy under cover of its nuclear capability that, in turn, shields it from penalties. India has been a victim of this rogue behaviour by Pakistan, but the US is also not being spared in Afghanistan, such is now Pakistan’s confidence and sense of impunity.
India has not been able to isolate Pakistan diplomatically for its emergence as the epicentre of global terrorism. The US is not only hesitant to use its many leverages to force Pakistan to break its nexus with terrorists, it presses India too not to react to Pakistan’s terrorist acts directed at India to prevent its own operations in Afghanistan being disrupted. China, not surprisingly, gives Pakistan political cover by lauding its contribution to the combat against international terrorism. It is remarkable how a failing, nuclear armed, extremism riven state is being bolstered by the two most powerful countries in the world, one democratic and the other authoritarian.
Adding to this genuine dilemma of India that the perpetrator of terrorism has more supporters than the victim, the Indian political leadership and society have confused attitudes towards Pakistan. If India can settle its differences with Pakistan, a heavy weight will no doubt be lifted off the back of Indian diplomacy. Pakistan ties down India to South Asia. At one level, we regard Pakistan as India’s inveterate enemy, while at another there is a belief that this hostility is not fundamental and can be overcome with patience and show of goodwill by us. Sections of the political class believe that India as a bigger country should show generosity towards Pakistan, which explains our statements that we are willing to meet them more than half way if they walked the high road of peace with us, and that a stable and prosperous Pakistan is good for us. The same sections are willing to overlook Pakistan’s terrorist activity against us, and even accept the fiction that Pakistan is as much a victim of terrorism as us, for the sake of maintaining a dialogue. How to explain the resounding cheers that the Pakistani contingent to the Commonwealth Games receives from the spectators from a city that has been bled by Pakistani terrorism? It is this public mood that explains the invitation to the Pakistan Prime Minister to visit Mohali to celebrate cricket dreams together, forgettting the nightmare of Mumbai. When the actual actors of the Mumbai carnage accuse Pakistan of official complicity before US courts, we remain silent, such is our anxiety to conserve the dialogue option.
Electoral considerations influence our policy towards Pakistan too. The principal parties in the country calculate that reaching out to Pakistan and a show of softness towards it is paying with the muslim electorate in India. Domestic politics also enters by way of divided muslim families seeking travel links with Pakistan. This aspect has been important in creating more cross-border transportation links between J&K and POK. The civil society in India constantly pushes for more people to people contacts. The angst over J&K in many sections of society, especially the secular lobby, builds pressure for greater engagement with Pakistan. Reinforcing all this is the Prime Minister’s own personal commitment to normalisation of relations with Pakistan, for which dialogue is considered essential. Purely as diplomatic tactics, this show of over-eagerness to talk to Pakistan without obtaining any tangible quid pro quo is not productive. Pakistan can hardly be shamed into responding by “sincere” Indian moves for peace, inasmuch as it would construe such overtures as reflecting India’s weak hand and lack of other options.
With China many of these considerations don’t enter policy making. The dialectic between dialogue and terrorism does not exist in China’s case. There are no wounds of partition to be healed, no sense of brotherhood, sundered by an unfortunate course history took, to be restored, though the trauma of 1962 remains to be overcome. The desire to preserve the cultural bond, the pressure for people to people ties are not a factor in India-China relations.
Some of the issues bedevilling our relations with China exist in the case of Pakistan too. We have an outstanding border issue with both, with both countries occupying parts of our territory and laying claim to more. A line of control separates the armed forces in contested areas; a cease-fire along with confidence building measures have been put in place that include contacts between local commanders to prevent unwanted escalation. In the case of China, unlike in the case of Pakistan, defence contacts exist, although currently interrupted because of Chinese refusal to give a non-stapled visa to the Northern Army Commander for an official visit to China, but they are likely to resume. The armed forces chiefs of the two countries visit each other. Our President and Prime Minister have visited China periodically, with reciprocal visits from the Chinese side. Some limited exercises have taken place betwen the army and navy of the two countries. We have a strategic dialogue with China. Unlike Pakistan, China does not attack India in international forums. On the trade front, while Pakistan refuses to give MFN treatment to India and baulks at opening trade ties, China is active in the Indian market. With China, more pragmatism is at play on both sides.
If India was equated with Pakistan in the past, it is now being equated with China. India and China are set to engage and compete with each other at the regional and global levels, while Pakistan’s role in India’s external equations has declined steeply. India’s rising profile obliges it to play a constructive and stabilizing role, creating opportunities for it to exert its weight on different issues in pursuit of its national interest with different partners depending on shared objectives. India can cooperate with China on specific issues where their interests are tied, and with the US where there is shared interest. Where India is failing in its diplomacy vis a vis China is that we allow China to engage as well as confront us to its advantage, whereas we fail to carve out political space for us to impose costs on China in return for its injurious actions against our interests.
In sum, our policy towards both China and Pakistan tends to be conciliatory. We want to avoid confrontation as far as possible and reduce the level of tensions. Our over-riding concern is our economic growth and poverty alleviation. Our policies are defensive, as we seek only to preserve what we have and not claim what others have, even if it has been taken away from us through aggression. In the process we are willing to overlook serious provocations against our security interests by China and Pakistan, separately and together. We still try to find common ground to work on, without insisting on receiving satisfaction on our basic concerns, whether relating to terrorism in the case of Pakistan or China’s actions undermining our territorial sovereignty. Consequently, we come across as weak and diffident.
Our democracy generates internal pressures on our policy makers, which places us in an unequal position vis a vis China and Pakistan as they can control their public opinion towards India better than we can in the reverse. The media is problematic for the government for our China policy, as it exposes the gap between public perceptions about the threat from China and the positive projection of the relationship at the governmental level. No wonder the Chinese leadership seeks greater Indian governmental control over the media.
Our democratic leaders have to show success in foreign policy initiatives for consolidating their image, and this leads them to look for solutions they can sell as “success”, which often entail concessions to the other side. This syndrome is apparent in our dealings with both Pakistan and China. We let Pakistan off the hook on terrorism and China on the issue of our sovereignty over J&K. We hesitate to retaliate in both cases, unsure of the consequences. Currently perhaps economic arguments are over-riding all other considerations in fashioning optimal policies. We find it easy to smile than snarl, to placate than to confront. We have a particular mind set conditioned by a sense of our own vulnerability, and this dictates our approach to our adversaries.
China, with all our differences, is more willing to deal with us if it is to their advantage, without any visceral feelings of animosity coming in the way. With it we have a more practical relationship which Pakistan rejects in its dealings with India. Sentimentalism distorts our perception of Pakistan and affects our policy much more than in the case of China where the Hindi-Chini Bhai- Bhai is a long forgotten slogan.
However, when all is said and done, even if we have been worsted in our diplomacy in major ways on issues with Pakistan and China and have remained on the defensive, we have not given up Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh!
Published in Force Magazine Dated: 3rd June, 2011
How India Deals with Pakistan and China