South China Sea, Burhan Wani and India: Why Ambedkar could help India deal with China

Can India trust China’s motives and behaviour as it pursues finding its rightful place in the Asian century?
South China Sea, Burhan Wani and India: Why Ambedkar could help India deal with China
South China Sea, Burhan Wani and India: Why Ambedkar could help India deal with China
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By Sudarshan Ramabadran

On July 21, reports appeared in the media that China, for the first-time ever, carried out joint patrolling in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). The joint patrolling had a frontier defence regiment of the People Liberation Army (PLA) and the border police force of Pakistan.  This provocation assumes significance for two principle reasons, the recent South China Sea Ruling and with the protests in J&K after the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani.

China’s interests in POK are not new. China’s repeated attempts to counter and contain India are not new either.

History is witness to the fact that when China signed the boundary agreement with Pakistan in 1963, the objective given in its Article 1 was to ‘formally delimit and demarcate the boundary between China’s Xinjiang and the contiguous areas, the defence of which is under the actual control of Pakistan’. Article 6 stated ‘the two parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will re-open negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the boundary so as to sign a formal boundary treaty to replace the present agreement.’ Despite this in April 2015, China and Pakistan signed accords worth $46 billion to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit-Baltistan in POK. This would extend to Gwadar Port in Pakistan and give China access to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

It is important to understand that China seeks larger control over sea lanes and especially the Indian Ocean. China’s behaviour centred on the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea has increasingly become unyielding. In July 2011, at the ASEAN regional forum, when smaller countries pushed for US to mediate vis-à-vis South China Sea disputes, then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi lost his composure. According to several reports, he suddenly got up and exited the meeting. One hour later, he returned and launched into a monologue. At one point, Yang mocked his hosts, the Vietnamese; at another (Singapore), he declared, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” 

Indian Ocean is today seen as a connectivity pathway. Like India’s, much of the world’s trade passes through it. China will do whatever it takes to be in the centre of the Indian Ocean politics, but for India this region is strategically a priority. India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar in one of his speeches made it clear that the “Indian Ocean should not only get better connected but remain free from non-traditional and traditional threats that could impede the seamless movement of goods, people and ideas. The attention that it has got from India’s leadership speaks of the promise it holds in the country’s eye”

India’s extensive engagement with countries like Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Maldives and other Pacific island nations only shows that India will match China’s moves in being at the centre of the Indian Ocean politics.

Beijing has notoriously used the platforms of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the United Nations (UN) to counter and contain India. 

At the UN, China has used its veto three times to block India’s moves to list terrorists and terror organisations under the Security Council resolution 1267. China’s only stated reason has been that Pakistan too remains a victim of terrorism. And in spite of India lodging its protest at the highest political level vis-à-vis CPEC, Beijing had dubbed its approach as a mere livelihood project. China’s double standards is clear when it is quick to register its protests through political, diplomatic channels and editorials in leading Chinese dailies when India ventures into gas exploration in Vietnamese waters.

To take the case of the NSG, China blocked India entry’s reportedly because of it not being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When India registered its firm disapproval about one country blocking its legitimate right to be on the nuclear high table, Global Times, the Chinese newspaper, shot back with a tutorial on how Indian nationalists should behave.

 The circumstances of China’s entry and subsequent behaviour in to the NSG are interesting. China signed the NPT in 1992 and entered the NSG in 2004. However, Beijing had entered into a ‘strategic relationship’ with Pakistan in mid 1980s that included transfer of nuclear weapons and missiles. When confronted, China stated that all its actions were pre-1992. Subsequently to joining the NSG, China entered into fresh agreements to build nuclear reactors in Pakistan, claiming that these predated its joining the NSG though this contradicted its written stand about its nuclear links with Pakistan at the time of admission.

What China refuses to do is to look inwards at its own non-proliferation record, from North Korea to Syria to Pakistan; history is fraught with examples of how Beijing has shared nuclear and missile technology with such notorious actors. In December 2008, China’s Shenyang Huali Economic Trading Company, working through North Korean intermediaries, was acting as a key source of supplying raw materials for the North Korean Ballistic Missile programme in Syria. In March 2009, Beijing sold 1000 kilograms of steel to Pakistan which was used to produce the Ghaznavi short range ballistic missile, a Missile Technology Control Regime controlled system.

Angus Maddison in his study commissioned by the OECD countries has concluded that India and China dominated world economy in the period 1 century CE – 17 century CE. It was clear that after China, under Deng Xiaoping, adopted what for Mao was “revisionism” and the opening up of economy in India, both China and India were set to emerge as two powerful countries in Asia.

India on the one hand has not fallen short in its efforts to improve relations with China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first official visit to Beijing, called upon China to take the initiative in addressing obstacles to improved   bilateral relations. To quote, “China must reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing full potential of our partnership. China should take a strategic and long-term view of our relations".

On the sea lanes front, India has firmly articulated its principled position of freedom of navigation, maritime security, and expeditious resolution of disputes according to provisions of international law (the UN Convention on Law of the Seas, 1982), developing a Code of Conduct, and settlement through dialogue and peaceful means. In joint statements with both USA and Singapore, India exhibited this stand. There was smart diplomacy on display when India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar reiterated India’s stated position on maritime disputes at the famous Shangri-La Dialogue, held a bilateral with Singapore and visited Vietnam to discuss the possible sale of Brahmos missiles. The strategic import cannot be missed.

These moves suggest that there is a sense of change in India’s strategic thinking. But can India trust China’s motives and behaviour as it (the former) pursues finding its rightful place in the Asian century?

The answer to this question may lie in the words of Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who when speaking at a gathering of students of Lucknow University on November 8, 1951, in a veiled reference to China forewarned: “The government’s foreign policy failed to make India stronger. Why should not India get a permanent seat in the UN Security Council? Why has the prime minister not tried for it? India must choose between parliamentary democracy and the Communist way of dictatorship and come to a final conclusion.”

Ambedkar repeatedly expressed the desirability of a league of democracies. He said: “Do you want parliamentary government?  If you want it, then you must be friendly with those who have parliamentary government.”

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