India: The Price of Choice

11 June 2007

India: The Price of Choice

By Gwynne Dyer

Choices usually involve a price, but people persist in believing that they can avoid paying it. That’s what the Indian government thought when it joined the American alliance system in Asia in 2005, but now the price is clear: China is claiming the whole Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, some 83,000 sq. km. (32,000 sq. mi.) of mountainous territory in the eastern Himalayas containing over a million people.

China has claimed Arunachal Pradesh for a century: during the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 Chinese troops briefly occupied most of the state before withdrawing and inviting India to resume negotiations. However, most Indians thought the dispute had been more or less ended during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi in April 2005, when the two sides agreed on “political parameters” for settling both the Arunachal Pradesh border dispute and another in the western Himalayas.

Indians assumed that the new “political parameters” meant that China would eventually recognise India’s control of Arunachal Pradesh. In return, India would accept China’s control of the Aksai Chin, a high-altitude desert of some 38,000 sq. km. (14,000 sq. mi.) next to Kashmir. And that might actually have happened, in the end — if India had not signed what amounts to a military alliance with the United States.

Informed Indians knew perfectly well that Wen Jiabao’s visit was a last-minute attempt to persuade India not to sign a ten-year military cooperation agreement with the United States. Two months later Pranab Mukherjee, then India’s foreign minister, went to Washington and signed the thing. Yet most people in New Delhi managed to convince themselves that Wen’s concessions during his visit were not linked to India’s decision about the American alliance.

In June 2006 I spent two weeks in New Delhi interviewing Indian analysts and policy-makers about India’s strategic relations with the US and China. With few exceptions, their confidence that India could “manage” China’s reaction to its American alliance was still very high. “India knows what it is doing,” insisted Prem Shankar Jha, former editor of the Hindustan Times, citing confidential sources close to Prime Minister Singh. “It is not going to make China an enemy.”

On the face of it, India got a very good deal in the lengthy negotiations that led up to the military cooperation agreement. It got access not just to current US military technology but to the next generation of American weapons (with full technology transfer). The Indian military are predicted to buy $30 billion of US hardware and software in the next five years. They got all sorts of joint training deals, including US Navy instruction for Indian carrier pilots. And Washington officially forgave India for testing nuclear weapons in 1998.

This was the only part of the deal that got much attention in Washington, where the Bush administration waged a long struggle (only recently concluded) to get Congress to end US sanctions against exporting nuclear materials and technologies to India. Stressing the military aspects of the new relationship would only rile the Chinese, who would obviously conclude that it was directed against them. Especially since America’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan and Australia, have also now started forging closer military relations with India.

It took a while, but China was bound to react. Last November, just before President Hu Jintao’s first visit to India, the Chinese ambassador firmly stated that “the entire state (of Arunachal Pradesh) is a part of China.” This took New Delhi by surprise, defence analyst Uday Bhaskar told the Financial Times last week: “The Indians had taken the (2005) political parameters (for negotiating the border issue) as Chinese acceptance of the status quo.” They should have known better.

It’s mostly petty irritants so far, but they accumulate over time. Last month, for example, Indian Navy ships took part in joint exercises with the US and Japanese navies in the western Pacific, several thousand kilometres (miles) from home and quite close to China’s east coast. Admiral Sureesh Mehta, chief of naval staff, said the exercise had “no evil intent,” and two Indian warships also spent a day exercising with the Chinese navy to take the curse off it — but Beijing knows which exercise was the important one.

Also last month, India cancelled a confidence-building visit to China by 107 senior civil servants. Why? Because Beijing refused to issue a visa to the one civil servant in the group who was from Arunachal Pradesh, on the grounds that he was already Chinese and did not need one.

A year ago, Indian foreign policy specialists were confident that they could handle China’s reaction to their American deal. In fact, many of them seemed to believe that they had taken the Americans to the cleaners: that India would reap all the technology and trade benefits of the US deal without paying any price in terms of its relationship with its giant neighbour to the north.

But there was confidence in Washington, too: a quiet confidence that once India signed the ten-year military cooperation deal with Washington, its relations with China would automatically deteriorate and it would slide willy-nilly into a full military alliance with the United States. Who has taken whom to the cleaners remains to be seen.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“It’s mostly…need one)